Last night, after a soft-sword fight, Nick and I lay on the living room couch together catching our breath. We were easy, shooting the breeze long past his bedtime, a moment too sweet to abandon.
“Am I a pre-teen?” he said.
“I suppose you are,” I said.
Times like these all the gates are open, I patted myself on the back.
Then I remembered the dream.
It arrived a week ago, brief as a needle. It went this way:
Nick has brought home his report card from Fern Hill. He got a C, a C-, and a B-. I don’t remember the subjects, just the grades.
The thing is, Fern Hill doesn’t give grades. I can’t pin the dream on them.
So who, I ask you, is the son-of-a-bitch grading my son? Who gave him this crummy report card?
I’ve spent the better part of my adult life looking for the approval of a man who’s been dead for almost two decades.
How to get a purchase on that sentence? I’ve read it a dozen times and can’t get past the better part of my adult life looking. The regret it suggests–hurt, waste, the cry of pain–echoes a larger pain, a despair such as here:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix . . .
The poem, Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl,” is a catalogue of outrage that became an anthem of rebellion. Behind and underneath it is a father wound.
Kyle’s piece goes on:
This longing has, at times, led me to replace relationship for career, love with advancement, and attach my self worth and manhood firmly to paychecks and job titles. That hunger has impacted my friendships and my confidence while seeing to it that I spend long hours in therapy.
His point is a simple one. Little things that fathers say or do (or do not say or do) have an enormous effect on their sons. A thoughtless judgment, a conditional acceptance, are cuts that linger.
I would say this: A father blesses with his attention. When he does not bless, he curses.
Again. When a father does not bless, he curses.
A burden, no?
I remember noting the first day of Fern Hill the exquisite attention that the teachers paid.
A child mumbled something.
“Oh, my ears didn’t hear that!” the teacher said.
Not, “You mumbled,” or “Speak up” or even “What?” but “Oh, my ears . . . ”
How was I ever going to be capable of that kind of mindfulness?
Nora as well wondered, as it’s a question for both mothers and fathers. But just now, as Nick approaches adolescence and we spend more time flopped on the living room couch, I notice again and again his asking simple questions that aren’t so simple, such as, for example, Am I a pre-teen?
The approval a son receives from his mother is almost guaranteed while that of his father must usually be earned. And the boy desperately wants it. Should there be any surprise that a boy will ultimately try to leave the shade of his mother for the shadow of his father?
Which brings me back to the lousy report card.
What can such a dream mean? I need to sit with it a long time. I know dreams often don’t mean what they seem. Maybe it’s not even about Nick. Maybe a C average isn’t that bad.
Still I can’t help asking, in a secret recess of my mind am I measuring and condemning my son to mediocrity?
In the dream, I said this to Nora: “What should we do? Should we talk to Nick about this?”
Before she answered I woke, grateful it was only a dream.
Now I’m on the couch with Nick in the soft evening light, looking to see where my shadow falls.
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