Wednesday, January 23, 2008

you can tell you're getting old when other people's birthdays make you feel old

Today is a special birthday. It is the 25th of the first child I had any real responsibility towards. I met his Mom when he was five and I was a mere nineteen. For the first few years of our relationship, I acted like a big brother. There was lots of wrestling, hide-and-seek, and “gotcha.” Mom did all the raising; I was just the guy who came by a few times a week. Eventually, we ended up living together and I had to start making breakfast and taking care of him while Mom was away at work. It was the summer of 1990 in Myrtle Beach. Most of my away-from-home time was spent working at the Dutch Deli and having a good time, biking to beach, or making margaritas. He grew up as many kids in that tourist town did, watching Mom and her boyfriend work day or night and then watch them hang out with friends, listening to inappropriate music and getting a too early of an education in dysfunctional human dynamics. Oh, it wasn’t too bad for him I guess. We both worked and he was never left alone There was always food in the apartment and stories at bedtime. He started kindergarten and all his teachers said he was a delight to have in class.

After that Summer, we all moved back to Columbia to finish up undergraduate school. I lived in the dorms for a year and they lived in family housing across campus. We dated but there were breaks. I had had girlfriends before of course, but this was the first that had gone over six months. While I enjoyed her company, there were things that I was having a hard time dealing with. First off, I was only twenty. From a certain standpoint, I was extremely mature. I stayed out of trouble and had reversed my prior course in college of extremely low grades. My first three semesters had been awful and actually led me to her as I was “advised” to sit out a semester and decide how important college was to me. It was during that time we met in my hometown; me home involuntarily and itching to get back out as soon as possible and her there after finally leaving a bad relationship in D.C. after many aborted attempts. The only things she brought down were the little boy that had been born in an ambulance on the D.C./Maryland line and her clothes, having left everything else behind in an attempt to start a new life. We met in a bar and I tried her hard. She resisted for a few months, but soon I was following her around to her jobs and drinking underage while she bartended for the shag crowd at the beach bar. It was fun for us both. She was hanging out with a level guy for the first time in years and I was hooking up with a cool girl that looked like Debora Foreman in Valley Girl. What’s not to love in that situation?

By the time we got into the same school though, her past problems had made their appearance. The strong, independent woman I had met had devolved back to her prior state. The act of escaping her situation had made her step up and feel as though she had taken charge of her life. I dig strong chicks and she was one. Over the course of the next few years though, her self-doubts resurfaced and her past life resurfaced. All of a sudden (in my mind) she suffered deep funks that none of my folksy wisdom could dispel. These funks preceded and post-ceded loud, screaming fits that sometimes ended in my leaving. Other times, we ended up having sex, and it was good. It confused me though. Growing up in my house, there was very little yelling. The little that my Mother did was met with compliance until we got old enough to know there was no more serious consequence coming. Dad’s was so infrequent that his elicited instant response. “Yes sir,” and we got to whatever it was that we should be doing. Maybe Mom had been worn out by my ten-year’s older sister, who had gotten pregnant in high school and married too young. I occasionally would hear Mom’s side of a phone conversation with her and wonder how this immensely strong women could put up with such crap from her child. Maybe it was just that she had gotten older before remarrying and having my brother and me and had figured out an easier way. Whatever it was, it had gotten me used to calm parenting, where mild disappointment was expressed rather than righteous anger. Except for a few missteps of mine, it appeared to have done a pretty good job with two little boys grown up to be gorillas.

Now, though, I was being exposed to a whole new kind of parenting. His Mom was a screamer, turning on the most innocuous little event, in my mind, from doting Mother to raving lunatic. In my last semester, the fall of 1991, I had moved into campus housing with them and taken over full time Dad mode. Bio-Dad was a non-entity to me, a mere name with no face attached. They made the occasional trip to D.C. where Seth would see him sometimes. Most often, he wouldn’t even be there for those few trips and his Mother would end up keeping Seth for the weekend. We would get a call every once in a while, “Oh, we are coming through town tomorrow on our way to Disney World and want to pick up Seth. Can he come?” What do you say to a call such as that? “Sorry, I’m going to be the prick here in my child’s eyes and say ‘no’ because you were too inconsiderate and passive-aggressive to set this up a month ago when you should have.”

The specter of inviso-Dad was always present though. As Seth grew older, he started making noise about moving up north to live with his Father. I was too young to let it hurt my feelings. I just said, “No, it’s not going to happen.” A few years passed and there was a run-a-way. We drove the nine hours up, picked him up from the Family Court in Alexandria and drove the nine hours home. Even though there were problems in South Carolina, I knew the ones in northern Virginia would be worse.

