“The first night that my son was born I started to think I was going to die. Obviously I’ve always known that I would die, that’s not really what this particular feeling is about. It’s kind of fucked up, but since that kid popped out and began his life I’ve had this specter of the end of my life over my shoulder that I just can’t shake. I don’t want to die. I’m not trying to die. I have no reason to think that I would perish any time soon based on the odds alone, my good health not withstanding . But there it is, my death, in my thoughts more so now than ever. It’s beyond mere middle of the night heart pounding stark realizations. You just have to deal with those, realize you can’t change the final outcome, and go back to sleep. Or have another drink. This is different. It’s a different kind of fear of death.”
I wrote the preceding paragraph shortly after my son Jack was born. I hit “save draft” and forgot about it for awhile. It was always something I had planned to go back to and explore in greater depth when and if I ever had a chance. But then you spend every waking (and sleeping) hour making sure your newborn baby is happy, is fed, is changed, is sleeping, isn’t crying, isn’t sick, isn’t going to die under your watch and suddenly your own death, your own fears, and your own questions and problems get pushed so far out of your consciousness that you almost forget about all of them. Almost. Us humans, we are a worrisome lot.
I know it’s become cliche, but when you become a parent it’s instantly not about you at all anymore, so you learn to get out of your own head and into the life of your child. Not everyone is lucky enough to figure that part out, but I know it happened for me. It’s a daily struggle, but a necessary one. When I fail, I’ve been lucky. Something usually comes along to knock me out of the old patterns and into the reality I have discovered many times over.
Last Monday it was a Youtube video. High on a Chicago Bears Monday Night Football victory against the Packers, I stayed up past everyone’s bedtime to listen online to post game coverage out of Chicago before moving on to my favorite late night pastime. No, not porn, Pearl Jam. As I perused YouTube for some new concert videos from the Fall Tour, I clicked away at suggested videos for a short while before coming across an ESPN segment featuring former New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason interviewing Eddie Vedder.
Steve Gleason is the dude that blocked the punt during the NFL spectacle that was the first post-Katrina Saints game at the Superdome. He played for the Saints for 8 years, and in 2011 was diagnosed with ALS. Gleason, a huge Pearl Jam fan, was able to sit down with Vedder one on one and ask some pretty deep and personal questions that focused more on life than the twenty plus year music career of Vedder and his Pearl Jam band mates. Gleason reveals to Vedder that he’s been working on a video journal library for his son, Rivers in case the ALS ran its expected course. In one especially touching moment, Gleason asks Vedder what he wished he could have known about the father he never met. Vedder is clearly moved by the question and tells Gleason that he would have wanted to first know if his father loved him and how much, and that he also would have appreciated some pointers on how to be a good man.
You should have seen me as I was balling my eyes out alone in the dark as I watched the clip. I knew thirty seconds in that I was fucked. By the end of it, I was sobbing into my beer glass and wiping my nose with the sleeve of my grandmother’s old Jim McMahon jersey that I had donned for good luck. My parents would probably tell you that I’ve always been quick to cry. Well, fatherhood has made it a thousand times worse. I shed tears at least three times a week now. I’m a pitiful, sobbing, emotional wreck behind this bearded facade, yet I’m happier than I’ve ever been.
It was that ESPN segment on Youtube that brought me back to that unfinished paragraph from my parenting past. Looking back at those thoughts after these last four years with my son provides some clarity. My new found fear four years ago wasn’t really fear. It was love. No shit. A strange love that I’m still coming to terms with. I immediately felt so strangled with unconditional love at the first intense, messy glimpse of my son, that my greatest fear instantly became the possibility that I would miss any second of his life. That feeling has exponentially multiplied by the day as I have watched my son grow into a quite amazing four year old so full of life, laughter, curiosity, and kindness.
I don’t want to miss out on one second of my son’s life. But no matter what, I will. It will never be enough. Whether I die next week or in 60 years, I’ll be missing out on something. I know this. That’s why this feeling is so frustrating. And juxtaposed with the imminent worries of a father like Gleason who has real shit going down, I see the absurdity. I know that I have to get over the hypothetical moments that I may miss and make sure I’m making the most of the real and present moments. So I’m working on it. Apparently living is the hardest lesson to learn about life. At least I’ve learned that so far, I suppose.
We must quit worrying about death (or the other million things that are out of your control, unnecessary, or unimportant) and put all of that energy into being present for not only our children, but for all of the people that are present with and precious to you in this all too brief and precious fucking existence. It’s something I have to remind myself of constantly. When we get out of our heads and into our relationships, whichever ones they may be, all of our fears can subside because we are in this thing together.
But that’s not to say that those feelings that started those many days four years ago ever really went away, just as the reality of our own eventual deaths never really stop haunting us in our dark bedrooms. Even as I write this the little thought of my son reading this after I’ve suffered a way too early death, burrow into my mind, my gut, and into all of my fingers as they press the laptop keys. Hell, it’s those feelings that inspired this whole writing thing in the first place. The words on this screen are my video journal library to my son, no matter when he reads it.
I’m just grateful every day that I am able to offer my son more than just videos or words. I can make sure that he knows how much I love him by loving him. I can show him how to be a good man by being a good man. I can prepare him to really live. But, I’ll keep writing it all down just in case. For him, for me, for you. Because you never know.
“It’s a fragile thing, this life we lead. If I think too much I can get overwhelmed by the grace by which we live our lives with death over our shoulder.” — Eddie Vedder – Pearl Jam “Sirens”
ESPN’s Steve Gleason and Pearl Jam Feature (Must Watch)