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The Father-Son Talk I Never Expected to Have

I can still remember the street corner in Brooklyn where we were standing, waiting for the light to change, when my wife told me she wanted to have kids. It was a warm weekend day in the summer of 2007: bass rattling the passing cars, sun scumbling the trees, bacon-smell wafting from the wide-open door of the Bona Fide II, our local deli. We were on our way home, but from where? The movies? A museum? Someone’s rooftop? A walk across the bridge? The possibilities facing a childless couple on a day off (even a couple barely making rent on the far side of the BQE) now appear to me so lavish as to be unrecognizable. Still, I must have been aware even then of the fragility of our good fortune—must have felt on some level that we were getting away with something—because my first thought was Life is heaven, honey, why change it?

            My second, probably, was that whenever we’d discussed this stuff before, she’d sworn off becoming a mother … a fact I might have turned to my advantage, had I not then turned to see her face. The set of her chin, as if afraid of being hurt. The terrible vulnerability of a person changing her mind. Her ravenousness for change was something I’d loved in her from the very beginning. It was also, incidentally, near the heart of my love for New York: a place not of perfection but of heedless motion, what E. B. White called “growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun.” And in the time it took the signal to go green, something in me changed too. I reached for her hand and said: Okay, then, let’s try something different.

            All of which is to say that I embarked on the great transformation of my adult life without much forethought. Just zagged where I’d expected to keep zigging. If there was fine print to read, I skipped it. I was on the east side of Hicks Street and I didn’t want children; then I was on the west side and I did. What came in between was a mystery.

            Now, all these years later, I sometimes wonder if it’s possible to enter into parenthood any other way. This isn’t to minimize the ongoing threat to women’s reproductive choices, nor to denigrate the extension of family planning into other regions of contemporary life—fertility trackers, momfluencer accounts, apps that turn your phone into a registry scanner for BuyBuy Baby. For so many people, for so many reasons, having kids involves more than just two consenting adults with the requisite gametes opting to dispense with birth control.

            And yet, in my experience, family planning goes only so far before it becomes an oxymoron. It’s possible to believe, I think, that if you just optimize your decision making—waiting for the ideal time in your career to become a parent or, alternatively, trying for kids early, when career matters less; scheduling a C-section for the right day or, alternatively, writing up a birth plan to avoid even an epidural; saving up for the highest-end gear or, alternatively, saying the hell with it and asking your loved ones to donate to a college-savings account—then you can guarantee your future child’s happiness. But of course you can’t: That’s the point of bringing another autonomous human being into the world. No one knows what to expect when they’re expecting.

            And maybe I knew that already; maybe it’s why I couldn’t give myself time to think. Maybe the reason I undertook fatherhood so blithely, so blindly, is that if I’d paused for even a second to consider the range of outcomes for my children-to-be, the fear would have stopped me cold. Not just fear of their freedom, though that alone is terrifying, but also something like its opposite: fear that they wouldn’t be free enough. Fear that because of bad genes or bad influence or some combination thereof they’d inherit the troubles—depression, addiction—I’ve barely succeeded in writing out of this story so far. The troubles that, at 28, 29, I still believed I could write out of my life.

In the event, unshockingly, I found fatherhood to be mostly a joy. Neural pruning has no doubt done its work here; I know that there were nights when my wife and I wept from sleeplessness, followed by mornings when I underpaid former students to stroll my infant son around the halls of the various colleges where I taught freshman composition, unable to afford proper child care. I can report, too, the panic of the first emergency-room visit; the despair at a hundred or so lovingly prepared meals consigned to the trash after my son pronounced them “blucky”; the 10,000 hours of playground-bench tedium when I might have been completing a novel. But those memories are no longer living tissue—I can touch them now without pain. What stays full of feeling is everything else, the vivid rush of watching my son grow.

