My son and I were in the car. He was five years old. It was just the two of us and we were talking. That wasn’t at all unusual. We talked all the time about anything and everything. Because I was a terrific father. Seriously. It’s important that you know that. I mean, yes, I did quite possibly ruin his life and warp him forever, but still, I was and am a terrific father. And I was doing so well.
My son asked me, “What happens when people die, daddy?’” I had prepared for this question a long time ago. I knew he’d ask me about it at some point, and I wanted to be ready.
I told him, like I knew I’d tell him, that no one knew for sure. I said that his grandpa thought you just slept, and that grandpa, who was still very healthy, thought that was nice. I told him about how some people believe in Heaven and I told him about what Heaven might look like. I talked about different cultures and how people all over the world had different ideas about what happened after we die. I said that I thought that after we die, we’re with the people we love most of all and that we’re safe and happy. And, of course, I assured him that the people he loved were all healthy and well.
I was killing it. Father of the Year, hands down. As the words poured out of my mouth, I could hear myself telling my wife later about how I’d handled one of the biggest moments in fatherhood as well as it possibly could be handled.
It’s possible that my self-confidence, erring on cockiness, was why I totally blew the next question.
My son heard my explanation about death and then, without missing a single beat asked “Oh. And where do babies come from?”
The little bastard had been sandbagging me. He didn’t care about death, he was just waiting to get me to talk about sex all along. I froze.
My first thought was that going from death to sex in the space of a single short car ride was just wrong. My second thought was that because of that first thought I’d now been quiet for way, way too long. My third thought was, “Oh my God. I don’t have a third thought.”
And then I tried to wing it. Bad move.
The first words out of my mouth weren’t actually words. They were just sounds. Weird gurgling noises — the kind I imagined that you’d hear if a very old woman sat on a very old cat.
I knew I had to say something, quickly, so that my son would have a healthy understanding of sex and relationships. But, inexplicably, I started giggling. Giggling. Not laughing. Not a manly chuckle. Giggling.
My son started to look worried. I took a deep breath and then, very calmly and methodically explained the facts of life to him. Almost. Well, not really. Actually, I sort of blew it.
“Well,” I said to him. “first the mommy and the daddy get together and they make a penis. Wait! No! That’s not it!”
I had blown it, though perhaps that’s not the best choice of phrase given the topic of our little chat. Still, I was crushed. I knew that you don’t get just one chance at this, but I still worried all the same. Even if my son forgot about this car ride, I would never forget that the first time I spoke to my son about the birds and the bees, I’d somehow managed to tell him that mommies and daddies sat down together in some sort of Frankenstein’s lab and built genitalia together. Visions of gloating to my wife about my great parenting became a distant afterthought. But it’s okay. Fatherhood, it turns out, is a bit more forgiving than that.
When my son was in high school, he began going out with someone. He didn’t seem to want to talk about his new relationship and I somehow stopped myself from demanding that he spill the beans.
Then, one day, he seemed upset. When I asked what was wrong, he turned a very nice shade of purple and said, “I just don’t understand women!”
When I was done laughing, I explained to him that he never, ever would, but that he’d be fine. He didn’t need another explanation of where babies came from, but there were still a few things I could help him with as his dad.
And so it goes. As goofy as that first conversation was, the rest of our talks about life, and love and relationships are what he has taken with him as he lives his adult life. It turns out that parenthood isn’t about just one conversation. Parenthood is actually one very long conversation held over the course of your entire life. It’s what you say and it’s how you live. My son has seen me be a loving husband to his mother and that’s part of our conversation about relationships too. It all is. Kids hear it all, even the stuff you never actually say out loud.
Which is not to say I still don’t cringe when I think about that one conversation. My son is 23 now. He has a steady girlfriend so I know he’s recovered from that first little talk and I think he knows that men and women don’t get together and make a penis. And one day, many, many years from now, I’m sure I’ll recover from it too.