Monday, April 16, 2012

Because I Said So: 4 years of writing, still not expert on parenting

My dad died last week. I wrote a column. But I didn’t write a column about my dad; not exactly.

My sister and I drove 14 hours to Melbourne, FL, to say goodbye to him, but it was never my intention to write about him and us. Yet when I re-read certain phrases – “ … remember the sad …” (I know I meant for that to read “bad”) – I realize that he was more infused in what I wrote than I realized.

Being a parent isn’t a science, the best we can do is feel our way around in the dark and hope that every once in a great while we’re able to flip the light switch on so we can see where we’re going. My dad stumbled around for years without much light, unfortunately, and it took a toll on our relationship. Like many parent/child bonds, it was strained and it was elastic, bouncing back at times and stretched to the breaking point at others.

As a father myself, I’ve learned of the imperfections of parenting, of how easy it might be to make the wrong decision, say the wrong thing and set in motion a course of misunderstandings, resentment and bitterness. Perhaps the greatest lesson my dad gave me on the subject of fatherhood is what not to do and that our actions have consequences. I’ve taken it to heart.

In the end, though, it wasn’t about what had been right or wrong, but what we felt right then and how incredibly sad it is to see a loved one in his final stages of life. In the end, the pain and anger and hurt feelings just don’t matter so much. He was at peace and my sisters and I were at peace with that.

He left me with other things, too, of course: a sense of humor, a love of the ocean, the taste for jazz, some nascent talent and the ability to recognize it in others, and an appreciation for The Marx Brothers and old Tarzan movies. These are all attributes I see now in myself and in my children.

My column last week was about what a crap shoot parenting is, how the best we can do is to do our best, and just a bit about how important it is to remember the good times at all cost, which is the bit that must have been about my dad. We had some good times, though they tended to be overshadowed by the other times. I spent last week trying to focus on the good and will continue to do so, to give my own kids a well-rounded version of who their grandfather was.

This is last week’s “Because I Said So” column:

Four years ago this week, I began writing the "Because I Said So" column. In more than 100 columns, somewhere in the ballpark of 50,000 words, I've written about anything from holidays to school days, from newborns to puberty to middle age. I've written about Memphis, movies, music, time travel, books and matters of familial and national security.

What have we learned?

Probably nothing. This isn't an advice column. Oh, please don't seek advice from me. I have been a parent for more than 14 years and have four children, yet every morning when I wake from blissful slumber to a world strewn with dirty socks and baby dolls, I wonder if I'll be able to do it again; if I have the will to delude myself into the fantasy of being in charge for even one more day.

What I have expected on any of those days is for one of my children, most likely 5-year-old Genevieve, to turn her large brown eyes on me and say, "Do you even know what you're doing?"

Of course I don't. I know how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and I knew once how to hook up the Wii game console to the television and remove training wheels (and then put them back on for just a few more weeks). As a first-time father, however, I knew nothing at all of comforting a child late at night, colic and rashes, where Waldo was (or who Harry Potter was, for that matter), why bad things happen to good people, and explaining how the Internet, the Electoral College and combustion engines work.

As a father of 14 years, I still have only a cursory knowledge of very little, or any, of this, but what I have learned over the four years of writing this column is that neither do any of you. The common denominator in parenthood seems to be a sense of being overwhelmed much of the time and exhausted the rest. I've been stopped by readers in restaurants or the grocery store and told that their daughter also loses her mind when the seam of her sock rubs her toes the wrong way or that their son subsisted for three years on little more than frozen pizza and chocolate milk as well.

Are we bad parents? No, we're just tired. Do we have difficult children? Mostly, yes, especially that little girl with such sensitive toes. But we're doing our best to raise up children into adults who will have children who make them crazy.

I can attest that one of the biggest fans of this column is my own mother, who has gotten to see her revenge played out in public every two weeks for a hundred weeks running. This column is dedicated to her, and to the mother of my own children, and to all the parents out there who struggle and scream, encourage and laugh, day in and day out.

Four years goes by in the blink of an eye, just as childhoods will. Write down the funny stuff, remember the sad, and share it all with your children for years to come. 

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

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