I never wanted to be a father.

I wanted to travel the world and tell stories, and that’s what I did.

I lived with a crack gang and hunted down Marlon Brando. I watched feral children fight pit bulls in the barrio of North Philadelphia; I trained in martial arts with the US marines; I hung out at porn shoots gathering critical research data for an article about John Holmes, a man with a fourteen-inch schlong. I journeyed to Micronesia to live among the descendants of the Bikini Atoll, to the Gold Coast of Australia to meet a dwarf who made his living being tossed (by a former Mr. Universe), and to Israel to live in a refugee camp in Gaza with the victims of the occupation. I always joked that the spindly hardware store yucca tree I owned during my bachelor days was unusually devoted. I was sometimes gone for months at a time; it never got any water. It seemed content to patiently wait, gathering dust by the bay window, a solitary dependent. Somehow it managed to stay green.

A typical male in his thirties, I was stunned to experience in real time the female biological clock, which really should be called the female biological imperative.

I led an exciting, interesting, adventurous, selfish, Bacchanalian and dangerous life. I gathered wisdom. I honed my skills. I learned a few secrets. I was beginning to see God in the details, or so I thought.

But I always felt alone.

* *

I met this woman and I settled down; loving her filled the emptiness. I became more efficient as a reporter, waved off some of the more dangerous assignments (though I did fly to a swingers’ convention on the day after we were engaged). We spent a lot of time at home spooning and watching movies. Now that I think about it, I was a little like a soldier home from war.

One thing led to another. A typical male in his thirties—who thinks he knows everything because he’s managed to survive his twenties—I was stunned to experience in real time the female biological clock, which really should be called the female biological imperative. Did you know our species initially operated as a matriarchy? My wife was determined to reproduce.

I had declared early on and self-righteously that I felt I had a higher calling than mere fatherhood. Anyone could do that. It took no talent to reproduce. I wanted a quest, not an heir. The time-suck of menial tasks and concerns was unthinkable, especially in light of my grander plans. I had stories to tell. A career to make. A mark to leave. To devote so much time, effort and money to the vain purpose of reproducing myself seemed obscene. Weren’t there already a sufficient number of human beings on this poor, woebegone planet?

This marriage thing: It was a huge bait and switch. I felt like I’d been had.

We fought bitterly. I stayed on my soap box. She froze me out. It’s funny, isn’t it, how it all starts out with the flirtatious tossing of hair, the twinkling smiles, the laughing at our jokes? In time it hit me: There was something larger in operation. I was unequal to the task of resistance.

If I wanted to be married to this woman, I had no control in this matter. Fatherhood it would be.

* *

My son’s first act—freshly born, not yet completely cleaned of the gunk of his birth, squirming under the heat lamp in the bassinet in the delivery room at the hospital—was to pee on my forearm, a perfect little arc.

I’m not sure if I remember this next part or if I’ve added it, but I could swear, after he christened me, he cut loose with a giggle.

**

Over the next eighteen months, all I remember is feeling confused, scared, helpless and kind of angry. Well, not kind of angry. Angry angry.

No more the king of my castle—or even a guy who commanded any attention at all from his wife—I was reduced to the role of indentured servant. Nobody looked at me anymore with starry eyes, nobody sought my council, comfort or advice. And surely nobody on this earth had even a modicum of concern for my needs. Don’t we choose to settle down and mate-for-life because we want to keep mating on a regular basis?

This marriage thing: It was a huge bait and switch. I felt like I’d been had.

Abjectly, I came to think of myself as Camel Man. As Mule Boy. As he who must obey. It was my job to fetch and to carry, to assemble stuff. To drive somewhere in the middle of the night and purchase essential items. To do all the food shopping, cook half the meals, wash half the dishes and do all of the laundry. To take out the trash. (Why is it again that women, equal as they are in every way, can’t take out the trash?) To clean the diaper genie—the coiled contents reminiscent of a huge white plastic anaconda or python, the evidence of its foul-smelling prey bulging at even intervals along its considerable length.

Oh, and I had to work every day and pay for everything, too.

**

At some point, around 18 months—just as he’d discovered, in turn, his fingers, his toes and his penis—my son noticed he had a dad.

The little crying-eating-shitting machine, who’d taken my life away from me, had turned into a little boy. And man, was he into me.

mike-and-miles-young-featured

More and more, he could actually do things besides drool and stick things into his mouth. And he wanted me to help. When we were together, he watched me like a hawk, modeled me like a duckling, reflected me like a mirror. It was enormously flattering and intimidating at once, made me acutely aware that each of my actions, every utterance from my mouth, had meaning. I have this photo from when he was about three. I’m wearing my usual monochrome writer’s uniform—sweatpants and a pair of layered shirts. He’s dressed exactly the same. I’m moving forward; he’s tugging on my shirttail, trailing along. I think I was trying to go down to my office, but he wanted me to stay and keep playing, so I was making a game of it. We’re both laughing like loons.

Fatherhood in a five by seven inch acrylic frame.

**

Now my son is 21, a junior in film school in another city. He’s just come home for a couple of weeks before his summer internship. His girlfriend is here, too.

Fatherhood today is a long distance job. I’m back here at HQ, ready to advise and enable, on call 24/7. We text every day, a few well-intentioned emojis. We talk as needed. As it happens, he has a keen interest in telling stories, too. Over the past two years, we’ve even worked together on a couple of things. Sager & Sager. It felt unbelievably great. The two things I care about most in this world mixed together.

Late last evening, about the time I was going to bed, the love birds went out to get some ice cream. On the way to my room, I passed his. As is the custom of empty nesters, I paused for a moment and leaned against the doorframe.

At some point, around 18 months—just as he’d discovered, in turn, his fingers, his toes and his penis—my son noticed he had a dad.

Aside from the occasional guest, the place is usually a museum piece. The folded flag from my dad’s funeral. A signed poster from Snoop. A pair of high tops my son wore the season he took home the 10 and Under rec league championship. Back then, everybody called me Coach Mike. About that time, my first book came out. People were surprised to find out I was a writer. I was mostly known around town for being my son’s dad.

Now there were clothes and suitcases and shoes and camera equipment and laundry strewn everywhere. The queen sized bed with its tie-dye comforter was unmade, the sheets were rumpled. I couldn’t help but remember the smaller bed that used to live in the very same spot, and the way my son used to smile up at me when I was changing his diaper. This innocent naked thing. My son. Today he is five inches taller than me.

Sometimes, when we’re walking together, he’ll drape his arm protectively over my shoulder.

At times like that I know two things:

  1. No matter how smart I think I am, I’ll always have a lot to learn.
  2. I’ll never feel alone.

 

Mike Sager is a bestselling author and award-winning reporter. For more, click here.

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