The morning is still. Glass-like reflections of the yellow sky, the purple clouds, and the distant gray mountain are perfect, not so much as a ripple in the water. Crisp, fresh air, so pure there is no description, fills my lungs. Coffee on the dock at this Adirondack lake is among my favorite things.
One of my other favorite things is to take my beautiful handmade maple acoustic guitar out to the dock and quietly pluck the strings to make a soundtrack of the morning. A single strum, followed by silence, allows me to hear the sound travel across the lake and back again in a millisecond. I choose to do it this time of year, before residents visit their lake homes, so as not to disturb them.
I took up the guitar as a teen but dropped it along the way, then found it again when my daughter was too shy to take lessons on her own, so we shared a lesson each week — and it got me hooked. I even built my own guitar, with a coach, on my birthday almost four years ago.
This was one of the gifts of fatherhood. My intent was not to take up guitar, but just to be there to reassure my daughter. Yet I ended up receiving a gift of a new passion and a new way to challenge myself and stimulate my brain.
Late to the Party
Having kids was always high on my list, but it did not happen until I was 47. I vividly recall the first blood test with high levels and my sister-in-law, a medical professional, telling us that was an indicator of multiples, and probably not just twins. I had a big smile on my face because I grew up with twin cousins and always imagined myself having twins.
The first ultrasound revealed four, three of whom were large and healthy, while one, we were told, would dissipate and not be viable.
This Should Never Happen
A couple of months into the process, a doctor sat with us and strongly suggested that there was not enough nourishment for three, which could result in one being less than healthy. Termination of one was suggested, and heavy pressure was put on us that we could not fully understand. Did they know something they weren’t telling us? It sucked the joy out of an otherwise wonderful time.
“Go home and think about it, but we need to get this done soon,” we were told. “No, we already know the answer. We’re taking what we were given and we will live with the consequences, whatever they may be.” Pressure continued. Our strong resolve protected us.
Months later we learned, quite by accident, that the pressure was not for medical reasons at all. It was because the teaching hospital that provided the in vitro would lose funding if their averages showed consistent levels of multiples more than two.
Today, three healthy and amazing 16-year-olds, each providing us with hours of entertainment, love, challenge, and laughter. What we would have missed. Which of the three would not be there for us? I cannot imagine having lived our life with these precious gifts, wondering what the third would have been like.
A wise friend, Roy Williams, taught me an important lesson many years ago. If you define who you are, what you want, what you don’t want, what you are willing to do, and what you are not willing to do, and what is non-negotiable, no matter what hits you in life, these things will give you answers without angst. Being unsure of what we were not willing to do at a time when we were weak, fragile, confused, and frightened could have allowed us to be swayed. Because we knew our non-negotiable, we did not even have to think about it.
In my early 30s, I was convinced I could happily go through life without kids, as many of my friends have. Thankfully, my “all about me” mindset changed. It may not be right for everyone, but it’s been the best gift I’ve received. Yet I know I’m merely a caretaker. I know that though they will leave the nest before long, my duties as a dad never end. My own dad, now in his 90s, is still there for me, still coaching me, still giving me brilliant ideas, and still challenging me. Same with my mom. Thank God for great genes.
I once wrote about being deliberate with the kids, and my goal this summer is to quietly work from a list of lessons that I hope to find the right moment to entrench, to help my little birds fly. We never know which summer will be our last with the kids as a family, knowing their friends take precedence, and college and life and jobs and relationships will potentially take them away.
I learned an important lesson from my own father (Happy Father’s Day, Dad), which is to make everyone want to be with you so they’ll return naturally. It started by treating us with respect when we were young, making sure we did things that were fun, and continuing those traditions. The dock I sit on is his, not mine, and because of this family home, much of our family gathers here naturally each summer, allowing us to reconnect. Though it’s a lot of work and expense, I can think of no better investment than a place that allows family to reconnect all summer every summer, or just to be there as much time as possible. I fear that when that is gone, our summer gatherings will be replaced by each of us going our separate ways. Then it will become my job to find a new way to get the kids, and hopefully grandkids one day, to look forward to our times together, wherever they may be.
Investing in the Future
There is, in my opinion, nothing more important than the relationship with our kids and their eventual families. Time invested in making them want to come back, want to spend time, is the best time we can spend. One of my saddest moments was being estranged from a family member over something I said, and one of my happiest was allowing time to pass and wounds to be healed, allowing us to be together again. Estrangement from my kids in any way would be devastating, which is why investing in them at every moment is important. That of course does not mean letting them do things that will harm themselves or their future, so correction is part of love.
