(Some rambling words after two glasses of wine and some dark chocolate. You have been warned.)
Father’s Day has gotten me into a “what if” mood. My younger brothers are both fathers now and enjoying the pleasures of suburban family life. Many of their activities center on their kids with swim meets, violin recitals, girl scouts. They and their families generally seem happy and content with no more or less stress than most middle class Americans. Their happiness is well-deserved and I hope for their sakes, they are truly happy. I’d hate to think of them putting on a façade for me and others.
When I see their lives, I can’t help wondering why I never wanted that. The three of us had happy childhoods. Our parents loved being parents. They took an interest in our lives, in our worlds. Their greatest gift to us was treating us as individuals; we were people, not just children.
Given how things turned out for me, it was something of a blessing that I didn’t have a desire for children of my own. I think it would be a frustrated desire, one that would be exceedingly difficult to fulfill. Sometimes I question why that impulse to parent passed me by. Tonight is one of those questioning, reminiscing nights.
I remember the first time I discussed the possibility of parenthood with one of my brothers. I was 22 and my brother was 19. We were home from college at Thanksgiving. Somewhat impulsively we decided to go after the summit of Mt. Tabaguache on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Colorado was in a drought, the ski areas were relying on manmade snow, so even though it was winter, the climb wouldn’t be a true winter ascent. We both climbed regularly in the summer. We also had some winter ascents under our belts, but always with climbing partners more experienced than either of us.
The early part of the climb was perfect. We made our way up the rocky gulch at a moderate pace and stopped for lunch at the top of a ravine. We were in shirt sleeves on the unseasonably warm day and taking in the view back to the east. We got on the subject of family and my brother asked me if I wanted children.
“No. Never.” I was vehement. I couldn’t imagine myself as a parent. The task seemed too monumental. I could never go through what my parents had gone through with us. “Why, do you?”
“Yeah. I do,” he said. “I think I’d be a good father.”
Who thinks about that at the age of 19? I thought. I didn’t say it out loud, but I was really flabbergasted that my kid brother was thinking about parenthood at such a young age. I thought for sure he was about to tell me that his girlfriend was pregnant.
We continued upward and onto a plateau we would need to cross before making the final push to the rocky summit. The winds were horribly strong. We were walking straight into them, and I remember the air was moving so quickly past my mouth, it was hard to breathe in. I had to capture the air moving past me, snatch it into my lungs. We fell behind schedule, but the weather was clear and we pressed on.
Time at the summit was a quick affair. It was cold, as expected, so we got our trophy snapshots and immediately started back down the way we’d come. Traversing the plateau was easier with the wind at our back, but it was so strong, we still had to brace ourselves against it, particularly when a large gust would come up. It was noisy too. Talking was impossible.
Getting back to the top of the ravine was a relief. It had been a long day, and it wasn’t over. It was about this time that both of us realized we’d neglected to consider a crucial fact. The daylight hours at that time of the year were very short. While in most respects, the day had been no different than the summer day hikes to which we were accustomed, we were facing the likelihood that we were not going to be back to the truck before it was dark.
Taking inventory of our supplies, we realized how truly foolish we had been. We had flashlights as part of our emergency gear, but neither of us had been good about keeping fresh batteries. The temperature would drop drastically once the sunlight was gone and we had not brought clothing suitable to spend a winter night in the Rockies.
We consulted a map and determined that a neighboring ravine would give us a quicker descent. Once off the rocks, we’d need to find the creekbed at the bottom and follow it back to where we’d parked the truck. Our thinking was to get down the ravine while it was daylight. Chances of turning an ankle or other injury was greatest there. We’d rather stumble through woods than rocks at night. As predicted, the dusk was deep by the time we got to the bottom of the ravine. Entering the woods, it was completely dark. My flashlight was no use at all. We relied on the weak light from my brother’s, turned on at sporadic intervals, as we tried to find a likely path to the creek.
At this point I was incredibly concerned in that way only an eldest sibling can be. I felt responsible for our predicament, probably irrationally so. But I was the more experienced climber and the oldest. I should have been the one thinking through our supplies, thinking ahead about the shortened day. Had I even looked at the night’s weather report? What if snow was forecast? I couldn’t remember. So much could go wrong before we found our way to the truck.
I didn’t verbalize my concerns; I just kept picking my way along and listening for the sound of the creek. I kept thinking about the earlier conversation we’d had about parenthood. My brother already thinking about being a father, thinking about his future in that way. He’d have children, a legacy. He had things about himself he wanted to pass on. It was foreign thinking to me and strange, and I felt this incredible responsibility in that moment to make sure I got him back to the truck and back to town.
We found the creek, of course. It took a long time before we could locate a point we thought it was safe to cross. By that time we were quite disoriented. We then found the road we’d driven in on but weren’t sure if the trailhead where we were parked was up the road or down. After some more walking about, we located the truck.
Given our ages, by the time we were 30 minutes down the road we felt like we’d had a grand adventure.
My brother’s girlfriend wasn’t pregnant. He would be 32 before he became a father for the first time. Today, he’s living his dream. He’s a stay-at-home dad. My sister-in-law has the high speed job. He helps take care of the business end of running her clinics, but nearly all of his work is done from a home office. He’s the one getting my niece and nephew off to school and to their assorted appointments and busy lives.
Sitting here tonight, I can’t say I envy him his life. It’s not that. I’m happy for him. I don’t want what he or my other brother has in the sense of a wife and family. I guess I envy the sense of purpose their lives have. Maybe I envy the normalcy, the ability to fit in with everyone else.
Lacking a desire to fill that parenting role, that urge to procreate, what should I be doing with my life? I have fun. I set goals for myself, mostly in the area of sports. I don’t really care about a legacy in the sense of leaving something behind when I’m gone. It just seems I should be doing something more than what I am; that I should want something more; aspire to something.
Patience. Patience. Patience. I use to counsel myself to be patient when I was going through transition and things seemed to be taking too long. I guess that’s good advice to give myself now. Be patient with myself and that sense of purpose will arrive. The answer is up ahead somewhere.
(Meanwhile, I am looking foward to a week of reading the Choices Anthology. I went through a couple of fantastic stories tonight. GA had a great group of writers.)