            Practically from birth, he was an extrovert. In the delivery room, on the little dry-goods scoop where they set him to be weighed, he stopped crying the second he grabbed my finger and felt me there. The nurse said it would be months before his eyes could really focus, but I wasn’t sure. He loved nothing more as a baby than to gaze upon faces, and once he began to talk he seldom let up. In time, we gave him a brother to talk to, and then a sister, and a second brother … and rarely can there have been a child more attuned to the presence of others. At the out-of-control party our lives had become, our eldest was the garrulous host, always ready with a song and a snack and a costume change, plus a healthy skepticism that the festivities ever needed end.

            Watching him twirl around the backyard in his Underoos the summer after his first-grade year, conducting a Fourth of July parade with a busted pinwheel and a Sousa march on Spotify, we found it almost funny to imagine that someday, out of necessity, he would manifest the signs of adolescence: the retreat to the bedroom, the shut door. As he entered middle school, though, some inner circuit seemed to get tripped. The sullenness I was prepared for, even the tears, but not the anger. It was the anger, I think—the intensity of his rages, the silence around them—that made me start to wonder whether in fact I’d gotten away with anything at all, or whether, conversely, I’d tracked my unhappy past right into the middle of our lives. For—I don’t know how else to put this—to be in the room with him, suddenly, was to be back in the room with my own adolescence.

            This felt overdetermined six ways to Sunday. For one thing, we’d just entered the third year of a global pandemic, which had been particularly hard on a child who lived to be with others. I’d done my best to keep him anchored to friends; that first fall of remote learning, for example, I’d set up a daily recess at our local playground. Any kid who could make it there during the lunch hour was welcome. We held our standing recess every weekday until the schools reopened, and for that single hour, apart from the occasional lifeguardish shout to “pull up your mask,” you could squint at the fabulous mayhem and imagine your way back to a life before COVID, or forward to the life after. Then, at the end of lunchtime, it was like, “Okay, poppets, back to your Zoom dungeons!” And some days, as we walked back to the house, I could see my son’s shoulders slumping.

[Read: Why American teens are so sad]

            My work, too, felt implicated. In the years since publishing my first novel, I’d started a second, about a depression-prone kid, her screwed-up father (who probably shouldn’t have had children at all), and the reckoning they face as the daughter turns 14. One of the plot engines of the book is the difficulty everyone around them has disentangling the kid’s steep descent from what her mother calls the “typical teenage stuff.” Even the father, who has reason to know better, keeps second-guessing his intuition that something’s wrong.

            Which, honestly, good for him. At least on my side of the family, the only legacy that can compete with mood disorders and substance abuse is one of dads projecting their own psychic damage onto their children. The overwhelming likelihood, I thought, was that I was doing exactly this; that my son’s unhappiness was just the product of parental stress, COVID, and the “typical teenage stuff” … that it would pass. Then again: Who knew better than I what the stakes were, if it didn’t?

Some context here: For much of the past 30 years, I’ve been a recovering addict. The narrative particulars aren’t too interesting, or even germane. What matters is simply that at the age of 14, I found that I liked getting drunk, and soon that I liked getting high, and that I began to pursue both with an obsessiveness—a ferocity—I managed to keep hidden from everyone. By the time I discovered Percocet, my junior year of high school, I’d come to feel that I couldn’t live without drugs, even or especially if they were going to kill me.

[Read: Between not wanting to live and not wanting to die]

Was it that bad? I don’t know; this was a long time ago, mostly. But bits and pieces still float back to haunt my writing. There were the nights I slept rough in the woods, too loaded to find my way back to wherever I was supposedly staying. A certain couch in a certain building I’d broken into, a blue hum like a refrigerator’s pulling me under as I nodded out in this abandoned place I now wished to never leave. There was the time I came to in a car full of strangers, my face gone numb against the window, only to realize that the car was doing 50 and those were my hands on the wheel. There was a girlfriend or two I lost to disgust along the way. And other kids who wouldn’t make it: a car crash, a suicide. And there were the days when I thought I must be losing my mind or dying, not thinking to call this disintegration withdrawal. I could say that I scared the shit out of myself, except that myself seemed curiously absent from the proceedings. I mean, in one sense, it was all self; I was like the woman in Wittgenstein’s Mistress, staggering around a planet from which the whole of human fellowship was gone. But from the inside, what it felt like was that myself was somewhere far away—on that couch, in that room—watching a body that happened to share my name trying to burn its brain out of its skull.