His Mother and I married in 1994 and I started law school a year later. Before and after the marriage, we lived in a big house just on the wrong side of the street. I had drifted in my three-plus years out of school, not getting paid trying to open up a live music venue and then not getting paid some more trying to manage bands. We were under a lot of stress trying to pay bills on what she was making and what I could eke out. Eventually, I got a “temporary” job. Just something to pay the bills until law school started. By this time, I was getting old enough that the slights were starting to bother me. In Seth’s eyes, I wasn’t his Dad and he was starting to resent my presence. I had tried my best to treat him as I thought I would treat a “natural” child of mine but I, and he, had no idea how I was doing with that. Making it tougher was his Mom’s inconsistency. She had secrets that I would have known if I had tried a little harder. I live by the Tao though, and think that everything is just going to work out. By the time he hit his teen years, it was clear we were headed for a problem. For all of you who don’t know, yelling at a teenager is not going to get them to do what you want them to do. Go ahead, try it. Try it a little louder now. One more time, this time with feeling. Didn’t work, huh? Well, it didn’t work in our house either. Of course he reacted belligerently to his Mother with an amount of disrespect that amazed me. Looking back, I can’t blame him. At the time though, I tried to make him treat his Mother with more deference. His reaction was often to lash out at me. My loyalties started to shift from his Mother, to him, and finally to myself as I realized I was in a bad spot. He had made it clear that he was not going to pay attention to me and His Mother had made it clear that she was going to continue the path she was on. I did the only thing I could do. I left.

The changes were not immediate but came soon after. I had only sporadic contact over the next few months and they were very limited. I had gone into self-protection mode and realized I did not need to be someplace where I was not really wanted and where there was the serious potential for further problems. Once I had thought I could save the World if I just had the chance to speak to it sensibly. Now, I realized I had to talk sense into myself first.

We went nine months apart. I finished up law school and continued to work at the same firm where I had been clerking. I contemplated divorce many times but could not shake the vision of our wedding day where I had made some serious vows to my Wife. At the time, we were not church-goers and had no idea on who to get to perform the ceremony. We eventually chose a rotund, African-American Baptist preacher she knew from her work. Picture Rerun with darker skin. After the ceremony, one of my childhood neighbors came up to me and said, “I don’t think I have ever seen somebody get so married as the two of you just did.” It was true. Out vows stretched well past Presbyterian decorum as we dutifully repeated everything he said. When he got to the dreaded “obey,” which she had told him under no circumstances was he to use, she gritted her teeth and let it eke out to keep the ceremony going. “That’s alright,” one of our friends told her later, “He promised to make you happy. It’s a good trade-off.”

Well, I never expected, nor wanted, her to obey me, but I did have those promises hanging over my head that I had made and wanted to do my best to fulfill them. After a round of her attending counseling and realizing there were some deep-seated issues from her Mother’s death that contributed to her actions, we decided to give it another chance and moved to a small house near my office. The violent episodes almost ceased. She started a prescription that I deemed magic in its ability to bring back the person I had first met. The damage had been done with Seth though. As soon as he reached seventeen, he dropped out of high school and high-tailed it to Virginia. I knew it was a mistake but told him he could go if he wanted. I wouldn’t chase him down and bring him back until he called.

It took about three weeks before the call came. He and his Dad had gotten into a fight and he was out on the curb. We got him a bus ticket and he was home the next day. My only rules were that he was to get a job and get his GED if he wasn’t going to go back to school. I was able to line him up with some work and he took the test and passed it, of course. Smart kids can make dumb decisions too. He and his Mom no longer fought every day and I did not fear leaving them together in the house when I went to work as I had done in the past. For the first time in over ten years, the home was calm.

Now, everything wasn’t all roses. I still expected him to live by the rules of the house and, as an adult, he would have to suffer the consequences of non-compliance which were clearly explained to him. It was just a matter of time as he had become too independent to put up with rules he didn’t think should apply to him. Finally, he stepped over the line and we asked him if he needed help finding his own place to live. He was nineteen, able bodied, and smart and strong enough to make a living. Beside that, some of what I had tried to teach him all those years stuck. It’s not easy letting a child go out into the world, even it is only a few mile away. At least it was without rancor. He accepted our decision as an adult and we got him set up in a new place within a week.

Almost six years have passed and he is still there. The job I got him into has turned into a better one. I wish he was in school and have offered as much help as we can provide. He has resisted so far though but says he wants to one day. He now has three little siblings and is a great big brother, watching them when asked and seeking them out for play when he comes over to the house. For Christmas, he gave his four-year-old brother an old Game Boy. On the back plate, he had etched, “for technical assistance call Seth” along with his number. His little brother carries that thing to bed like a teddy bear and goes around all day saying, “look what Seth gave me.”

