I am not my father’s son.
This is what he would say, throughout my childhood, when I disappointed him. In hindsight, and in fairness to us both, it wasn’t that often, but when I was growing up it seemed like he was saying this, or some variation of it, constantly.
“I don’t even know where you came from,” he’d sigh, holding another report card like it was a dead rodent. I had no trouble with English and history—the sissy subjects—but was hopeless at math and science—the real subjects—which was a personal affront to his sensibilities.
“I should sue the hospital for malpractice,” he’d say, shaking his head. “They gave me the dumb one by mistake.”
“There is no way you’re mine,” he’d insist, especially when it came to anything sports related, tough love being the only love. I was actually a half-decent soccer player and could usually hit my weight in baseball, but who can’t in grade school?
My mother was also culpable, only able to provide him one child, defying his designs as well as his Catholic aspirations. Given one or two more opportunities, the better-looking, left-brained reincarnation of the varsity wrestler he’d once been would have at least been conceivable.
When they divorced, he won custody, which was exceedingly rare in those days. I imagine it was a fairly acrimonious trial because they never spoke afterwards as far as I know. It’s not like she disappeared so much as did a do-over: remarried within a year and relocated to the other side of the country.
It was easy to blame him for her absence, and I often did, once I came to understand other kids had something I didn’t. Eventually I realized he too was deprived: He never remarried, and on a couple of occasions he mentioned that he still loved my mother. She left him with a son and that was it, just the two of us, no mediators or distractions, and we both seemed to assume, if not accept, that we’d spend the rest of our lives figuring one another out.
My father needed to compete.
That may sound extreme, or trite, but the vitality he conjured from competing was a force that kept him alive. In a sense his life was an extended competition: he watched his old man battle the absence of employment as their family stared down poverty. Later, he was the first of five siblings to attend college, made possible through scholarships and loans. And if these early obstacles forged the resilience to make him a successful businessman, they also provided the perennial chip, slung over both shoulders, which pitted him against the world.
He had a heart murmur—which I was not aware of until later in my own life—detected in childhood, so the specter of premature death colored his outlook before it had any business being there. It became a condition he kept at bay by simply beating it; ignoring it, each day a victory that prevented it from beating him. Moreover, he mocked the condition with the lifestyle he chose: He made himself tough, impervious.
This carried over into all aspects of his existence, at work or at play. I grew up watching the Red Sox with him, a pathology that only augmented the household tension, and each game would dictate his mood. This is not to say he’d necessarily be in good spirits if they won, but if they lost? It was best not to be in his vicinity. He had to vent, to take his frustration out on something, and I was a target simply by being there. As always, sports and being in control were the things that drove him to distraction, and the only things that could restore him. It was not unusual for neighbors to see him out in our driveway after 10:00 p.m. shooting baskets, his own brand of therapy.
As far back as I can remember my father and I were competing.
The mark of competitiveness was burned onto me like a steer, and whenever I’d compete with anyone, that ugly brand would become visible. No one likes a poor sport, and God knows I was as poor a sport as they come. Of course, the only thing worse than losing was having to deal with my old man if I lost. So in a sense I was always competing with him.
Paternal neglect was never an issue for me. My pops was at every game, every practice, even watching from inside the house, pacing and chain-smoking, when I kicked the ball in the yard.
He was there when I scored my first soccer goal. I was seven years old, and after the game, he took me to 7-Eleven and bought me a large Slurpee, announcing to everyone in the store that his son made the winning goal.
The next week my team lost the game two-to-one, and I didn’t score our goal. In fact, I blew my chance at being a hero by kicking a last-minute penalty shot right into the goalkeeper’s arms. My father didn’t say a word as I walked off the field, and he wouldn’t look at me as we drove home. I stared out the window, shaking with the effort to hold back tears. I never cried in front of him; it only made everything worse. He seemed to sense my distress and pulled up to the 7-Eleven.
