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A Different Version of The Same Man: How I Leaned In to Fatherhood

leaning into fatherhood

The nighttime nurse didn’t like us very much. Not that I blame her. Shaking martinis in a hospital room is a no-no. But we didn’t care. Not because we’re raging alcoholics. Simply because that’s what we do. The Osbornes drink martinis before dinner, and we had suspended that ritual for long enough.

The ice came courtesy of a large Styrofoam cup I’d smuggled inside my backpack along with the vodka, vermouth, olives, and some plastic martini glasses. The task of shaking had fallen to yours truly, and as soon as the nurse had figured out what, exactly, I was doing, she shot me a look of admonishment. But before she could vocalize it, I shot her one of my own.

He’s dying. So why don’t you let him live a little?

His dementia was worse than it had been, though you couldn’t tell, his silence, the very the last line of a defense that was hell-bent on protecting the stubborn pride that cut both ways. And I was thankful for that silence, despite the awkwardness it brought.

I broke it with continued shakes, the slamming of ice against stainless steel, a friendly noise I’d heard thousands of times while growing up in the ivy-covered, stone house that sits atop the hill.

When I finally stopped to pour our drinks, the quiet crept back. Which is when I decided to ask him a question that I didn’t expect him to have the energy, or perhaps even the capacity, to answer.

“Do you think I bruised the vodka by shaking it too much?”

“Es ball-shet. Yu kahnt bwooze vong-ka. Yu kahnt. Bwooze gin? Yus. Bwooze vong-ka? Nah.”

He took his plastic glass with an unsteady hand and held it to his mouth, which was involuntarily opening and closing in rapid succession. It wasn’t pretty, but after a full minute of determined effort, he managed to get a sip down without spilling even so much as a single drop.

“Ahh. Dots goood. So goood,” he said as he closed his eyes and rested his head on the pillow of his inclined bed.

The next morning, I was awakened by the call I’d been dreading. Two minutes later, I was racing to the hospital.

I wasn’t fast enough.

My lifeless father lay eerily upon his literal deathbed, his left eyebrow noticeably askew. I reached out and smoothed it with my thumb, our final interaction rendered blurry by the welled tears that did their best to hold tight.

Way back when, my dad had made me my first martini. The night before, I’d made him his last. And while he drank it, he taught me one final lesson.

You can’t bruise vodka.

* * *

When Dad died, I was 32 and in the midst of a string of dysfunctional, six-month relationships. I’d only have one more such tryst before I finally found Caroline.

As our wedding date approached, the irony wasn’t lost on me. The guy who had been the consummate bachelor at the time of his father’s death was about to marry a single mom and become a stepfather.

Just like his old man.

I often wondered if Dad would have ever predicted such. To this day, I remain unsure, but one thing I do know is that he never could have predicted the triplets. None of us could have.

On the night Caroline and I learned about them, I paid him a visit so I could tell him in person. Again, with the blurry vision as I cleared his site, only this time I wasn’t sure why. No one was dying. Just the opposite, in fact. Times three.

Which I finally decided was the reason for the emotion, after all. In nine months I’d morph from the stepfather of one to the father of four. And once I composed myself, we had a nice chat about that, my dad and I did.

He and I are very different people, you know. Yet the older I get, the more similar we become. First it was just little things. Like that noise I make when I put down something heavy. Or that vein in my neck that goes apeshit whenever I do the same.

Then came the whole whistling deal, which, truly, y’all, I have zero explanation for. Simply put, it sucks. Sadly, it would get even worse, as the whistling proved to be a gateway drug to black socks. Ones worn absent mindedly.

With shorts.

Even so, aside from these comical similarities that seem to come with age, I still maintain that Dad and I are very different people. And that’s somewhat intentional.

Because if all of us really are nothing more than the sum of our decisions, then it also stands to reason that, accounted for in that math is the sum of all the decisions made by the ones who raised us.

Which is why, when I began my journey as a stepdad, then as a biological one, I looked back and tried to glean what I could from my Dad’s life from the sum of all his decisions then deliberately tweaked that formula so that I might be a new and improved version.

Which, coming full circle, is a key reason why I’ve always considered us to be such different men.

At least that’s what I believed before our youngest child, Luke, came along. Because once he did, the parallels between my father and me became too obvious to ignore.

Like me, he married a single mom.
Like me, he was a stepdad.
Like me, he had five children.
Like me, he had a surprise fifth child. (The surprise was me.)
Like me, he had that surprise fifth child in his early 40s.

Which is why I’ve always considered Luke to be my full circle. And in him, I see not only what I used to be, but all that I’ll ever be. All I’ve ever hoped to be.

Hopes. They meet reality and give shape to the life to which they belong. And not only is mine pretty damn good…

It’s also eerily similar to the man whose life prepared me for mine.

Thanks, Dad. I obviously owe you one.

We’re celebrating Father’s Day by celebrating leaning into fatherhood and by recognizing the extraordinary men that are our own fathers. We hope that it will inspire you to thank your own dad or the dad who most inspires you. Find more letters and stories about leaning into parenthood here. And, of course, find your own Lean In inspiration at LeanIn.org.

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