Few writers save Stephen King, Anne Rice and other authors who thrive in the literary genre of horror writing, enjoy writing about what scares them. Most writers seem to prefer writing about what they like, be it real (food, sports) or imagined (a romance that takes place on one of Jupiter’s moons, say).
As a writer, I fall in between these camps: I write about what I like, as well as what scares me. My fiction involves war and its consequences, bad guys and the damage they do, divorce, business failure, people who lose hope and other things unpleasant. Shining a light in the dark corners of life is part of the writer’s job.
Yet, I also write about love affairs, men and women who do amazing things, nature, family and others things great and small.
Since I don’t have a therapist, a notebook or computer screen generally serves the purpose of dealing with my fears. As I tell kids when I visit schools to talk about writing, you imagine your fears and anxieties leaving your mind, running down your shoulders and arms and hands and out on to the paper or electronic page. Then they’re gone – at least for a while; but in any case, you may just understand them a little better.
Being a new dad has brought out a new and over-arching fear: not being there for my son, Finn, for long enough. While any of us dads can meet any fate at any time, being a first-time father at fifty-eight is by its nature freighted with the reality of what a doctor friend calls “our actuarial tables.” Which is to say, the odds of me being around for a long, long time are simply not the same as fathers that are twenty-eight, or thirty-eight, or forty-eight. Unless they smoke, or drive drunk, or let their appetites clog up their arteries, or any of the myriad things that life throws our way (or we throw its way), they stand a better statistical chance than I do to don their all-temperature body suits and strap on in their grandchild’s first anti-gravity jet-pack and fly down to the local solar energy plant’s opening ceremony.
So what should I do? For starters, something a few million years old, when bipedalism helped our ancestors forage for fruit and nuts: I walk, usually about an hour a day, usually with Lydia and Finn, as I forage for a longer life. We hit the sidewalks, but more importantly for my legs, heart and lungs, the hills. Unless the weather is completely ridiculous, we bundle up and go, Finn in his enclosed stroller, the sun heating up his pod like an incubator while keeping the wind out. He loves it. So does Lydia.
I love those moments, too, no matter what the challenges of the day have brought me, professionally or otherwise, or if my lower back or knee hurts that day (as they have since I ruined them landscaping every summer as a scrawny youth), they’re still among the best moments I’ve ever experienced.
When Finn smiles at me, or coos, gurgles and makes sounds like “hi” and “love” (or so it seems), and sings in his silky voice along with me, I cannot imagine – do not want to imagine – not being there for and with him. He’s connected me to something, as if by an invisible cord or thread, as my friend Ann Hood wrote about in her book, “The Red Thread” – to my past, and through my present and into our mutual futures. He makes me want to set the record for longevity. A father-son bond is something I only knew coming from the other direction, from me to my own father, to whom I feel more connected than ever.
Finn in the world connects me to not giving up when disappointments mount; to believing that there really is a reason for everything; to wanting to make the world a better place, even when I think the bad guys are winning on Wall Street, in despotic countries, or in state legislatures that make it legal to carry concealed weapons into bars and restaurants.
I’ll help him all I can, in part because we live in a good country, but not a great one, and he has no guarantees of humane treatment. A great country would have health care for everyone; a great one would find ways to bring peace beyond the waging of war through robot-drones. A great one would not allow the richest one percent to fleece the other 99 percent in ways that make organized criminals in Francis Ford Coppola movies seem like amateurs. These are things I hope to help change, if only a little. I don’t have so much a dog in this fight as a precious son who is growing up in an odd and narcissistic country, but one that still has so much potential for goodness, one that still does so many things well; one that is still young itself.
Until my son was born, I did not know that I would feel connected to something, to paraphrase Alex Hailey in “Roots,” far greater than myself – this infant child, Finn Scott, and all his potential. After all my experience – from the work I’ve done, to the poetry I’ve read, from the things I’ve desired to do and to be, to everything I’ve ever learned – it turns out that I did not know as much as I thought. Maybe now I do, because of Finn. I want him to be better than I; to live in a safer world that I; to make better choices than I; to find the right mate earlier in life and to do so many things differently. I know I have limited time and ability to make this so, but I’ll try.
There’s no magic pill I can take to help me live until Finn lives to a ripe old age himself. It’s irrational, actuarially speaking, as any doctor would tell me. But I believe in miracles now. I’ve experienced one. He sleeps as I write this, a gentle, sweet, funny little miracle who has changed everything, without trying, without force or manipulation. What power he has to simply sleep and hold my heart.
The child is born, and everything changes for the man. The fears of a father change into renewed effort, hope, and love. And there’s something else that comes knocking at the door of my mortal coil: it’s a quality that’s been easy for me to write about in other people, and easy to throw around when talking about heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., or my dad. It’s courage. I have to have it. I have no choice, because I love Finn far too much for any other alternative. This, above all else, I have learned, is the grace, gift and power of fatherhood.