The phone vibrates so I pick it up—a text from my younger friend, call him Sherm: Gf left me because I don't want kids. Starting to wonder why I made that decision. Idk. I'm very confused dude.
Few men go in wanting to be a dad, I reply. We just wanna go in. Children often result.
Thing is… Do I want to be a dad? I feel like a kid still. And I feel selfish with my time on the earth.
Not so selfish that you want to be alone.
And still hetero?
And still in love with her?
It's a package deal. The uterus comes with.
I spent some of the summer of 1998 in a retirement community in Sun City, Arizona. I was nearly 42. My son was nearly four. I'd been married for six years. My assignment: Write about a guy who was 92 years old.
People move to Arizona for the pleasant winters. It is hot as hell in July. I hung around for almost three weeks. I remember sitting on the faded furniture in the darkened living room, shades drawn, with Glenn Brown Sandberg. The ticking clock, the constant breath of the central air conditioner, the hum of golf carts splashing through sprinkler runoff, the roadrunners skittering across a front lawn of crushed stone. Day by day, we did the things Glenn did. Ate meals, watched television (he had his favorite La-Z-Boy chair), ran errands and went to doctors appointments—Glenn at the wheel of his not-so-glistening-anymore Oldsmobile. We participated in walking club walks, visited his girlfriend in the Alzheimer's wing every afternoon, prepared his weekly column for the local newspaper.
Since his twenties, Glenn had always been moved to write. Diary entries and family newsletters at first. Later, after his retirement, a series of columns for different outlets—paid or unpaid, it didn't matter. Of his writing he liked to say: A man needs something to be important to. His dangling preposition was intentional—an antiquated sort of word play typical to his generation of scribes, a style made popular by Walter Winchell. What Glenn meant by his little maxim was this: In order to live a meaningful life, you need something that wouldn't, or couldn't, exist without your efforts. A craft, a hobby, a quest. A buck-stops-here kind of responsibility that never goes away. By nature, a man needs a bugle call.
Sometime after settling into Glenn's life, I discovered he had religiously collected copies of his work—seventy-some year's worth of newsletters and columns and Christmas updates stored in boxes in the garage. Every afternoon, when he'd go down for his nap, I'd grab a box of stuff, head to the local print shop and make copies for an hour or two. Back in my days as a college history major, we'd have called these documents "primary resources." Back in my days at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward would have called the experience a "docu-gasm." Either way, it was a treasure trove of intimate details about the life of a subject whose memory was clearly not so great anymore.
Though Glenn was amazingly healthy, thoughtful and wise, he had reached the stage where his repertory of conversant topics was diminished. If you hung out with him long enough, he'd tell you the same handful of stories again and again. Holding his grandson's warm and sticky hand. Meeting his wife for the first time—her stockings had gotten wet on a rainy day; she'd had to hang them over the office radiator to dry. The wonderful lake cabin in the woods where he always took his wife and kids during the summer.
Reading while I copied, I pieced together Glenn's resume. He'd married into the family that founded the Mayo Clinic. He'd organized and presided over the world-famous hospital's first collection department. Later in his career he became the executive director of the American Collector's Association, a lobbyist with fancy offices in Washington, D.C. Armed with his memories, I could ask him about things he'd long forgotten. The detail I was able to collect was rich. He'd been quite a muckety-muck in his day. I think he enjoyed the process.
One day toward the end of my time with Glenn, I had him out in the garage with me, searching through his boxes. I'd realized I was missing a large chunk of his archives—a period spanning nearly five years. I pulled down dusty boxes and helped him sort through, hoping to find the missing years. At some point we opened up a box of plaques and trophies. Judging from the collection of hardware, it could very well have been the stuff he'd hauled out of his ACA office on the last day before his retirement, some 27 years earlier.
I pulled out one plaque that seemed particularly ornate. I blew off the dust; Glenn took it in his shaky hands to examine more closely.
Turned out to be an award bestowed by President Harry S. Truman in a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House. Glenn had taken his wife and his kids. At the time he considered it undoubtedly the highlight of his professional life.
"I'd forgotten all about this." Glenn chuckled, handing it back.
I didn't want to be a father either, Sherm.
But I didn't want to be alone.
And the girl wanted to fulfil the basic purpose of her kind.
Her bugle call.
Any idiot can see what happens to a relationship after a child comes. Like they say, the honeymoon is over. But having a child together creates a tangible common bond. In a way it is a primal urge that bestows a higher purpose.
Inarguably, babies are women-things. During the early months, beyond errands and menial chores, men aren't needed. All of us fathers know how it feels. My personal theory is that many marriages don't make it past this stage. No wife, no life, what am I getting out of this deal, anyway? Shut up and change out the Diaper Genie.
But wait for it.
Somewhere around 18 months, the crying-eating-shitting machine looks up and notices there's something more to life besides crying, eating and shitting.
Hey look. It's Dad.
And from that moment forward, I promise you, it's like a video game, where you complete your mission and level up. Nothing is the same. Nothing ever will be. But your player will have far greater powers. You're going to have to trust me on this because I'm a guy who smoked crack with Rick James. I know a life-changing rush when I feel one.
Like Glenn said: A man needs something to be important to.
A craft, a hobby, a quest. A buck-stops-here kind of responsibility that never goes away.
If Glenn and his pals were any indication, it seems like the memories that stick with us the longest, the ones that play the most important roles in the greater part of our lives, aren't necessarily the ones commemorated by trophies or headlines or runs to the end zone.
Your wife's stockings hanging over the office radiator to dry. The wonderful lake cabin with the kids. Your grandson's warm and sticky hand.
It's a package deal.
Photo by © Big Cheese Photo LLC/Alamy