Today, we celebrate our dads. Being a dad has helped me understand just what a great job my dad has done for me, and how he’s given me a role model for my own kids. My goal is to keep the good things, skip the things that were not productive (though I can’t think of any at the moment), and keep showing up, as he does for me still. A father’s work is never done.
I don’t mean to cause pain to those who don’t have memories of a father, or whose memories are not good. I have friends who have horrible fathers who did horrific things, selfish things. I know others who did not know their dads, who grew up without a father. Though I cannot relate to what that must be like, I can say that the only thing you can do at this point is to be the parent you wish you’d had. And for those who don’t want to have kids, just know that pain provides lessons, and have confidence that you won’t repeat the mistakes of others.
Passing It On
Evil does exist in the world, but most bad dads don’t intend to be evil. Sadly, many have been the victim of a pass-it-on game pushed from father to child for generations. I recently saw a program where a famous actor looked into his ancestors, and his research indicated that the problems he had with an abusive father stemmed from his great-great-grandfather’s losing a wife at a young age, becoming an alcoholic, and beating his kids. He beat his kids, thus his son learned to beat his kids, and so on. All because of an unresolved wound three generations before.
A Football Metaphor
Years ago I took a time management course with Charles Hobbs. In the class he had a white football and a black one. He threw the white football and encouraged us to pass it on. It passed from one person to the next to the next. Then he threw the black football, but said to ground it and not pass it on. His point, of course, was to pass on the positives and not pass the negatives. I think that is true with our parents. Pass on the positive traits, ground the negative traits. Otherwise the negatives can be passed along for generations.
Choose What to Pass On
Often we don’t even recognize our own negative traits and are unwilling to listen when others try to let us know. But once we do realize them and accept that they are not productive, it’s time to ground the football. Pass the good, ground the bad. It’s never too late — even if your kids are adults, they are passing on your habits and traits, good and bad. If you realize you’ve passed something along that you regret, it’s time to apologize and encourage them not to pass that on.
Getting Unstuck Sooner
Life is full of lessons and corrections. Thankfully, we continue to evolve, learn, and make changes. Or at least, we should. Being stuck isn’t a good place to be. I know because I get stuck a lot, and then I have an “I should have had a V8” moment when I slap my head and wonder why I didn’t realize it and get unstuck sooner.
Can You Forgive?
My guess is that most fathers mean well, even though we may be clinging to some bad decision they made years ago. Forgive if you can, and move on. Not forgiving doesn’t hurt them as much as it eats away at you.
Why let anger fester inside you for a lifetime? See someone, talk to someone, try to resolve it, and even if your dad won’t apologize, you still can forgive.
I’m Grateful for You
I’d like to say something else this morning, which is that I’m grateful that you are opening these little Sunday morning moments. Sometimes I hear from people who agree, others who disagree, some who think I’ve gone too far, others who think I’ve not gone far enough. I’m not out to be an affront, or to change anyone, or even to instill my beliefs in anyone. I write because I have to get my thoughts written down, and I happened to share them with a couple of friends who encouraged me to share with others. We are all so busy, so consumed with life, with social media, with negative thoughts about politics and celebrities, I like being able to just stop and think about something I’ve not thought about before. So I hope, in some little way, this serves that purpose for you.
For me, every day I can pick up the phone and talk to mom or dad is a perfect day. A friend I once played golf with told me he would give up all his riches for just one more day with either of his parents. Yet busy lives, and the fact that it seems like our parents will always be there, tend to make us less attentive. Thus today is a reminder that I should call and visit more often.
Today let us rejoice in our fathers, their perfections and imperfections, knowing that we too are imperfect, and we too will make mistakes with our kids.
PS: In a moment I’ll leave the dock and go over to the local college, where about 83 painters who have been with me for a week at my Publisher’s Invitational will be having breakfast, followed by my farewell announcements, followed by lots of people who got close during the week saying tearful goodbyes. Like past years, some will say goodbye and never return because of health issues or worse, others just won’t come back because of circumstances, and still others will return next year as they have for the past eight. These people are like my painting family, and I cherish them. Our next time gathering will be in the Canadian Rockies and again in Africa. It’s a hard day for me because, like a wedding, I plan it all year, then it’s here and gone in a moment. I hate goodbyes, and my kids will tell you, “Dad is crying again.” But that’s just who I am. I cherish those in my painting family, and today, when everyone checks out, I get to be with all three of my kids and my bride for a perfect Father’s Day. I hope your day is perfect as well.