Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Of Fathers and Sons, Part 3

Posted 1/23/2010

Thoughts on our children, and what they bring.
Part 3: “Children of Men”

In the last installment, I talked about the tumultuous years that led up to Matthew’s birth in 1978. The years since then have been everything years can be for a large family like ours: painful, trying, routine, joyous, triumphant. But the bottom line is, all is well today—so much so that, when it came my time to speak at the Man Shower, my first words were, “Matthew, you’re going to be a good father because you had a good father.” Our parents have 19 grandchildren now, and three great-grandchildren. Our father has been remarried to a stepmother who is a much-loved and appreciated member of our family, and our mother’s strength through difficult times continues to serve as a shining example as eight of the nine of us (Matthew being the exception) move into middle age.

As the Man Shower closed down in the wee hours, and Matthew and I prepared to leave Kai’s house, Kai thanked me for the story I had told of Matthew’s arrival in the world, pointing out that it was a perspective that only I, of all those present, could have given. He then handed me his copy of the 2006 movie “Children of Men,” Alfonso Cuarón’s gripping apocalyptic tale, which stars Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Clare-Hope Ashitey. In the film, which is based on the novel by P.D. James, a world gone infertile has descended into chaos after 18 years with no new children. Kai gave me the DVD and asked that all I do in return is “watch it and write something about it.” So here we are.

In the doom-laden world of “Children of Men,” it is a cynical and disillusioned office worker named Theo (played by Clive Owen) who must give the planet hope by carrying out the simple, yet unbelievably challenging tasks that all the sons and fathers at the Man Shower spoke so poignantly about: caring for the mother, and caring for the child. In the film, Cuarón holds a magnifying glass to these challenges by creating a post-apocalyptic wasteland where Theo and a young mother (played by Clare-Hope Ashitey) must run from angry mobs and dodge bullets and bombs. But more importantly, he magnifies the effect of the new child, the import of the baby’s arrival, and the humanity that arises out of the most unexpected places when a baby’s cries are heard.

Twelve days ago, Matthew and Nanette brought their new son, Mateo, into the world. The boy whose arrival was such a blessing now has a baby of his own. Mateo, gladly, will not be called upon to rescue, by his very presence, a family reeling from a jarring transition. He will, however, have an effect on his little family no less profound and no less important. He’ll change them, he’ll challenge them, and he’ll fill them with joy. In fact, I’m sure he already has. We hear constantly about the momentous times we are living in, but all momentous times are made up of smaller, equally momentous events like these. So welcome, Mateo. Thanks, Kai. And once again, in case I haven’t said it in a while, thanks, Matthew.

Of Fathers and Sons, Part 2

Posted 1/21/2010

Thoughts on our children, and what they bring.
Part 2: Welcome, Matthew

In the last installment, I mentioned Matthew’s arrival into our family. Here’s the condensed version of how it happened and what it meant to us:

In 1974, our father left the house for good, and our family was shattered. Within just a few years, an older brother had turned to drugs, another had decided to forego college, as had an older sister, and two younger sisters had dropped out of high school. What had been a bright future for all of us was now looking very bleak indeed. Certainly, our parents’ split cannot be blamed for all of that, but there is no doubt that it contributed, just as there is no doubt that there were a very many less visible and less dramatic ill effects, from uncertain and awkward moments, hours, and afternoons to divisions within the family, particularly along gender lines. Then, as often happens in troubled times, it was tragedy that pulled us together: In the spring of 1977, a beloved uncle, our mother’s only brother and one of our father’s best friends, was tragically killed by a drunk driver. There were many, many tears; there was an Irish wake; there was a huge hole in our extended family that could never be refilled. As one would expect, our parents reached out to each other for consolation and support. I can only imagine how desperately they must have needed it, and I can’t imagine that there could be anyone else, for either of them, who could truly understand the depth of their loss. From my teen-age viewpoint, the main thing I saw was that my father was present again.

A few months passed and there was a family meeting, which turned out to be a bit of a shock: instead of a reconciliation, which some of us had expected, our parents announced that our mother, 44 years old, was 3 months pregnant. That baby, of course, was Matthew, who came to us in the summer of 1978, four years after my father had left the house, and within months, as I understand it, from when our parents finalized their divorce.

At the Man Shower, I tried to describe all this, but was emotionally overcome and only able to say, “It was broken, and he fixed it,” pointing to my now 31-year-old baby brother. What I would have said if I could have was that our family was, as I’ve said, shattered. Our common purpose was beleaguered, and our common love was in disarray, and this beautiful, feather-light, completely vulnerable little baby forced us all to remember who we were, that we were a family, that we had not only a shared existence, but shared aspirations as well. Despite the fact that I didn’t say all this, Kai—who knows Matthew as well as anyone—seemed to divine it somehow, which led him to bestow on me a small gift.

Next: “Children of Men”

Of Fathers and Sons, Part 1

Posted 1/20/2010

Thoughts on our children, and what they bring.
Part 1: The Man Shower

It is just a month now since I joined in a gathering in Downey, California, for what was fittingly dubbed a “Man Shower” (think, “baby shower, but with whiskey”). The guest of honor was my baby brother, Matthew, and I’m not kidding when I say “baby brother,” not because he’s a baby—he’s not—but because he is a full 18 years my junior, so to me, he will always be a baby of sorts.

The Man Shower was the brainchild of Matthew’s friend Kai-Ping Liu, and if you don’t know Kai, I strongly suggest you check out his blog, the website and music of his band, Centrevol, and the music of his former band, Concept6, in which Matthew was the drummer, and for which Kai was the creative force. He is a truly inspired soul. At a Man Shower, one eats continuously, drinks finely aged Scotch, smokes cigars—from the superb to the suspect—and plays croquet. And, once all the eating, drinking, smack-talking, and wicket abuse has subsided, the festivities turn toward the thoughtful and conversational, because Kai is as much a contemplative soul as he is a creative one.

So, most of us being older, wiser, and more experienced than Matthew, we all offered our advice and observations about the impending change that he and his wife, Nanette, were facing. When the time came for me to speak, I had no personal experience of fatherhood to share, because unlike Matthew, I have chosen not to be a father. I did, however, have a couple of things to say about children coming into a family, and what they can mean to us, because Matthew’s own arrival was pretty unique. He is the ninth child in our family, and 11 years younger than his closest sibling. To put that in perspective, in the first 8 years of their marriage, our parents brought 7 children into the world. But that’s just scratching the surface.

Next: Welcome, Matthew