I have a son. I’ve never played catch with him. I didn’t help him learn to ride a bicycle. I’ve never taken him fishing. I’ve never gotten on his case about getting better grades in school, or showed him how to change a tire, or talked to him about what it means to be a man.
When he was just over one year old, something went awry in his development. Over the next six months, he declined into epilepsy and autism. He almost lost his ability to walk. He never was never able to express himself with words. My ideas about what it would mean to be a father to a son never had a chance.
If by now you’re feeling sorry for me, don’t. He has taught me more about the emotional richness of being a man than anyone else in my life.
One of the first things I learned about from him was love. I learned that I am capable of loving unconditionally. I learned that love can bring with it immense pain. I learned about how it feels to be utterly helpless to protect someone I love.
I also learned about courage: his, mine, my family’s. My son in particular amazed me with his courage. Early on, when he was around the age of two, staying on his feet was a struggle for him. He was having 50 or more seizures a day, and though they were not often grand mal seizures, he would often fall because of them. Electroencephalographs showed a continuous electrical storm in his brain, and for him to continue to stay upright in that state demonstrated immense courage and tenacity. Later on in life, and more recently, he still demonstrates that same courage even as he is confined to wheelchair.
He also taught me about my capacity to experience pain and continue to function. I did not learn to be grateful for that pain except in retrospect, but I did learn that I could set it aside when I need to. In my life as a man, I needed to, or I felt that I needed to, set aside the pain when I went to my place of work. My colleagues did not know about my son for two years after he first was affected.
I also learned about my capacity for tenderness, as well as my capacity for being callous. I learned about my own anger, and that underneath that anger was fear and a deep sense of unfairness. I learned how to channel my anger into good work, and how beneficial physical activity could be as a release.
My journey continues. I have learned to accept his path as well as my own. One of the greatest gifts of my experience with him has been to be able, finally, to bring that emotional intensity forward, to recognize that I have felt and will continue to feel genuinely, intensely, and deeply. I have also learned that in order to be a whole man, I must not only acknowledge and face these emotions, but also explore, claim, and teach from them.
In my relationships and work with younger people, contemporaries, men, and anyone seeking clarity and authenticity in their lives, the lessons that I have been given through my son have enriched me and empowered what I offer to the world.
Republished June 1 2021; originally published July 2017