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Good Is Good: Father of the Grad

Friday, June 15, 2012

 

Tom Matlack is the former CFO of the Providence Journal and is the founder of The Good Men Project, a non-profit charitable corporation based in Rhode Island and dedicated to helping organizations that provide educational, social, financial, and legal support to men and boys at risk.

I never went to a prom.  Girls scared me. I ran long distances on country roads, by myself, instead. I also graduated from Amherst Regional High School a year early.  My graduation wasn’t so much a celebration as an emancipation. I wanted out. Out of my house. Out of my body. Out of my brain.  And going to college seemed like the only way to take a step in that direction without imploding.

Of course no mortal can outrun their shadow.  And a life on a crash course is going to implode, it’s just a matter of time.  In my case, there was plenty of great stuff at college and in my 20s but the jackpots got bigger and bigger until I hit the big one that changed everything just  a little over a decade after crossing the stage to receive my high school diploma.

At the time of my final demise, my daughter was 2 and my son was six months old.  The fifteen years since have been far more rewarding than the chaos which proceeded my crash.  And at the center of my world has been my kids and my role as a dad.

My 30th high school reunion is this year.  Even though I live in Boston, just a couple hours away, I don’t have any interest in going. But this week I was forced to rethink what high school, and being a dad, meant to me.

♦◊♦

Wednesday was my daughter’s senior prom.  Thursday my elder son finished his last exam as a high school sophomore and his younger brother graduated from first grade.  Friday my daughter graduated from high school.

It was a big week.  An exhausting week. And one that left be tired, grateful, and reflecting fatherhood.

Fatherhood, it seems to me, is the most contradictory endeavor possible.  It involves adoration, protection, and instruction with the requirement to simultaneously let go.  Your child may be your world but they have their own destiny, whether you like it or not.

Perhaps the defining moment in my life was spending time with my babies and then delivering them back to their mother’s doorstep. Each and every time I turned to leave it felt like tearing flesh–like I was loosing some life giving sustenance without which I couldn’t survive. My kids’ mom and I lived seven blocks apart back then and I often walked home, and then some, attempting to recover my ability to breathe.

I wouldn’t wish the six years I spent on as a solo dad, before getting remarried and having my third child, on anyone. But it did teach me in a very direct way both that I love my children without limit and that my ability to control them did have profound limits from day one.  Slowly I learned to let go when my situation required it, and to soak up the absolute gift of my kids whenever I got the chance.  It made me a more active, vigorous, and probably fun dad than I would have been otherwise.

♦◊♦

I love to witness my kids’ interacting with each other.  I brought my seven year-old Cole to my daughter Kerry’s pre-prom photos. He was brandishing a sword. As Kerry posed for pictures, a pirate would sneak up and try to poke her in the rear. It made everyone laugh, specially Kerry.

Seamus attended Cole’s first grade graduation and was mobbed by a gaggle of 7 year-old boys as some kind of superhuman.  After Kerry’s graduation a bunch of her girlfriends came over and spent the night being entertained by Cole and his best friend, who danced for the teenage girls.

Seamus has said repeatedly how hard it is going to be for him when Kerry goes to college because she is his constant as they travel back and forth to their mom’s house and ours.  And she has gotten into enough trouble to allow him just a bit of extra latitude. I can see how much he loves and relies on his zany older sister.

I love these interactions so much because they are of me but completely without my intervention.

In the end I think being a good dad has more to do with being witness than being a dictator. I try to honor that part of each of my kids that is total unique and sacred, realizing full well that it is not something I can take credit for or change even if I were to exert all my will.

♦◊♦

So as I sat and watched my daughter graduate from high school surrounded by my beloved wife Elena, my seven year-old son Cole, my six foot tall man of a son Seamus, and my parents from who were certainly part of the constellation of things from which I tried so hard to run as a 17 year-old headed off to college, I actually had trouble taking it all in.  I was a witness for sure.  But I shut myself off from thinking about the journey we had all taken together from the Friday nights I spent looking for a parking spot up and down Commonwealth Avenue before loading the kids in a double stroller, throwing their stuff over my shoulder and pushing them back towards my bachelor pad to cook dinner and tuck them into bed.

A couple days have past.  I’ve started to think about Father’s Day and the trip we are about to take together as a family to ride horses and play dodgeball somewhere in Montana.

I’ve found myself feeling sad for the kid who never went to the prom and had to sprint through high school.  But also enormous gratitude for the blessing of three healthy children who have grown up in my arms to become fully formed people who I adore not because they are like me but because they are not.

For more of Tom's works, as well as other pieces on related topics, go to The Good Men Project Magazine online, here.

 

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