            The thing that stopped me—first in the space of 24 hours when I was 17; then more haltingly over the decade that followed—was a miracle. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life failing to understand it. But because I experienced sobriety as an ontological break, a mystical occurrence, I believed I could maintain an inviolable silence about what had come before.

Recovery remains, for me, a nonlinear process, and I can see now that it probably didn’t help that mine drew on the same talents for secrecy and compartmentalization that had abetted my using in the first place. Ashamed to be seen as the addict I still was, afraid of my longing for the pills I was no longer taking (afraid, maybe, to have the way back to them permanently barred), I treated “fake it ’til you make it” and “act as if” as sacrosanct, while blowing past the step that was why I avoided 12-stepping in the first place. Step Five: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Not that I was repressing anything—not exactly. I could spend hours, sometimes days, brooding on substances and my relationship with them, and I remained on intimate terms with the depression that still came to call, if now at longer intervals. It’s just that, outwardly, I’d closed the door on the person I’d become and walked away into a new world. Even with my wife, even with the new friends to whom I owed my life, I almost never spoke about what had happened back there. I felt I shouldn’t, because it was so ugly. And I felt I didn’t have to, because I had survived.

Yet now that my son was struggling too, I realized I had to talk to him about this. Just in genetic terms, any Punnett square with me in it put him at elevated risk for disaster. My wife and I had discussed addiction with him in broad strokes years earlier, alluding to various relatives he’d never met, but he deserved to have a human face put on the problem. And then, I felt that if I could open up to him a little about my own struggles, it might make the concept of mental health more real—might push him to reach out for help if he ever felt himself going under.

            Most important was that he be able to talk honestly about whatever feelings were inside him, even short of a full-blown crisis. But how could I expect him to do that at 13, when I still couldn’t figure it out at 44? I found myself reflecting on other difficult kinds of talks people have as their children approach maturity. There’s “The Talk” known to many Black families, wherein parents counsel their sons and daughters about the very real risk that the police will kill them. There’s the sex talk, which can present a number of pain points depending on the parent’s intimate history. There’s the coming-out talk—Mom, Dad, I’m different than you think—in which the parent and child roles are typically reversed, and an often-powerful stigma is overcome. Yet even there, support can be found at the community level, in the form of people who can compare notes. My problem was that I had no such people. I’d never encountered the talk I needed to have, even in books. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I was going to have to make it up from scratch.

            I knew it was essential first and foremost to disrupt the patterns we’d fallen into at home, where one or the other of us was always turning away. I thought of the woods near our house, a few hundred acres of forest where I’d gone running during the pandemic. I knew we could speak freely there, if not what we might say. And, equally crucial somehow, I knew that we’d have room to move. My son had lately evinced a loathing for nature—as for museums, shopping, dinners out, church, the whole spectrum of family life. But when I asked him a few days in advance to make time for a hike that weekend, his quickness to get to yes surprised me. (So much for any hope that I’d be let off the hook by a flat refusal.)

            It was now May of 2023, and I thought we might catch some good weather to compensate for the unpleasantness at hand. In reality, the day was gray and drizzly, but it turned out hardly to matter. What was nice was just walking in the woods with my son. We wandered down the trails for a while, talking about basketball and his friends, and then I braced myself and mentioned the general downturn in mood his mother and I had noticed. And rather than contest the premise, as he might have done at home, he allowed that, yeah, he’d noticed it too.