It was important to me not to have any more kids when he was in the house with us. I didn’t want him to feel any more marginalized than he already felt. Maybe that’s why my Sister went through such a tumultuous teen time, having to share her Mom with a new man and two bratty, little brothers. I also wanted to get my life straight with my Wife, to ensure our kids wouldn’t have to go through what She, my Sister and older Brother, Seth, and so many other kids had to. Once I was confident with the marriage, we moved forward with vengeance on having kids. Maybe things would have been different if our marriage was more stable earlier. Hell, maybe Seth would have asked us for a little brother or sister. It was what it was though. In my mind, there was no alternative to waiting.

It was important to me that he live honorably and work honestly. He saw me work a lot of jobs when he was a kid and he never saw me resort to theft or chicanery to provide for the family. I left that up to his bio-Dad to teach him those tricks. I tried to teach him the effect you had on others was important. When he played pee-wee baseball, I didn’t care if he ever got a hit. I just asked him to do what his coaches told him and to pay attention to the game. When he started acting out in school, I told him it was too important to those other kids for him to be a distraction and that we could work on alternative arrangements if he wanted. Most of all, I tried to show him that you have to act in a certain way to be able to look yourself in the mirror.

I do regret not drawing the line in the sand earlier with his Mom. She was overwhelmed with her Mom’s death, having a kid, trying to go to school, dealing with her abusive ex, the mistakes of her past, and all the other things that plague a modern, single Mom. I regret any action I took that didn’t help her and any time of hers I wasted in trying to make up my mind. I wish I had tried harder to keep Seth on the path in school so he would have gone to college. He is about the age his Mom was when she started so there is hope yet. Who knows, he might be happier continuing his path without school. If so, more power to him. He does not appear to be hurting as he rarely asks for any assistance other than some car emergencies. As an adult, he does pretty well.

I am sorry I never confronted his Dad to tell him he was a worthless son-of-a-bitch for taking such actions that drove his child 500 miles away. As best I can remember, I only had once glimpse of him, across a parking lot on one of the few times he actually made an effort to see Seth. Maybe that would have stopped him from fathering and abandoning another child years later, though you and I both know it’s not bloody likely. He was in jail when Seth was born and in and out of trouble the entire time they lived in D.C.

I am happy I taught him something. He says things that could have easily come out of my mouth. He sends tender cards to his Mother at all the right times. It seems, after all, he’s a good kid.

I hope he treats others well, especially the women in his life. I hope he travels more that I did at his age, free of the responsibilities I undertook. Most of all, I hope he is happy and that I had something to do with that. I tried as hard as I could.

I am happy of the experiences I gained, acting as a father figure to a child that had been abandoned by the one that should have been doing the job. I am happy I never saw a cent of money come from up North. It makes me sad for him though that no one up there would step up and do the right thing. If they had just asked reasonably, or offered some real assistance, his Mother would have responded. She didn’t want to cut him off from that side of the family. They did that themselves.

Our three-year-old looks eerily like him in old photos. They both have curly blond hair with blue eyes, the same slightly chubby belly and arms, and the same tired smile right before they fall asleep. All the younger kids will be treated the same way I treated him. That is clear to me by now. In some aspects, I will be harder on them as I learned some lessons with Seth. They will have the benefit of a more stable home, with older parents who are too tired to do much other than raise them. They are my children and Seth is my child, no matter what the birth certificate reads. Even when Seth was fourteen or so and we had been involved in family shouting matches with no happy resolution, I would check on him after he had fallen asleep. I am a paranoid parent, always worried a child is going to stop breathing for no reason at all. I would go into his room and lay my hand on his head, checking for warmth and movement, just to make sure everything was alright. I still do the same thing with the little ones and remember back over ten years ago. It wasn’t a great time. It wasn’t an awful time. We were just acting as a family. Happy Birthday Son.


jjok said...

nh sir....well done

23skidoo said...

Not much to say more than "wow"

Thanks for sharing the story.

Hammer Player a.k.a Hoyazo said...

Wes, awesome story. Glad you stuck it out. Being a parent can be unbelievably humbling, as I find out more and more every day.

What a great fuckin post man.

lightning36 said...

What a great man you are. Don't ever forget it.

Just remember -- around 25 years old is the time when many adults finally see the value of returning to college. When he is ready, get his butt to the local community college to get him started.

This is clearly the finest poker blogger post I have ever read. Thanks for sharing your story. It made my day.

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Ignatious said...

unbelievable post.

thanks for sharing - this one hit home for me - and here's to seth coming to understand who is real dad is.

BigPirate said...

Thank you all for your kind words (except that Triple Threat guy). We all went out for a b-day dinner Saturday and i realized that I did teach him a few things at least. He knows how to treat a waitress and he orders good beer. Guinness Stout to be precise.

4dbirds said...

Here's a toast to you Pirate for taking on a ready made family. I came into my marriage with a three year old boy and my husband is a great father although they don't share an ounce of DNA.