Sunday, July 13, 2014

Shutting up is an art form

     I like to give directions to strangers, because there's pleasure in helping somebody. 
     You see a couple standing on the street, puzzling over a map or an iPhone, and you ask where they're going, and they tell you, and you point it out, and the puzzled persons stride gratefully toward their goal. It's so simple, and pure.
     With parents, it's the same. You know the way, you want to give a little hint, some direction, because you've so been there, and you so understand what they're going through, and what's going to happen. 
     Though it doesn't quite work as simply as with directions to the Willis Tower. Because parenthood is complicated.
     When our boys were small, a million years ago, an older person would notice them, in all their porcelain cuteness, playing in the park or whatever, and pause, smiling wistfully. You could just tell the older person was bursting to say something, wanted to pass something along, and eventually they'd make eye contact, and sigh, and utter a remark along the lines of, "Enjoy them while you can," or at least that's what I heard. They might have said something closer to "Enjoy them while they're young" or "What a great age!"
      Which puzzled and, honestly, slightly offended me, this grizzled stranger, this buttinski, offering this crazy comment, suggesting stuff that was never going to happen, not to me. "While they're young?" What do you mean? These boys are 4 and 5, have been for an eternity, and would be 4 and 5 forever. It sure felt that way at the time. Other parents felt their children's live speed past, perhaps, because they weren't paying attention. Not a problem here.
     Now that the boys are 17 and 18, at the moment, and it seemed like yesterday they were 15 and 16 and tomorrow they'll be 22 and 23. I find myself smiling, oddly, at parents with young children, and starting to say, "A great age. Enjoy them while they're..." and the words strangle in my throat, and I fall silent. Shutting up is an under-appreciated art form. 
     I find saying nothing is something I've been doing more and more lately. Even though I ride the train downtown with the older boy in the morning, the trip passes in total silence. That is what he wants. I know because I asked him about it once. "The train is for reading," he said, with asperity.  O...K...
      If the first shock of parenthood is when they show up, the second is when they grow up and leave or, in my case, are about to leave, or have already left in mind if not in body, the older one anyway, and you suddenly face the grim realization that what you thought was forever was really just a phase, a period, a span, an era. Eighteen years, from "had a baby" to "off to college." 
     And then what?
     Oh sure, you always remain the parent. That's what they say. Cold comfort. Like "we'll always be friends." Since the meaning changes. You're still a parent the way you were once a Cub Scout—it's a cluster of memories without a lot of day-to-day practical significance. He's never going to call;* if he won't look up and say something on the train, he's never going to call. I am certain of that. Not once. Maybe on my death bed. "Hey dad, hear you're dying; sorry I haven't called for the past ... 27 years. Been busy. Umm, how are things? Besides dying that is."
     Life is generally a letting go anyway, but with kids you see it so clearly. I've been lucky, in that I've had practice. When he had his bar mitzvah, I realized, somehow, that this wasn't a moment for me to hold some kind of potlach to myself. It wasn't my bar mitzvah, it was his. So I didn't pick the restaurant, didn't invite pals from work, didn't write his speech—heck, I didn't even read it. It wasn't about me.  Parents try to micro-manage because they want to impress people, want it to go perfectly. I figured, if he screws it up, then that's what'll happen and he'll learn from it. I stepped back in the shadows, where I belonged.
    He nailed the whole thing, by the way, beginning to end, including playing "Hatikvah" on the viola.
    I've used that logic a lot during the college process. It's not my life, it's his. That horrified some of my older friends. If I wanted him to go to a certain school, they urged me, I should just tell him. Order him. I'm the father. I have the authority. That wasn't my approach. He has to make these decisions, and if he makes mistakes, then they''ll be his mistakes. Better to let him make his mistakes than to force him to make mine.
    You'd think this broadminded approach would score me points, but it hasn't. My wife explained why.
     "You know," she once said, the best parenting advice I've ever heard, "they're going to have to push away against us, no matter how good parents we've been."
     So I accept the silences, let some harsh things he says fly by, when I can. Stuff I might argue about I let go. "This is not the hill to die on," his elementary school principal would say. Also good advice. The world will bring him down a notch or two, it always does.. I don't have to do it.
     I think, because of that idea, I've been able to avoid the fractious arguments that sons often go through with dads. I know I did. But this isn't about me. My work is done. Take a bow, and edge off stage, at least for the moment. That's what I tell myself: you can make a little speech after he gets married, at the reception, if you like. If there is one.  
     Maybe he has a point. If he wants silence, try silence. I can do silence. I don't have to talk all the time. Shutting up, as I said, twice now, is an under-appreciated art form. I've been tempted to ask him, if he feels the same way, but I'm worried he'd say, "Why don't you try it and we'll find out?" I'd smile tightly, biting back a retort, and think: good line. I like to read on the train too, so we know where he gets that from. 

* Editor's note: In his first three years of college, he phoned every Saturday morning, like clockwork, without fail, including his semester in Paris. Last Saturday we spoke for over an hour. EGD doesn't like to make errors, but it in no way regrets this one. 


  1. Steinberg Wrong filter. Use a blue tint instead. Your white skin in all this oppressively mild summer is making everyone look green. And native bork Cook Countians don't like that.

    Although, I don't know of any big city writer that pays to send a blog poster to sat. fun-you activities.

    Bravo Neil!,

    An acknowledged contest winner.
    (gratefully, with North Side thanks.)

    Hell, it's one great County, it made me.

  2. It's the green window. I could adjust the tint, but I like to keep the photos natural and not play around with them too much.

    1. I thought the green worked perfectly, as did the rest of the essay.


  3. I too am raising two boys. My philosophy is "give them enough rope to hang themselves." I always assumed it was because I was trying to do everything completely the opposite of how my parents did. I turned out OK, and the boys seem to be alright, so maybe we are fooling ourselves if we think we can affect the world.

  4. When he needs money.

  5. I butt in only in one circumstance: With desperate, hollow-eyed young parents as their newborn, with newborn lungs, pumps out that terrible, piercing phlegmy chach-chaczh-chaczh-chaczh mournful weep. I say, "Hey, try to enjoy it because it'll be gone before you know it, and you'll never hear it again." Usually gets a grateful smile.

  6. Neil - As I have an 8 year old and 5 year old - I get the "Enjoy them while their young" or "Enjoy this age" - I get where these parents are coming from, but the real answer is - enjoy them every day, right? And don't worry - as your wife says, they will push away - and if you did the right things, they will come back. I eventually did my 2 senior year of college as I figured out - "hey, my parents might actual know what the hell they are talking about" Enjoy your week.

  7. Barbara Brotman once wrote " I used to think I was the mother of little girls. Now I realize I am the mother of girls who were temporarily little". That really struck me. I tried to hold on to it. My girls are almost the same age as your boys with a late summer bitrthday making my older one already a soon to be college sophomore though she's still 18. They do call once in a while. At least girls do.

  8. It's kinda the same for him too. Dad has been there his whole life, day after day, until suddenly he's not. It'll be strange. He'll miss you and call. Can't miss someone while you're sitting together on the train.


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