If you give me a pen and a piece of paper and you ask me to write something meaningful, there is a good chance I would successfully complete the task. I’d give it some thought, and I’d play with some ideas. It might take an hour or two, or might take a few days, but when it’s time to hand in the assignment, you and I would be happy with the final product.
Conversely, if we’re out for dinner – maybe some sort of celebration – and you whisper in my ear, “You should make a toast,” the likelihood of something close to meaningful coming from my lips would not be good. I don’t do extemporaneous. I wish I could, but I just don’t. Maybe I’m not quick on my feet. For some people it’s an art. For me, it’s a task that elicits nervousness and a thin line of sweat across my upper lip reminiscent of Richard Nixon. I need time to put my thoughts in order.
Still, there are many extemporaneous things I wish I could say, especially to my adult children. I’d like to be walking in the woods with one or more of my boys (I have three) and suddenly, out of nowhere share the meaning of life, the key to happiness, the secret of success, and, of course, how to invest wisely in the stock market. I know these opportunities are rare, that moments like these are few and precious. But, it seems that whenever I’m alone with my kids I lack either the courage, the insight, or constitution to have that once in a lifetime conversation that informs, inspires, and makes them love me just a little bit more.
Time is running out. Based on my family’s actuarial tables, I’ve got twenty years left, and during the last five years I may or may not be sentient. And let’s not forget that stuff happens. The other day I was riding on a stationary bike in my basement and began to feel light-headed. “This could be it,” I thought. “It’s all over.” I had visions of being slumped over the handlebar, my arms at my side, my feet clipped in, and the only sound to be heard was the silence of wheels that no longer turned. That made me sad, not because I would be dead, but because I never got to share my vast catalogue of wisdom with my boys. On the bright side, I came up with a few good words to put on my gravestone: He travelled fast. He went nowhere.
What does it all mean? I’ve given it some thought and looked at the odds of having the perfect conversation. It doesn’t look good, so here are three messages for my three children.
First, never sleep with your mouth open. When I was a young man, I lived in a log cabin that had large wooden beams across its ceiling. In the winter, the mice migrated from outside the house to inside the house, where they liked to run along the beams. One night, while I was sleeping on my back, mouth open, dreaming about the woman I had not met, who would one day become my wife, one of the mice slipped off a beam and fell into my mouth. To say I was startled, would be an understatement. But I learned a good lesson. Keep your mouth shut and you’ll never choke on a rodent.
Second, as long as your mouth is shut and you’re not taking in water, swim against the current. Swimming against the current is difficult but doable. Often you will feel exhausted, as if all you do is fight and then fight harder. But when you reach your destination, against the odds, the naysayers, and all those who went with the flow, you will have the most extraordinary sense of accomplishment.
Third, have faith. You have lived through Y2K, 9/11, a very bad recession, a worse housing crisis, two questionable wars, the death of all four of your grandparents, your mother falling off a mountain, and COVID. By any barometer, that’s a lot of misery. If I was a tough guy, I’d say, “Get over it.” If I was warm and fuzzy, I’d say, “We can weather this together.” I am neither. Whatever works for you, choose it.
But here’s the thing; if you are surrounded by love, everything is easier. Have faith in the world. Have faith in goodness. Have faith in yourself and know that wherever you and I are, that our love will never be broken. You were always my favorite.
Richard Reiss’ writing has appeared in the New York Times, Newark Star-Ledger, The Literary Review, as well as the anthologies, Upstart Crows II: True Stories, and Modern Love: 50 True and Extraordinary Tales of Desire, Deceit, and Devotion. He is the author of Desperate Love: A Father’s Memoir, published by Serving House Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.