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Mothers and Fathers and Sons and Daughters

By Frank Gruber

"Thus his father wept for him." Genesis 37:35

A few years before I became a father, one of my friends came to my office. He brought with him his son, who was about two, or maybe even younger, and soon the little boy was exploring the floor of my work place.

I remember my friend, picking up a spent staple from the carpet, and handing it to me so that I could drop it in my trash basket.

"This is what you do when you're a father," he said -- laughing at himself.

Four or five years later my Henry was born, and since then I have often thought about the staple.

In our family my wife is in charge of worrying about unseen forces -- such as electromagnetic radiation or mad cow disease. My fears relate more to physical dangers -- black diamond ski runs, for example, or systemic child rearing practices, such as whether Henry's bedtime is too late.

My wife worries whether Henry is learning enough math facts, while I harangue him to practice his music. At any given time one of us thinks Henry is eating too much and the other thinks he is not eating enough.

But we gang up on him if there is a behavior problem, such as those times Henry has tried to strangle a friend. Our greatest anxiety, of course, is that Henry will not be liked, or, even worse, be mean or a bully. Parents pound moral precepts into their children from the earliest age -- "share," "use your words," "say you're sorry" -- but I have never met a parent who could do much about a child's personality.

Henry is now eleven, and both he and his parents recently crossed a point of no return. A school friend invited him to go skiing with his family at Yosemite over Presidents Day weekend, and we said yes.

Up until then Henry had never been away from both of us for longer than a sleep-over.

The parents of Henry's friend are also our friends, and we knew that they are extremely responsible people. They went out of their way to assure us that they would take all safety measures.

Yet Presidents Weekend was only a few days after a rapidly surfacing submarine sank a Japanese fishing boat, drowning nine people, including four high school students. I thought of those parents trying to comprehend the inexplicable. In the middle of the ocean, how can one submarine find one fishing boat with your child on it?

When I was seventeen my parents let me hitchhike through Europe. Were they crazy?

Although I always wanted to be a father, I never have thought people need to be parents to be complete or fully realized or whatever you want to call it. People do not deserve medals for being parents. It is usually a voluntary condition.

Yet I believe one uniquely learns one thing from being a parent, and that is how much your parents loved you.

A humbling realization. Perhaps a less self-obsessed person might figure this out for himself, but I never understood what my parents felt for me until I felt what I feel for my son.

Yet, as any parent will tell you -- your children don't have a clue. Your love for your child is like the background radiation from the Big Bang: always humming, but who cares.

This is the stuff, of course, of every Jewish mother joke -- "so he can't lift up the phone?" But kids don't ask to be born -- we parents can't complain when they turn up the volume on the headphones. They didn't ask to be who they are, either.

Some children are not happy. Sometimes they don't have the molecules to be happy, no matter what their parents wish for or what their parents do.

When two adults fall in love, the underlying concept is that they are going to try to stay together. But the love of a parent for a child is different. The underlying concept is that someday the little boy or girl will grow up and walk out the door.

This love thing, this absolute obsession with the welfare of your children, at some point tolerates seemingly antithetical developments, such as allowing them to cross the street without holding hands, or even to ride their bicycles in the street or go away for skiing weekends or hitchhike through Europe or learn to drive or go away to college or join the army or whatever.

As much as you fear, you rejoice in each independent step.

The parent's job is to pick up the staples. At a certain point, you can't pick them all up.

Last Friday night the fears of many parents crossed paths with tragedy when a car plowed through a crowded street in Isla Vista.

Two weeks ago, when my editor suggested I write about what it was like to have my son away for the weekend for the first time, I recalled the story of my friend and the staple and decided that would be a good start for the column. I thought it would be a good column to write and hold for Father's Day.

When I heard the news about Isla Vista, I recalled the story again.

The little boy on the carpet in my office grew up, was loved by his parents as much as life itself, yet found the world an incomprehensible place, and drove his car down the crowded street.
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