A woman’s work is never done, and once a mom, always a mom. But a father’s job has a beginning, and an end, and we do everything we can in that middle part to make our sons good men.
I don’t remember being born, and for that both my mother and I are truly grateful. But I do know that I was born to a man who very often felt like he was in over his head. And I think if we were all being honest, that’s how every man feels when his role as a father is beginning. He grew into it, though. With my Dad, we always knew right where the line was, and we had complete freedom right up to it. And when we crossed the line, his justice was swift and thorough. But he did it out of love. He was really a gentle giant. He was a 6 foot 275 pound introvert. He was a pastor, and unlike pastors you see on TV, he was smart, good, honest, and he loved people so hard that it healed them.
But things weren’t always good between us. In my mind he became a real self-centered, ignorant, tyrant the year I turned 14. By the time I turned 18 and went to college he actually—again, in my opinion—got a little smarter. Then when I went away to graduate school and studied the arts (with his full, but non-financial support) he got really smart. We had great talks about humanity, and audiences, and how to honestly reach people effectively. Then when I got married he got a little insecure and immature, which was really weird to me because he had JUST gotten so smart again! And it’s really weird the moment you realize that in your relationship with your father there are times that YOU are the adult! And your justice has to be swift and thorough. But even in all of that middle part he was doing everything he could to make me into a good man.
By this time my wife and I were living in California, and my parents were in the Central Time Zone, so I would pretty regularly get phone calls from my well-intentioned yet forgetful mom at 6 o’clock in the morning. I’d answer, “Hello?” and she would THEN remember that we were two hours behind and say, “Oooooooh, sorry, sorry, sorry! Go back to sleep! I’m so sorry!” And then one day, she called at 4 am. And I already knew it wasn’t good. I picked up, and in a very flat and tone she kept emotionless so she could hold it together she said, “You father has collapsed in the bathroom. The ambulance is here now. They’re taking him to the hospital.” I was 25, he was 55. A few hours pass, I’m crying, my wife is holding me…my mom calls again. The same flat tone, “He’s had an aneurysm. They say they’ve never seen one this big before and he needs to be airlifted. What do we do?” Wait, you’re asking me? I’m not ready for this. I can’t make that decision. But here’s my mom looking to me to do that very thing. “I say we give him every chance we can.”
They airlifted him, he has brain surgery, he’s not waking up, and he’s not breathing on his own. I’m drowning in my own emotion. But my Dad had done everything he could in this middle part to make his sons good men. My two brothers and I fly out. The night I got there, my mom is in his room. It’s dark, it’s quiet, and it’s really, really cold. She’s whispering to me that when a blood vessel bursts in the brain, blood covers the brain cells and kills them. Then in order to repair the brain the body pumps the cranial cavity full of white blood cells to help heal it. The cold, the quiet, the hole drilled in his skull to let fluids escape, and a strict lack of physical contact is to minimize the brain’s responses to stimuli so it can focus solely on healing. She says, “I just want to crawl up there with him, and hold him, and tell him it’s going to be ok, but this is all I’m allowed to do,” and she kneels down next to the bed reaches out with one finger, and barely touches his hand…and she cries.
One of my brothers was in the Navy, so we only had a few days to do whatever it was we were going to do. My my mom and my two brothers and I sat down with the neurosurgeon, who explained that his brain was continuing to swell due to the extent of the damage, and that no matter what they did … he was going to die. We could ride it out or take him off life support. My mom and both of my brothers—both good men—turned and looked at me?
On July 16, 2006 we all came into his room, took some pictures, said our goodbyes, took out his breathing tube, and watched him choke to death.
We had to rush everything to get my brother back to the Navy in time. We were meeting with the funeral director across from St. Luke's Episcopal Church where we were going to bury him. The cheapest and fastest way was to cremate him. The dear, sweet funeral director was walking us through what the process was going to be. His body would be burned, but the bones wouldn’t, so those would be ground up. “He’ll come in a bag, about this big,” he says holding up his hands to indicate something exactly the size of a breadbox. And all four of us started to laugh. My dad was a fat man! I said, “That’s it? Won’t there be a candle or a bar of soap or something too?” This is how we dealt with stress. I still do.
He was eulogized by my brother, he was buried, and then somehow…inexplicably…life went on. Without him. His job was done.
And then, one day, my job as a father started. On our 5th anniversary, my wife woke me up by telling me that she was pregnant. I was shocked, I was scared, and I was really sad because this child would never know his grandfather. He'd know his other grandfather well, but not my dad. But I knew that I had to do everything I could in this new middle part to make my son a good man. All my dad-friends kept telling me about how amazing it is to hold your son for the first time and to feel the instantaneous elation and connection and love that ran unfathomably deep. Yes, from time to time, and with a beer in hand, men do talk about their feelings.
The day came. Contractions were had. My wife labored for 30 hours and pushed in active labor for 8. She was a warrior. And I was going to take my role by the horns just like she did. I was going to be a good dad just like my dad was. I helped pull my son into the world. I cut his umbilical cord, and I wrapped him in a towel, held him on my chest, and I looked in his deep eyes--anticipating that instantaneous and unfathomable connection--and I thought... “’Sup?” I had no idea who this dude was. He looked all pink and squinty, and he was covered with snot. We took him home, and he pooped on everything I owned. He would scream so loud through my face that my teeth would ache. He took complete ownership of my favorite of my wife’s parts, and he made me sleep on the couch. He was the worst roommate I’d ever had.
And I didn’t feel that instant connection. I thought I was broken some how. I wasn’t a good dad somehow. And it took me a long time. I hadn’t had those 9 months of being connected to him. I didn’t know what movies he liked, what music he liked, or his favorite beer. I didn’t know who he was.
But in time, as I did get to know him, and as I saw him learn all about the world by putting it in his mouth, I came to love him deeply. More than my self. I gave up sleep, the comfort of a bed, every preference I ever had about how our house was run, all my money, time, and all my everything. I very often felt like I was in way over my head, but my job had begun. He was my son.
Eventually my wife said she was ready for another. I’m thinking, “Are you sure that’s such a good idea? I don’t know how much you remember, but I was at ground zero. And now you want more? Of that? Again?” I was nervous. I didn’t want to feel like my emotions part was broken again. By now, my first son was also interested in what was going on with the baby inside Mommy’s tummy. He was smart, and curious, and had tons of questions. We told him everything that was appropriate for a 3 ½ year old to know. He was looking at pictures in maternity magazines and was fascinated by fetal development. He wanted to meet his brother so badly, and that just made it worse for me. I wasn’t even as excited as he was. Because, see, I remembered the pooping, and the screaming, and the pooping, and the not sleeping, and the pooping, and the vomiting, and…the pooping. I remembered holding him in my arms and wondering if I was broken for not feeling that instantaneous elation and connection and love that ran unfathomably deep.
The day came. Contractions were had. My wife labored for many less hours and pushed in active labor for only a few. She was, again, a warrior. And I was going to take my role by the horns just like she did? I was going to be a good dad just like my dad was. I helped pull my son into the world. I cut his umbilical cord, and I wrapped him in a towel, held him on my chest, and thought, “This is my son!” And I felt...that instantaneous elation and connection and love that runs unfathomably deep. A woman’s work is never done, and once a mom, always a mom. But my job had a beginning, and it will have an end, but I will do everything I can in that middle part to make my sons good men.
Jesse is a professor at Houston Baptist University. He also directs the school's theatre club, does handyman projects on the side, and produces features and short films. A Pastor's kid/missionary kid, his view of life is at the very least unique. And hopefully helpful.