At 6, my oldest son Henry has become like a lot of kids his age: hungry to create stuff. Armed with whatever pens, crayons, and paper he can get his hands on, he’s been a veritable art factory lately; an explosion of young vision all over the page.
Watching your own flesh and blood teeming with ideas is one of the best things that comes down the parenting pike. But a few months ago, Henry’s art began to change. What had been a steady stream of outdoor scenes and dinosaurs suddenly took a hard turn into a new subject: Me — Dad. His dad.
Yep; Henry has taken to drawing me a lot these days.
Me fishing. Me standing on stage with my Rock-n-Roll band. Me sitting in our car. Me frolicking in the crashing waves at the beach.
At first, I was elated that he was thinking of me at a time when his heart and mind were connecting with his creative super powers. Any dad (or mom) would be thrilled about that.
Then, as weeks went on, he continued to bring home more and more new drawings of me from kindergarten. Fresh off the school bus, he’d head into the house, immediately sit himself at the kitchen table, and render a new likeness of me before I even had the chance to ask how his day was. It began to dawn on me that this was something bigger in my world than I’d originally thought.
My dad left my little brother and me when we were young. I think I was about 10 when he left our town in the middle of the night and never looked back. My single mom took the helm and we didn’t see or hear from him for decades. The hole it left in my world is indescribable. To this day, I still struggle with love and battle with confidence. Not a day goes by that I don’t have to stop myself in the middle of some kind of middle-aged, anxiety-ridden freak-out to remind myself that it isn’t all my fault. I’m not necessarily nuts or selfish or lost or bad; I’m just hurt. I always have been. And it’s beginning to look like I may always remain that way to some extent, as well.
So when Henry’s older sister Violet first arrived 8 years ago, and Henry came along two years later (and Charlie two years after that), I swore I would never stop trying to be the best dad I could possibly be. I would sacrifice for my kids. I would put their needs and welfare before my own. I would smile when they smiled. And I would save all my smiles for whenever they might need one.
It was all easier said than done, though. Any parent will tell you that the magic of becoming a parent also comes with daily doses of harsh reality. Kids make you smile, sure. But they also drive you crazy. And pee on your floor. And bite you flat out, with their beady little eyes locked into yours in a way that seems to say, “You know what? This is why I’m glad I was born!
I’m divorced now from their mom. Life hasn’t been a fairy tale for me — or for us. Not even close. All the struggles I’ve dealt with in my own life have often been compounded by the fact that now, standing on my own as a single dad raising three young kids, I am more lost than ever before. That’s just how it goes with raising kids. You want to be the best, but you pretty quickly find out you’re far from it. Most days you’re nothing but a fish stick-burning, 6 PM-hollering, tired, hungry, agitated, Neanderthal in charge of tiny lives.
I do my best. But my best is rarely the best, if you know what I mean.
Henry’s art then, jeez. I quickly understood that his many pictures of me were the most magnificent validations that had ever come my way. These aren’t just sketches a little boy is doing to kill time or burn off brain steam. These are purposefully planned and plotted depictions of — gulp — my son’s hero. Or one of them anyway. And that hero is me. Me. ME! His dad.
My heart, man … after all this time, it’s a nugget of iron, a wad of coal in a lot of ways. But these drawings have nudged it so hard lately. I’ve been kicked back awake by this realization that often fades into the clamoring chaos of any given late afternoon, when being a dad feels like more of a slog ’til bedtime than anything else.
My 6-year-old son drawing me time and time again is him telling me, over and over (and over), “Don’t stop, Dad! Keep loving us exactly the way you’re doing it!”
It’s like he’s telling me what he would have no idea how to tell me at his young age. By drawing his Daddy, he’s telling me that it’s working. That I did it. That I’m on the right track and that it matters.
I’m not as rich as a lot of dads. I’m not as calm or collected as some of the best might be. And I’m nowhere near Dad of the Year, unless you ask my son. Unless you ask Henry, in which he’ll likely disappear in a hail of whirling crayons only to reemerge with your answer in a fresh drawing.
Me standing there smiling. Blue skies. Green grass. Me, according to my boy.
And I suspect it’s the greatest gift I’ll ever know.More On