Thirty-one years ago (1989) the following essay – On Being An Older Father - was published in Newsweek. I’m re-printing it here as preface to a new one: On Being An Older Grandfather.
On Being An Older Father
Recently, at the wedding of the daughter of a close friend, a thought struck me: "My God," I said to my wife, "When our kid gets married, we're going to be so old we'll have to have it catered by Meals‑On‑Wheels!" My son, you see, is only two. When he is thirteen, I will be sixty, and the twenty‑first century will be here. You can do the rest of the arithmetic yourself. I'll tell you this, however: it's a strange thing to suddenly find yourself reading the obituary section and Parents Magazine at the same time.
Sevi, my son, was a long time coming. I first began trying to have him one marriage and many lifetimes ago, and discovered myself infertile. It felt as if someone had died. That marriage died, too, but not before a harrowing assault by a battalion of fertility specialists. A man spends his entire life trying to protect his gonads then offers them up to a breed of medical practisioner equaled in cold‑hearted arrogance only by Porsche mechanics. At least, a Porsche runs after a tune‑up. No matter what those doctors did, my sperm count remained among the lowest on earth. So, I counter‑ attacked with vengeance. I set about fashioning a life that took me anywhere I wanted to go. A child had no place in it. And I married a woman hell‑bent as myself. She was also infertile. Children were out of the question. It was, we thought, the basis of our relationship ‑‑ until that night, years later, when the issue was suddenly, once again, as alive and insistent as an infant crying in the next room. I don't remember how it came up. We were driving home along rural roads in a rainstorm when my wife said, "You really do want a child, don't you?", and the thought came to me that not once in my entire life had I really felt that I would never be a father. The underlying assumption was simple: someday, somehow I would be.
"Yes," I answered, "Yes, yes, yes."
And, at that moment, I knew I would have one. It was overwhelming. My wife couldn't see or hear me in the utter darkness and driving rain, but I was crying.
The video taken when our adopted son was first handed to us shows a man with silver hair taking a baby into his arms. I don't think I look like a grandfather, yet most of my peers look like this, and their children are in college. But I'm fit and fairly certain of my powers. In some sense, I feel as if I've been in training for this all my life. What I've done is to reverse the time frame. My child rearing years will be the last third of my life instead of the middle third. I've been fortunate. While others my age were struggling with their careers and raising families, I was living a life of textbook adventure. My heroes had always been men like Gordon, explorer of the Nile, and Lawrence of Arabia. I don't mean to imply that I operated on their scale or with their skill; but, like these men, I was driven to pit myself against myself in exotic places. There is a photograph of me from this period that shows a man with a week's growth of beard leaning against a tree in a jungle. A cigarette dangles from his mouth. He wears a headband. His eyes look out at you with some amusement and more appraisal, the kind of guy, the sergeants say, you'd want beside you in a firefight. But I'm not sure I like him. The picture hides a lot. There is too much swagger. What I remember most vividly from those times, really, is the loneliness. I was attached to no one. I was building nothing to pass on. Nowadays everything I do has taken on a whole new dimension. Let me explain. Last Fall I put my son in a pack on my back and climbed the mountain behind our house to look for blackberries. Hank, our springer spaniel, who loves wild berries almost as much as he loves flushing pheasant, went with us. We saw deer and porcupine, the tracks of coon and coyote. Lightning had hit a tree I liked, and its roots had erupted from the ground, brown and tangled like a mass of wire. We found the blackberries ‑‑ thousands of them ‑‑ and I could not have been more happy and satisfied if the juicy berries had been the Holy Grail.
True, the adjustment to parenthood is not always easy, and, yes, being a father takes up an enormous amount of time. But who would I rather spend it with? I'm not a man who's interested in accumulating companies or commanding an army. I've served my time in the trenches of masculinity, and I don't have many illusions about these things. I fail to see where beating someone up is more satisfying than showing my son where to find the echo or suddenly hearing him speak a sentence where before he only dabbled in isolated words. He has enabled me to touch reserves of strength and love I never knew existed. Nothing is more basic. I will give my child a safe place to sleep. I will give him the food he needs. I will teach him to survive as best I can. And I will protect him with my life. There is a certain serenity in the simplicity of this formula. Sure, sometimes, it's a drag to get up so early in the morning; but, then again, I get to see his face at an hour when it is most innocent, when it is most open. To me he is a work of art, a creation as intense as the Sistine Chapel. The purity of his rage and joy astonishes me. If I can teach him to love, if I can put him into this world with the ability to handle it yet without the feeling that he must subjugate it, then, I believe, I will have done my job.
