From Chicken Soup for the Father & Son Soul

The Invitation

Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.

Henry James

We sit close together, bouncing along in the tow truck. Our eyes absorb dashboard knobs, dials, and levers. The CB radio noises amuse us. We laugh at the cars below us in freeway traffic. We enjoy riding high.

“This is neat, Dad!” My son’s voice radiates joy. And I hug him. How often does a father enjoy a ride in the vehicle of his son’s dreams? Often enough? Never mind that my car has broken down.

At age nine, impatient for school to end and summer vacation to begin, he says, “Dad, can we go camping soon?”

We pitch our tent on a bluff overlooking a little lake in a beautiful valley. During the day, we fish for largemouth bass, which we would catch and release if we were to catch some. At night, we keep the tent flap open and look at the sky.

“Oh, neat!” my son exclaims with each shooting star. We make our private wishes.

The night sky entertains him until he falls asleep, secure in his sleeping bag beside mine. Our good time together under the stars goes all too quickly.

“I didn’t ask to live here,” he reminds me.

“You keep that attitude and you won’t be,” I inform him.

Who is this child who has come to live with me at age sixteen? Why are we adversaries? Does the divorce still trouble him? Is someone at school picking on him? He doesn’t say.

Regardless, he’s mine and he’s precious to me, but he does make me wonder how someone who was once so close can now be so emotionally distant.

The prodigal son stage lasts only a year.

It seems like forever.

Now years older, I get a call. “Dad, you always say we should be careful what we ask for, because we may get it.” My son is sitting on the couch with his girlfriend. He has my attention. He has trained me to be patient with him and to keep my heart and mind open.

“You’ve been asking for a grandchild,” he says. “I am here to tell you that we are going to make you a grandpa. What do you think of that?”

My heart goes ka-thump.

Stunned, ecstatic, surprised, very surprised, fighting back tears and trying to keep from dancing a jig, I stay calm and hand out congratulations.

“I proposed and she accepted!” He nearly shouts into the telephone. “Dad, I want you to be the first one to know that when we get back to California, we will be getting married!”

He is calling late at night from Ohio. I had complained that I was always the last one to know what was going on in my son’s life. He took that to heart. Now he is sharing his major moment with me first. He still has no idea how precious he is to me.

Fatherhood begins for my son with cutting the cord in the delivery room. He immediately bonds with his daughter. A gentleness and deep compassion surround him in his fatherly duties. Using a voice more mellow than any he ever heard from me, he cleans, feeds, and nurtures his daughter. I marvel at my son’s parenting skills and hold him in awe.

He balances family life with his college work and first earns a bachelor degree and a year later a master of science degree. Such achievements are unheard of in our family tree.

Despite his full schedule and long hours, he takes time to send a letter home that ends with, “I hope to fish for largemouth bass with you soon. Maybe we’ll catch one this time.”

I like my son.

“And I won’t see you for three years. Right?”

“Not unless you come to Germany,” my son says.

“Your wife is four months’ pregnant,” I remind him.

“Dad,” he says, as if he’s the adult, “babies are born in Germany all the time.”

I make one last try. “Well, are you coming back to California?”

He takes a deep breath, and then he says in the mellow voice he uses on his daughter, “We haven’t planned that far ahead.”

Long pause.

When he was a little boy, we would hold hands when we walked together. Back then, I could also pick him up and hug him. By the end of grade school, however, he had stopped hand-holding with me, but a hug had become traditional.

I reach up and hug him. “I love you, son.” He hugs me back.

“I love you, Dad.”

“I’ll miss you, son.”

“I’ll miss you, Dad.”

He drives off and leaves me with my thoughts: Why didn’t I tell him he had turned out all right and that I am proud of him? With a few more words he would have known I loved who he is as a person, not what he does, like his volunteer work in kindergarten class. Just him. Unconditionally. I didn’t say that because all I could think of was that he had been home a year and not once did we fish for a largemouth bass.

His postcard arrives and I sit on the porch with it a long time and look with my eyes and my mind at my son’s adventurous life. He’s rock climbing, the card says, visiting towns whose names I can’t pronounce, and learning a different language. Whoever he is now, he’s doing a good job of living his life.

In my son’s house, he is thought of as a husband and father, and soon another little person will arrive and call him “Daddy.” He’s a package deal, now. He belongs to all of us, technically, but more so to the family he created. The distance between father and son is increasing, naturally and respectfully.

We’ll get close to each other again, but we’ll never really close the entire distance between us. He’s over there in his world, a place I’ve never been. Future times together will be visits by invitation. We won’t live together under the same roof anymore, maybe not even in the same town or state. And that’s okay. We’ve ridden the tow truck together, made our wishes on shooting stars, and we’ve fished together. Catch and release is our style.

Gibran once said of children: Their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

The philosopher is right about the house of tomorrow business, but with a passport I’ll visit my son’s house in Germany in June.

I have an invitation.

John J. Lesjack

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