“Wait in the car,” he said.
He returned with a large Slurpee in his hand and set it down on the dashboard in front of me. When I happily reached out, he grabbed it and looked at me like I’d just broken a window.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
I looked at him in confusion.
“You’ll get a Slurpee when you deserve one,” he said, placing the cup back on the dashboard. “Just stare at it and think about why you lost.”
Even though I held back the tears until we got home, he still won, as always. I went out and practiced penalty kicks for the rest of the afternoon.
I became a good athlete as I grew older.
Before I was 10, I played on travel soccer and basketball teams. I swam every day over the summer, and during the winter my old man would awaken me at five each morning to swim laps at the community center before school.
Anytime I had a chance to succeed was an opportunity to see my father happy, so I was at once opportunistic and selfish. I was not particularly well liked by most of my teammates, but winning was more important to me than camaraderie.
The one memory, the one constant aside from his presence at every athletic event, is the bike ride we’d take each summer vacation. We always spent the last week of August at Martha’s Vineyard, at that time a still somewhat obscure destination. The highlight of each trip was when we rented bicycles and ferried over to Chappaquiddick, the neighboring island. To this day, it’s still mostly known as the place Ted Kennedy ruined his chance to be president.
Those bike rides were typically a respite, a peaceful farewell to summer. They were always the highlight of each vacation, at least until the year I turned 13 and initiated a new tradition.
We were about a mile from the ferry and, out of nowhere, I challenged him to a race. Without a sound, he was five yards ahead of me, peddling like a lunatic. He beat me by about 10 seconds and near the end, when I realized I had no chance to win I began coasting, pretending to have lost interest. He taunted me the entire ferry ride back.
“Maybe next year, boy,” he said. Each time he laughed I fantasized about throwing him overboard.
He beat me the next year, and he beat me badly. I never could figure it out. I was convinced I could bike circles around him, just like I knew I was a better basketball player. But for some reason, whenever I got out there with him I moved in slow motion.
As we each got older, I came to understand that my father had his own reasons for wanting to win. By beating me he could maintain the ideal father-son equilibrium: I was still young enough to remain in his shadow and he was still young enough to keep me there. No son truly grows up until he grows out of his old man’s shadow.
The pain was significant, but I could handle that. The worst part was having to stand up on my own and support myself on the broken bike because my father had ridden right past me.
It wasn’t until I turned 17 that I finally beat him.
It was an overcast day, and we said practically nothing to each other as we rode around. Over the years even the novelty of the pre-race part of the ride dissipated. I rarely admired the scenery as I once did; now I concentrated on pacing myself, focusing on the road directly in front of me. I noticed the pebbles and beach sand the rain had scattered along the road. It had drizzled all morning, but the precipitation ceased just as we left our cottage. I took it as a harbinger of victory, confident that this was finally my year.
Right from the start I knew I was going to win. I felt locked in like never before as the teenage adrenaline surged through my body. Before the race was halfway over I could hear my father grunting with exertion. This pleased me immensely; I knew there was no way he could maintain the pace I was setting. Not this time.
It was beautiful to look back and see him 20 yards behind me as I approached the old whaling house that always served as our finish line. I wanted to make the moment as memorable as possible, so I threw my arms in the air and tossed my head back like I was clinching the Tour de France.
I crossed the invisible line, eyes closed and mouth open in a cry of victory, not noticing the patch of wet sand in the middle of the road. I felt myself rushing forward while my leg got tangled up in the chain. I tore most of the skin off my left arm as I was dragged several feet down the road. I sprained my ankle when the bike landed on top of me, but I was lucky not to hit my head—we never wore helmets in those days.
The pain was significant, but I could handle that. The worst part was having to stand up on my own and support myself on the broken bike because my father had ridden right past me.
Things were never the same between us after that.
I had proven that I could beat him, and he had made it clear that he resented me for it. The familiar tension was replaced by something previously unimaginable: indifference.