            I asked what he made of that, and he told me, forthrightly: He didn’t know. Or wasn’t sure. Then somehow we landed back on COVID, rehashing the details at length (odd, how little we’d done this; how “social distance” had become just the wallpaper of our lives), and as he unfolded for me his experience of lockdown, I saw that it had been harder for him than I’d imagined. So was that what he’d been upset about? I asked. Because it could also be some element of puberty, the hormones and so forth we’d discussed ad nauseam at home …

            Then, just as he started to squirm, I said something like “Or it could be a different thing altogether, which would be okay, too,” and discovered a gift I’d hidden from myself: I could describe to my son fairly precisely some of what a person might expect to feel if he were clinically depressed. And as I talked, glancing over for his reaction, I could see him testing his own observations against mine—and growing relieved. At a certain point, he interrupted, like, “No, Dad, I don’t think that’s what it is.”

            We made a deal that he could come talk to me like this if he ever did feel depressed, or even just lonely or intolerably annoyed or confusingly hormonal … And that was that. It was the craziest thing. He’d been a million miles away, and now we might have been back in the delivery room. Him reaching out, me there being reached for.

            Which made it easier in one sense and harder in another to turn the subject to drugs. I started with questions again, this time about the scene at school. It sounded a lot saner than in the ’90s, honestly, though the loose stance toward painkillers among the older teenagers bothered me. I had him walk me through that: SoundCloud rap, the death of Mac Miller, how glamorously expensive the pills now were. Then I told him why I’d needed to ask: I’d had a problem with those when I wasn’t much older than he was. Had gotten hooked, in fact. There was a glitchy little heartbreaking moment when he drew up short and sort of recalibrated. He may literally have said, “You did?”

            The strange thing was that, through so many years of silence, I’d started to think of secrets as a kind of honesty—a set of lies I didn’t have to tell, or blanks for other people to fill in. I’d come to assume that addiction must be written all over my face, as it was all over my fiction. But that was stupid: I was his dad. To him, even at 13, I could do no wrong. Maybe that’s what I had to disabuse him of. Maybe I needed to make room for his anger to find its target.

            And then something happened that was so unforeseen that only now does it strike me how extremely ordinary it was. He stopped walking and put an arm around me and said, “I’m sorry, Dad.” He was a teenager, so the tone was everything. This wasn’t like “I need to apologize,” or “I feel sorry for you,” but just “That sucks, I wish that hadn’t happened”—the thing I’d spent decades making sure no one would say (because what do you say after that?). There was probably no one else from whom, at this point, I could even have accepted it. But this being my son, the response felt natural, like breathing. “Yeah, me too.”

            And that’s all it was, really, this talk I’d been dreading. He wasn’t looking for chapter and verse, since he couldn’t use it; nor did I want to go into any great detail—not because it could compromise me anymore, but because it did no one any good. I wasn’t even sure there’d be anything wrong with him trying beer or pot a few years from now, I told him. He wasn’t my mirror, he was my son. I just, because of who I was, needed him to come talk to me if he ever decided to start experimenting. Then the rain picked up, and we were basically back to who-did-it-better, LeBron versus Jordan. In the terms in which I’d felt compelled to justify my existence on Earth—leaps of faith, apotheoses, enormous changes at the last minute—nothing particular had been accomplished. But I swear on my life that as we turned and wandered back toward the car, he seemed happier than he’d been all year.

            I can see now a possibility that this was projection, too: that I was the one who’d been released—at least enough to put all this down on paper—just as I’d been the one withdrawing. At the time, though, things weren’t that neat, probably. Or at any rate, I was no longer sure which of us owed the other his life, or who had been changed by whom. So little about fatherhood these days offered that kind of clarity, much less promised any lasting resurrection. But that was okay, I thought. We didn’t have to be miracles. As long as we kept talking, we could simply be two guys in the woods.

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