Birthing the Past: Separation of Father and Son

His older sister Katie, our first born, has Down’s Syndrome. Her birth broke my heart in a way that will never heal. His mother, desperate to prove she was not at fault, delivered him 16 months later.

Everything about his birth was perfect. Although Katie was delivered by C-section. Paul came au natural, that is, vaginally. Just the way his mother hoped. He was strong and healthy. He was, and is, my namesake. He and I looked so much alike at birth that the day we brought him home, we caught my mother sitting on the couch rocking him in her arms and chanting softly "Dicky. Dicky. Dicky." He had transported her back in time 30 years. I’ll never forget the surprise in her face when we interrupted her and she realized where (and when) she was.

But Paul wasn’t me. Was never me, was never really like me. And almost certainly never will be.

As a toddler, Paul was beautiful, smart, energetic. Still devastated from his sister’s handicap, I resented his unearned perfection, his undeserved popularity. She had a heart condition which made her tired, quiet, easy to handle, easy to love. I felt so necessary to her survival that, fairly early on, I rejected suicide as an option. He was happy, charming, fawned over incessantly by well meaning relatives. He squealed, with ear piercing glee, like a stuck pig.

Until Paul was seven, I was a practicing alcoholic. I had started practicing in earnest as soon as Katie was born. Our marriage was becoming unbearable. I would rage at Paul for the slightest error or annoyance. To make it worse, I was, not surprisingly, inconsistent. He never knew when it was coming or how to keep it from coming. A five year old kid walking gingerly through a minefield littered with lollipops.

In grammar school, Paul displayed an amazing lack of interest. Paul did nothing noteworthy. He was extremely quiet in class, rarely participated. But on the surface, he appeared to do okay. His teachers liked him, of course. He never gave them any trouble. Given his potential, it was clear he was sleepwalking. It wasn’t good enough. Not for me.

By junior high, we had given up the idea that he would do well academically, so Paul did better than he had in grammar school. Occasionally he got straight A’s, which, despite all previous history, was simply expected.

As a freshman in high school, he continued to do well. Our hopes (and expectations) were reborn. He did worse as a sophomore. We pressured. He did even worse as a junior. We pressured harder. By the time his senior year ended, his mother and I were grateful he managed to graduate at all. But I should also mention that he is going to university next fall as a physics major.

In sports, Paul was even more ineffective than he was in school. Other grammar school boys would charge the soccer ball fearlessly, regardless of skill. Paul would hang back, avoiding the scrum at all costs. He was tentative, frightened. Didn’t like competition. Didn’t like the effort that competition demanded. He was afraid of violence. It embarrassed me to watch him play sports, to watch other dads watching, with obvious enjoyment and pride, their own reckless sons. I tried my best to hide my disappointment. I’m sure I failed.

Oddly, Paul became interested in ice hockey. I suppose his interest originally sprang from my own. I am a hockey fanatic, obsessive both as a player and spectator. But, for whatever reason, Paul played. He played poorly. He played anyway. After a few years of watching this horribly slow, frightened, little boy attempt to play a game designed for the large, tough and fast, I no longer encouraged him to try out the next season. By the time he was 14 or 15, I was actively encouraging him to stop trying out. Hockey was expensive. He wasn’t giving 110% (the ultimate sin, the only sin). He would roam around on the ice, away from the puck, trying, it seemed, just to not get run over. He didn’t succeed at that, either.

But he kept playing anyway. He recently completed his final year as a junior player. He played on a B team, refused to even try out for the A team. More barely suppressed fatherly chagrin. His teammates, those 18 and over, formed an adult team to play in a summer league. He wanted to join that, too, and did. Much to my surprise, he has, over the years, turned into a pretty decent hockey player, stronger than many men much heavier than he is, deceptively fast and fearless without being stupid.

Paul and I have the same name, the same nose, the same ears, the same body, the same intelligence. But I was raised the son of depression era parents. People who knew too literally what starvation meant. I carried their shame on my shoulders as I made the difficult climb out of a lower middle class, farm town life and into an upper class, big city one. I carry their shame today. I am obsessively driven, motivated by fear. I could retire right now, if I wished, and live comfortably. But I won’t. I am still too scared. Paul was raised rich. Life has been given to him and that is all he has ever known.

My father gave me what he never had and treasured most: an education. I have done my job, too, as I saw it, and have given Paul what I never had: affluence. He is a product of my success, as I am of my father’s. But I still silently resent that he will never know Katie’s struggle or mine.

Paul violently resists any intervention by his parents in his life. He is fiercely independent and has been almost from the beginning. He has consistently refused to accept any advice from me regarding his hockey play, for example. He refuses to criticize himself or to hear it from me. He has always set incredibly low standards for himself. He never seems bothered by his failures. He is always so damn happy, regardless of the results. Since I am never satisfied even with my successes, his easy acceptance of himself frustrates me even more than his failures.

Today, Paul and I went to lunch along with his younger sister. She and I began talking about where she will attend high school, a subject on which she and I have good-naturedly debated for a year or more. Paul jumped in, telling me I had no right to force Kelly to attend a school she didn’t want, that it was no big deal, I was just being stupid. I told him to shut up, it was none of his business. The argument escalated. I became so angry I left for a walk, to calm down. When I returned, Paul said he was going to walk home (we were several miles away). I said, fine, it’s your choice. I stood up, walked to the car. I did not look back.

It’s in the afternoon now. I haven’t seen him or heard from him. And I know I won’t. When I come home from work tonight, he won’t be there. He will come home late. We won’t talk. And I will suffer. I’m suffering now.

Dark, vague monsters are dragging me in opposite directions, tearing me in two. I love him beyond understanding yet he violates almost every value that makes me who I am. I feel like I am giving birth, that I am experiencing the labor pains of birthing my son from the womb of my own childhood, from the womb of my own baggage.

Today, I have had to face the fact that I am no longer his father. Not in the old way. He is no longer my son. For better or worse, he is now Paul.

I just hope he forgives me.

About the author:

Dick McCullough, is a regular contributor to several newspapers across the country. His essays are generally first person and run the gamut from humorous to serious. He has been a business writer and consultant for more than 20 years. He has also written extensively in the field of business, having been published more than 25 times in trade magazines and academic journals. His business writings reflect both his somewhat peculiar sense of humor and his passion for any subject about which he writes. He lives in Northern California with his longsuffering wife, two and a half children (one child is in college and, thus, only half there) and adopted cat, Freebie. He has a B.S. degree in mathematics from the University of California at Davis and an MBA degree from Pepperdine University. He plays ice hockey regularly, despite the futility which old age guarantees.