My father had carried me for three years, helping me with all my math courses. At the beginning of my senior year, he laid down the new law. “You need to figure this out. The world will swallow you whole if you keep depending on other people.”
Naturally, I needed to prove I could do it without him. I paid a tutor to get me through trigonometry.
When basketball season started, he no longer made it to every game. I was relieved at first, then pretended I didn’t care, but it seemed unnatural, not watching him watching me. To spite him, I applied only to West Coast colleges, convinced that once I was gone he’d regret it.
I probably would have drifted apart from him completely, but crisis brought us together before I could get away. About two weeks into the new year, my father had a heart attack.
I heard him out in the driveway, shooting free throws. I offered him a game of H.O.R.S.E. but eventually, inevitably, it turned into one-on-one. It was frigid outside, the type of day where your hands get numb if you stop moving them. By the last game, the ball felt like a frozen tire, but we always finished what we started.
All his advantages had been steadily neutralized over the years: I was now a few inches taller, and he wasn’t in the same shape he’d been in before turning 50. I drove past him for a backward lay-up, laughing the way he’d once laughed at me when he was bigger and taller. I felt like a bird that lived long enough to mock the older, declawed cat that had once tormented it.
“Game point,” I said.
He didn’t respond; he glared at me and motioned for the ball. I bounced it to him and he took it on the run, trying to duplicate the move I’d just made. He jumped too early and the ball flew out of his hand, rolling into the bushes. I began running my mouth as he went to retrieve it, and he abruptly dropped to one knee.
“Oh,” he gasped.
I figured he’d twisted his ankle. Then he collapsed onto the driveway, holding his side. I ran over to him. His face was soaked with sweat, his eyes squeezed shut.
“Pop, what is it?”
“Call . . . “
“Ambulance . . . “
I sprinted into the house and made the call. I remember desperately wishing my mother was there.
When I came back outside, he had a look on his face that was somewhere between anger and embarrassment. The only thing worse than lying supine, looking up helplessly at his son, was the idea of dying. I knelt down and put my hand under his damp head. He seemed to grin, in relief or gratitude, but I realized that it was only pain.
I heard the ambulance approaching in the distance.
My father was trying to say something. He reached up and grabbed weakly at my shirt sleeve. I leaned down and put my ear to his mouth. As the ambulance roared into our driveway, his voice was barely audible, a whisper. But I heard him.
“Not yet,” he said. “Not yet . . . “
As he predicted in the driveway, he had plenty of fight left. In fact, he was in the hospital less than a week. “This is no place to recover,” he said. The nurses thought he was kidding around, but I knew better. Of course, the risk of another attack was significant, so the doctor’s verdict was simple and stark: no more cigarettes and no more sports. It was like a death sentence disguised as an admonition, and I felt genuinely sorry for him.
For the next few months he brooded and sulked, confined to the house like a tiger trapped in a cage. He kicked his nicotine habit (another competition he needed to win), but immediately packed on some unwanted pounds. To keep in shape he rescued the stationary bicycle that had collected dust in our basement for more than a decade. When the weather got warmer he would go on solitary bike rides, and before long he looked as healthy as ever.
He started coming to my games once soccer season began, and it seemed right to see him back in the stands, where he belonged.
It was a great spring for me. Our team won the district championship, and the day after Easter, I got my acceptance letter from Stanford to play soccer on a free ride. I called my old man and he sounded typically unimpressed, but he came home from work with a bottle of champagne and a six pack of imported beer. After dinner we got drunk, him telling me we could finally celebrate like men. He kept staring at me, and each time I’d look back at him he’d pick up the letter and repeat the same thing, like a mantra. “This is the realization of all our dreams.”
I was at once unburdened and amazed: For that one night it was almost like we were friends.
As the summer wound down, I looked forward to our vacation with a mixture of excitement and uncertainty, knowing this was the final week with him before leaving home for the first time. I hoped we were each, for our own reasons, content to leave the past where it belonged. I should have known better.
