Is this what it feels like to be the father of the groom?
Father of the bride is bad enough – as Spencer Tracy showed us in 1950, followed by Steve Martin forty years later – but it seems like father of the groom would be even more irrelevant to the whole wedding vortex phenomenon.
Not that any of my sons are heading to the altar any time soon. No, my feelings of irrelevancy are related to a different life event and milestone: My oldest is heading to Notre Dame. As a freshman. Next month.
Shouldn’t I be doing something?
Practical things – equipping the dorm room, last minute tips on laundry, etc. – seem to be covered by my wife at present. At least, Ben isn’t coming to me for advice, so I’ve got to assume that his mother is fielding those questions. If there are any. He’s pretty much launched out on his own already.
So, how about composing a fatherly testament of vision and values as a farewell gesture?
I’ve read plenty of “To My Son on the Brink of Manhood” (or marriage or fatherhood) screeds written by celebrity and journalist dads, but I’ve really no interest in attempting anything along those lines. It seems like any sage advice or tidbits of paternal wisdom that I’d offer in such a declaration ought to have taken root well before now. Otherwise, I’m guessing it’s a bit late.
Like riding a bicycle. Today I was out with Katharine, my youngest, who is just on the verge of training-wheel freedom. She is balancing on the bike just fine – the trainers rarely touch down when she’s pedaling along – and it’s just a matter of time until she has built up enough self-confidence and I can remove the side wheels once and for all.
It seems like just a blink of an eye since I was doing the same for Ben. In fact, I think it might’ve been the same bicycle, and even the same set of training wheels! But let’s say I’d never taken the trouble to help him wean off the trainers when he was in grade school. Let’s say he skipped riding bikes as a boy, learning to use public transit instead, and then jumped right into driver’s ed as a teen.
And now he’s getting ready for college, where freshmen are generally not allowed to have vehicles at their disposal. Wouldn’t a bicycle be convenient? Completing his two-wheeler training at this late stage would be awkward at best, and likely to fail altogether.
An eloquent parting shot, untethered to a commensurate upbringing, seems equally awkward and prone to failure. Any advice I have to give now that I haven’t already attempted to instill is too late, and a late-breaking Desiderata would pointless. And yet if I did attempt to raise my son with attention to truth and beauty and permanent things, then rehearsing it all in bullet point form would be unnecessary, and perhaps even somewhat ridiculous.
Still, I feel like I should be doing something, and, consequently, I’ve come up with a different kind of list. Instead of looking backward, at the things I hope I’ve taught him (or wish I had), I’ve decided to look forward. It’s a list of questions – questions I’ve already grown accustomed to asking former students when I encounter them long after graduation, and I’ve decided they’ll be among the questions I’ll ask my son when we see each other on weekends and breaks in the months and years to come.
- What are you reading? He’ll be at Notre Dame, so he’ll be reading a lot, but he’ll know I mean what is he reading that he doesn’t have to read. Reading for pleasure, in other words. If it’s something I know, I’ll enjoy hearing his insights. If it’s something I don’t know, all the better. Note, too, that I’m not asking, “What are you watching,” or “What are you listening to?” These can be important questions as well, to be sure, but they don’t deserve anywhere near the same priority. My kids have grown up surrounded by books in every conceivable way, and I’d be very surprised if books didn’t continue to surround them as they make their own way hence.
- Where are you working? That’s what I ask my former students, most of whom are staff nurses here and there (or full-time mothers, or both). For current students, like my son, I’ll ask, Where are you in your studies? The inquisitive “where” allows for an unfolding of conversation on a number of fronts: The progress being made in a particular program or discipline; the kinds of classes being taken at the moment; and, most importantly, the trajectory along which which current pursuits are trending. It’s an inquiry with both quantitative and qualitative angles, and it’s helpful in getting beyond mere questions of “what” classes and “what” jobs to the “why” and “who with” of daily living.
- How’s your soul? This one is loaded, no doubt, but it, too, is calculated to get into meaty matters as rapidly as possible. “Are you getting to Mass and confession? Are you praying?” are too easily dispensed with – either with a hasty “yes” (whether truthful or not), or a painful “no,” followed by an even more painful conversational stall. Who needs that? We’re all adults here. Sacramental obligations, vocational discernment, and the pursuit of holiness are totally his responsibility now, so I’m not going to grill him. I might’ve acted as a coach in such matters as he got older, but I’m on the sidelines now – a cheerleader, to be sure, and a ready consultant when asked. Yet, now I’m only one among many that he can turn to for input. Consequently, instead of grilling, I’m hoping for openness and candor, a space for us both to voice our inner joys and struggles as we wind our way along the murky years. No challenges, no guilt. Just invitation, and cross-bearing of burdens. And honesty. Listening.
These are questions that assume a lot, but don’t presume anything. They take for granted where we’ve come from together, but they leave lots of room for where we’ve made – and will make – side trips apart. Like I said, they’ll be the questions I ask my son in the months to come, and probably they’ll be the same questions I’ll ask him years from now when he’s launched beyond Notre Dame, rising in his chosen profession, and raising his own family.
And, soon enough, maybe he’ll be asking them of others as well. Now that would be something.
image: Washington Hall, University of Notre Dame via Michael Fernandes / Wikimedia Commons