Mike Sager on Fatherhood, “An Incurable Disease of the Heart”
Like life itself, parenting has its stages, and at some point, it's time for your kid to make their own mistakes.
Fatherly’s Letters to Boys project offers boys (and the men raising them) guidance in the form of heartfelt advice given generously by great men who show us how to take that crucial first step in confronting seemingly unsolvable issues — by offering honest words.
It’s your 27th birthday. You’re an honest-to-god grownup now; you’re spending your birthday week out of town on assignment. As things are shaping up, it seems the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.
I’m writing from the spot I’ve occupied so often during your life and mine, behind this desk that once belonged to my dad. As the story goes, it got him through medical school; it was supposed to get me through law school with equal aplomb. Proving, I guess, that even when things proceed unexpectedly, they often turn out okay.
Though it is sometimes lonely in my office, I am never alone. Everywhere I look are photos of friends, loved ones, memorable characters I have known — an encouraging audience, they are proof of a life well lived; in those times when doubts arise, I need to look no further. It will be no surprise, I’m sure, that my favorite photos are of you: Drumming on a kit of pots and pans with wooden spoons. Tackling an opposing striker. Driving for a layup in traffic. Driving yourself to school for the first time. Spittin’ rhymes at the House of Blues. Posing comically in front of our vacation cottage on the North Shore with your best friend Z, the third wheel who fixed our broken triangle during the latter years of your residence at home.
In my favorite, I’m pretty sure you’re almost four. We’re goofing around in the living room. We’re dressed identically, my winter uniform: gray sweatpants and white tee shirts, untucked, with black, long sleeve shirts over top.
At the moment the photo was snapped, I remember, I’m pretending to run away from you. You are clinging to my shirttail, trying to stop me. We are laughing, both of us, uproariously. It is a picture of joy.
You are my Mini Me.
When you’re a little older, and I secure for you, in a power move against your mom, the Big Guy privilege of PlayStation, you’ll make a seven-foot-three-inch avatar on NBA 2k and call him D-Mike, the D for Dad—then, now, and ever at your beck and call.
Dad! Daddy! Daaaad!
Grandma is jealous. She says you come to me first. That you’re a Daddy’s Boy.
And I am yours.
More than a year has passed since you moved away from California, where we lived most of your life, to Atlanta, which is only about four hours away on a non-stop flight but on some days seems like a great distance. We have never been so far away for so long. The second birthday you’ve celebrated in your new home.
Just before you moved, you called to advise me of your plans, which by then were already in motion. I was shaken by the news, talking fast and a little loud, offering opinions and alternatives, voicing concerns, some of it a bit dramatic — because I’m your father, and because your business has always been my business, starting from that very first night you came home from the hospital.
Sleeping between your mom and me in the bed, you had a stuffy nose.
I stayed up all night, vigilant, afraid you would stop breathing.
And, frankly, cursing your mom for pushing me into this predicament of fatherhood, this incurable disease of the heart, which I never really wanted, because I knew what would happen. You became my pivot foot. Permanently. Everything moves around you.
Anyway, when you called to say you were hightailing it from LA to Atlanta — ironically, the place where I went to college, where my adulthood began, the place from which I’d come — and I was maybe giving you a bit of a hard time about leaving me here on the golden coast, you finally said to me:
“I need to make my own mistakes.”
In the sense that all of us enter parenthood without a product manual — the so-called experts notwithstanding — I guess it’s not surprising to discover that the operating system must continually be updated over time. Like life itself, parenting has its stages.
The first 18 years are intensely hands-on. In the beginning there’s no single moment of their life you’re not part of. Later, when you’re teaching the kid to make decisions themself, you’re gently leading and guiding. If you get good at it, they don’t even see your sleight of hand.
Until they go away. And wake up inside their bodies. And then they can’t get far enough fast enough. Whatever you have to say, they don’t want to hear it.
And you don’t have the right to say it, either.
As a parent, you start out with all the control. You end up with none. You learn to follow instead of lead. You learn to hold your tongue. You hope the transition from child to peer continues; there is not another person on the planet you prefer as a friend.
By all accounts, Miles, your new world suits you. Despite COVID, you are thriving. You have an engaging and meaningful job and a loving partner, new friends, a garden that produces the coolest purple okra, among other bounty. A dog and a cat. A side business customizing motorcycles. A little blue house set amidst the kudzu. A life.
Since you’ve been gone, you’ve stayed in touch. You’ve consulted when needed. You’ve also done stuff on your own, as you always have; you’ve never told me everything, which I respect. Even though I helped create you, I don’t own you or your thoughts. Best of all, despite COVID, we’ve managed to exchange visits, the first of which came before vaccinations and necessitated some heroic travel and quarantining on your part. Your determination to go through all that — for the cause of us — reached me loud and clear, good buddy. You’re not trying to leave me in the dust.
Another reason you came home: To see your grandma, my mom, who was also visiting. She is 89. Old now but evermore herself.
Often, when I’m telling Grandma about something in my life, maybe something strange to her or different than what she’s used to, she’ll make a sour face. She’ll say, I never heard of such a thing! Why would anybody want to do that?
At which point I usually remind her of my age (I just turned 65) and assure her I have the bases covered.
And that everybody doesn’t do things the same way.
(And that it’s no longer 1964?)
At which point, without fail, her eyes will kind of glaze over and her head will nod, once, curtly. I’m pretty sure it’s involuntary. And I’m pretty sure it means: You can think what you want to think, you little pisher: I used to wipe your ass.
Going forward, Miles, I promise to try my best never to do that to you.
Though of course I will always remember wiping your ass.
And how, once upon a time, the entirety of you fit the space between my chin and my navel.
Mike Sager is a bestselling author and award-winning reporter. For more than 40 years he has worked as a writer for the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, GQ and Esquire.
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