These were the guys I had to learn from: the old guy with the horrible jokes and bad polyester suits, and the guy who dropped my brother on his head during a game of "Pass-the-Baby." I was doomed.
I still maintain that you ought to be given some kind of instruction manual before leaving the hospital. It amazes me that you have to be licensed to drive, you (usually) have to pass a background check to purchase a firearm, but they’ll just hand you a small, wiggly human to take care of for the next 18 or so years. “Here you go. Enjoy! See you for the next one!” I was terrified I was going to pick my first son up the wrong way and watch his head pop right off.
All of which left me desperate for any parenting advice, any kind of direction on what the hell I was supposed to do now that I was “Dad.” This is, of course, when I came to an amazing epiphany: “Hey! I have a dad! Who also had a dad! I’ll just do what they did!”
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Then out of nowhere, a particular song lyric started playing over and over in my head: “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right.…”
To wit: First we have Great Grandpa Woody. I loved this man more than I can express, mostly because he told abysmal old man jokes and took to calling me “Polecat.” That was great, but I didn’t really have the opportunity to catch any big “Dad” moments from him. By the time I hit the scene, his kids had grown and had kids of their own, so it wasn’t like I ever got to see his parenting skills in action. As far as I could tell, he was more than happy to leave the child care to Great Granny.
Which bring us to my dad. Now, as with most young boys, I viewed him as the ultimate man: confident, athletic, determined to ensure we never missed a viewing of Sunday morning WWF, etc. With the exception of the Sunday morning wrestling, however, he seemed to follow in Woody’s footsteps by deferring to my mother on early child-rearing. That worked out pretty well, seeing as the introverted little tub of fluff that I was, I tended to be more of a mama’s boy.
There was no question that he loved me to death, but I wasn’t sure that he always knew what to do with me. I was the quiet bookworm who was more than content to disappear into my room with a stack of comics and entertain myself for hours. My older brother tended to be the one he would spend most time with, by virtue of their shared love for every sport under the sun. That my brother turned out to be so athletic was amazing, considering how Dad once accidentally dropped him on his head while passing him back and forth with one of my cousins. Yeah. Baby dropping. That’s what I was actively trying to avoid.
So these were the guys I had to learn from. The old guy with the horrible jokes and bad polyester suits, and the guy who dropped my brother on his head during a game of “Pass-the-Baby.” I was doomed.
Or maybe not.
Gentlemen, let’s face it. There are very few of us who just automatically turn nurturer when the kids first show up. That’s okay, because it’s not about being perfect from day one. It’s about how much you love your kids, and how much you’re willing to put yourself out there for them. With that in mind, I couldn’t have hoped for better examples.
Great Grandpa Woody may have been a low-key jokester, but he was also a man of great faith. He showed me the importance of holding on to what you believe in (whatever that may be) and how doing so can help you stay afloat even in the worst of times. Now I’m not a devout churchgoer like he was, but he did instill in me the importance of believing in something. Jokester he may have been, but a fool he was not.
Dad and I may not have naturally had the same interests, but he still worked hard to connect with me. He took me on my first trip to the comic book store. He shared his love of classic Looney Toons shorts with me, and we spent hours together laughing our tails off at the old reruns they used to play on TNT. We may not have had much in common, but he always made time for me when I reached out, even after he and my mom split.
Most importantly, he supported me in everything I did, period. He believed in me when I couldn’t believe in myself. On the day I needed him most, he drove halfway across the country at the drop of a hat to bring me home, after I felt I’d failed at my first real job, and in a way I could never bounce back from. He didn’t complain. He didn’t judge. He just spent the week helping me pack up to come home, all the while insisting that I wasn’t a failure, it wasn’t the end of the world, and that there was absolutely no shame in throwing in the towel and looking for a new path, when faced with an untenable situation.
Faith, the willingness to put yourself out there to connect with and support your kids no matter what, and the absolute commitment to do whatever it takes to take care of the people you love. To me, these are the keys to being a good father. I’m lucky. I can look up to two men who have these traits in spades. While we do thrive in heckling one another, the truth is that I respect and love these men more than I can say, not just for what they’ve done for me, but for showing me what it takes to be “Dad.” If I do half the job they did (and if the little wildebeests let me live that long) hopefully my kids will someday talk about me the same way.
Happy Father’s Day, guys. I couldn’t do it without you.
An overgrown man-child and connoisseur of geek culture, Jeremy Wilson is striving to raise his two sons to become more responsible, self-actualized men than himself. So far they are not cooperating. You can follow along at fatherhoodinthetrenches.com.