The last thing on my mind that last day was racing.
We took our time, slowly navigating the silent shoreline. I was absorbed in my own thoughts as he cruised ahead of me, whistling to himself. It occurred to me that I was not prepared to be without my old man, something I would never have imagined a year before.
At some point I passed him and he immediately overtook me, no longer whistling.
Instinctively I pumped my legs and regained the advantage.
I glanced sideways, but he wasn’t looking at me. His eyes were set straight ahead and he pushed forward, in front, and began peddling in earnest.
Ever since his heart attack, we hadn’t physically challenged one another. I figured we had outgrown it. But as the breeze whipped around our faces, I realized we would never outgrow it and we could never be friends. We were too much alike.
I lowered my head and began setting a pace, breathing through my nose. Just like every race in the past there were no words, no acknowledgment of the other one’s presence.
I never could lie to my old man, so there was no way I could look him in the eye.
His new routines had paid off: He was cruising along and I had to push myself to keep up with him. From behind I could see him straining; I noticed the sweat soaking his shirt and the improved tone of his calves. I took a deep breath and readied myself for a final push. As I pulled even with him I thought I could hear him muttering under his breath. Was he motivating himself? Cursing me? Praying? Whatever he was—or wasn’t—saying, I understood in that moment that he needed to win. And it wasn’t because he could no longer beat me that he looked so desperate; it was because he could win that he was peddling as though this was the last time he’d ever mount a bike.
But I found myself pushing harder because a voice, still choked with the weight of memory, reminded me of all the times he should have let me win.
I looked over at my father, then beyond him at the water. Nothing had changed: The waves still rolled in and we were still moving down the road, rushing to stay in the same place.
As we approached the whaling house, I made a noise I’d never heard before. It was, at once, an exhalation of air, history and a familiar expectation. At the same moment I gently squeezed my handbrake—just enough to slow myself down. I coasted past the finish line directly behind my father.
We dismounted our bikes and stood there, looking at everything but each other. I waited for him to say something, to ask the question I knew he had to ask. Finally, he did.
“Did you try to win?”
I never could lie to my old man, so there was no way I could look him in the eye. I didn’t say a word. I cycled past him without looking back. As much as I wanted to, I didn’t turn around. I didn’t need to. I knew I’d have seen something I’d always hoped to see more of during my childhood: his smile.
The day I left for college I watched my old man cry for the first and last time. As I got on the plane, I felt guilty because I knew I was leaving him behind, alone.
About a week before midterms, just as I was getting accustomed to my new life at school, my father died. It was his heart again.
I am not my son’s father.
When I found out I couldn’t have a child of my own, at first I was devastated; that familiar fear of failure unquenchable, eternal. Then I understood that this was yet another challenge: a different one, a good one. And, of course, since my dad always joked I’d been adopted, I felt he’d appreciate the irony, or at least the symmetry, of my wife and I becoming foster parents.
Raising a kid forces you to realize there are some things you can’t, and shouldn’t want to, do by yourself. I grin constantly, imagining how my old man would find even more ways not to recognize himself in me, a father.
And thinking of my own father, I don’t know if I’ll be around when my boy is old enough to be on his own. Until he is, I want him to see me on the sidelines, content no matter what the score is. I want him to hear me say so many of the things I longed to hear when I was his age. I need him to feel like he can never fail, that he will never let his old man down.
When I hear my friends lament what a bunch of babies we are raising these days, I think of my old man nodding in agreement. No spanking, no stern words, trophies for everyone, no preparation for the remorseless reality awaiting them in the real world, et cetera. And maybe they’re right. But I’ve noticed that no one hands out awards to adults, and life is a succession of battles not measured on scoreboards. If winning is the only thing that matters, then all the people around us are losing, every single day. The most important—and lasting—victories, I believe, are the ones no one else necessarily sees.