Dear Mia & Ezra,
I’ve got a little problem. Every time I sit down to write about you guys in anything approaching a sincere and serious tone, I tend to well up with tears really, really fast. I’m not always sure whether they’re sad tears, happy tears or proud tears — but they’re definitely the face-wetting kind.
This is not a good trait for a writer to have — especially one who likes writing about his kids. Not to mention, at some point in the future, I’ll be called upon to stand up in public and say emotional things about you — your graduations, weddings, etc. And if I can’t get through a simple written piece without blubbering like Tammy Faye Bakker, then you’re really going to embarrassed the first time someone hands me a live microphone, that’s for sure.
I’m usually not one for the waterworks; I’ve weathered a lot of stress and strain during my life and I’ve taken most of it pretty stonefaced. I also like being the boss, and I never want to break down in front of the people I’m trying to lead. I crack, then they crack, and then it’s chaos. So I end up swallowing a lot of my emotions, which is good practice for the ulcer pills I’ll have to swallow later on because of it.
But you guys are certainly the exception to the Dad-never-cries rule. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me, really, but I can’t seem to have a meaningful thought about you guys without getting all swollen about the eyes and snotty about the nose — the kind of thing I usually reserve for the final moments of documentaries about the 1980 US Olympic hockey team, or when Daniel-san crane-kicks the living shit out of Johnny Lawrence to win the All-Valley Karate Tournament.
Maybe it’s in my genes.
I remember the first time I saw my dad cry. I was 16, and he came home from work at the jet shop (he was a jet engine mechanic in the Air Force) and sank down at the dinner table in his fatigues. He’d gotten bad news from the higher-ups: he was being sent to South Korea for a year.
Not “we” were getting sent to South Korea for a year — he was getting sent, without us. For one-year tours, the family stays behind. And that was the part that busted Dad up so badly that his voice finally cracked open halfway through delivering the news. I remember the exact sentence that finally broke him down:
“I…” he said, right before the tears got the best of him, “…I just never thought I’d have to leave you guys again.” My mom swooped in at that moment to comfort him, and I just kept quiet and let him get through the moment. It didn’t take long.
I admit, I was stunned. Not just that he’d broken down, but also at the reason — he was going to miss me and Mom so badly that he couldn’t keep it together. We were everything to him, which seems obvious in hindsight and certainly so to anyone who knows my father. But at that moment, I remember thinking, wow — my dad’s absolute worst-case scenario, bar none, is simply being away from us.
I realized then that he didn’t spend all his time with us because he had nothing better to do. That’s just what he wanted out of life. He was a Family Man. And that was all it took to make him cry, really — you just had to hit him where it mattered, where it hurt.
I guess that’s all it takes for any of us.
And whaddya know? I think he passed that weak spot along to me, guys. That’s why I can’t get through “Daddy’s Girl” by Garrison Keillor without stopping to “blow my nose” when I’m reading it to you, Mia. I can make it all the way to the last couple pages, but I’m toast every time when we get to: “And once in a while, whenever you can, Remember your old man…”
And despite being a very sharp kid, you’ve never called me on it or even acknowledged I was crying — even though I know you know. Every single time, you’ve just kept quiet and let me get through the moment. It never takes long.
So maybe I’m beginning to figure out why I cry every time I sit down to write about you guys. I won’t get sent to Korea, but you’ll go your separate ways someday just the same. Maybe it’s because I can see you growing up so fast every day — so fast that I can see perfectly the ghost of your 18-year-old selves slamming the front door on your way out the door to college, and I can hear the awful silence you leave behind. A silence pierced by me, the 50-something man sitting on the floor of what is no longer your bedroom, weeping for the 18 years that just absolutely vanished on me.
Maybe it’s because every time you guys do something that makes me proud, I realize it’s one more thing you no longer need me to teach you.
Maybe it’s because every time I kiss you good night, I can already feel that I’m slowly kissing you goodbye.
You can’t read this yet, but someday you will. And you’ll probably worry that I walked through your early lives with too heavy a heart, too burdened by the future to enjoy the present. But don’t worry, guys — that’s not how it is. Soaking up the moments of your little lives is job one for me, and that consumes a lot more of my time than writing does.
But here’s the plan: Every so often, while you’re zonked out and dreaming in the next room, I’ll open my computer and write a little. Sometimes it’ll be funny stuff, and sometimes it’ll be sad stuff. Everyone loves funny stuff, and the sad stuff — well, let’s just say that I’m making it easier on myself down the road by letting out the sad stuff little by little as you grow up. And I’ll put every bit of it in a book for you to take with you when you head off to make your own road.
And somewhere in that book, I’ll rip off Garrison Keillor, and ask you to once in a while, whenever you can, remember your old man. Even if you remember him crying.