Am I a better father now than I would have been when I was younger? Yes. Would I recommend that every man wait to have children? Not necessarily. I believe it happened to me at the right time. I cannot speak for anyone else. I do worry about staying healthy and agile enough to be the parent I want to be, and I worry about what will happen when Sevi reaches his teens and begins pulling away at a time when, perhaps more than younger parents, I will want to hold him close. More than anything else, I am afraid that I might die when he needs me the most. However, I have this feeling that I'm going to be around for a long time, that I might even get to be a grandfather, for God's sake. I wouldn't be surprised, but like the pitcher going into the fifth inning with a no hitter, I don't think I should talk about it.
Does there have to be more to life than this, I wonder? I guess so, because my wife and I just received word that our infant daughter is waiting for us to come and pick her up. We're told she has red hair, and I cannot wait to have her in my arms.
ON BEING AN OLDER GRANDFATHER
Thirty-one years ago we, Jamie and I, brought our infant son, Sevi Donnelly Foreman, home. He was three months old, recently of Medellin, Colombia. One month ago, our son returned home with his son, Dorian Alexander Foreman, two months old, our grandson. We are on yet another journey, Jamie and I. At nearly 41 years, we are a unit, sometimes imperfect, but still. We are.
There is history here. The past few years have not always been easy, but our beloved son found his way back home, his way, not ours, but, still. Home. Each of us needs to find our own way. We certainly did – Jamie and I – and our children are following suit. They will do what they will do. And we will do what we will do, and hope that what we all do – eventually - we all do together. Love can take a beating. Love will take a beating. True dat. A dear friend used to say, “It’ a good life if you don’t weaken.” Why else am I here if not to feel these things?
So, now that I approach 78 as I once approached 48, what have I learned? Have I learned patience? No, but I believe I’ve learned more patience. I’m shocked to discover how dumb I have been and can be, so certain of things and yet astonished by the multitude of mistakes that litter my path from back then to right now! However, I am still trying to rectify what I can and will until I can’t. I think I always knew life was chaotic, unpredictable, largely out of my control. Husbanding a marriage, raising a family while negotiating a demanding career that managed to tank after both children were already on board not-so-simply reinforced that.
OK. Here it is.
When Jamie and I decided to adopt we availed ourselves of an adoption counselor to help guide us to the right decision. I can’t remember her name, but I will never forget this woman: six feet tall, very plain, baggy clothes, humorless, wise, legally blind. An ancient seer. She was the court appointed social worker assigned to visit the homes of prospective parents. We went to her plain, cluttered office in a non-descript house in a non-descript development in a non-descript corner of Long Island. Somewhere. Could never find it again. Hundreds perhaps a thousand photos of children covered her walls. When she left the room for a minute, Jamie said, “Look at those pictures, Stephen. They’re all so beautiful.” The counselor returned to the room and said, “Look again. They are all not so beautiful. But you must be prepared to say, ‘I will love this child forever.’ ” I cannot write these words without tears. We made that decision, and, once made, there were no more decisions – tactics, yes, of course, but not decisions.
Is there anything new to what I am about to say? Has anyone in this world ever had an ugly grandchild? He is a perfect little creature, as perfect as any since my own two little creatures. He is “hoovering” now, what I call taking in everything and everyone all around the room even if he doesn’t know who or what it is. He seems to be ‘saying’, “Bring it on. I am here.” And he’s beginning to look at me like he knows me, seems to listen to my stories – a whole new audience for all of my malarkey! I’m dusting off stuff for this kid from years ago! Is there anything on earth like an infant’s searching your face to figure out who you are? Is there anything on earth like watching your partner of a lifetime soothing another baby in her arms? Like being in a home with snow outside and a fire blazing, my partner’s smile, my children there, and now?
When does it end? When I do.