One of the first acts we committed as parents was to count the fingers and toes of our children. Once all of their appendages had been accounted for, we started to examine our children to see what features they had received from us. Did they get my eyes? My Ears? My nose? Did they get any of my traits? Or did they get them all from Stephanie? And we were not the only ones who engaged in this ritual, our family members tried to account for what genetic qualities our children got from them as well.
As our children have grown up, Stephanie and I have often joked about which personality traits each of us gave to the children. The debate rages on over Joshua because he seems to have so many physical features and personality traits from both Stephanie and I. On the other hand, though, it has been firmly established by many of our friends and family members that Chloe got her beauty from her mother and her temperament as well as her humor from me.
The fun part of having these conversations is that we can pinpoint exactly which traits Stephanie got from each of her parents but because I am adopted, everyone wants to know from whom I get my idiosyncratic style. Is it genetic? Or is it environmental? And whenever the conversation is brokered, it leads to a lot of fun filled, zany and downright hilarious theories as to how I became the person I am today.
I was recently driving to a meeting in Boston and as I was stuck in traffic, I flicked on the radio in order to let my mind wander. And as I slowly trudged along the busy thruway, I got lost in the music and lyrics of Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of The Band.” I hadn’t heard the song in a long time, so I leaned over, turned up the volume as high as it would go and started to sing along at the top of my lungs.
Later that night, as I tossed and turned in bed because the events of the day were still swimming around in my head, I started humming the song to myself again. “Great!” I thought. In all of the chaos of my crazy day, I now had “Leader of The Band” stuck in my head as I desperately tried to fall asleep! But lo and behold, somewhere in the long hours of the early morning, I finally nodded off to dreamland.
My dreams that night were extremely vivid as my mind had returned me to my childhood for a simple, yet tailored trip down memory lane. And when I woke up, it was clear that my subconscious had cherry-picked some deliberate moments in my young life in order to resolve some of my internal debates as to whether or not my specific uniqueness is genetic or environmental. And the answer was clear. Genetics have definitely played a large part into the reasons I am the way I am, but the biggest reason for my distinctive style is because of the influence of my father.
When I was a young child, my father became invested in my imagination. He dressed up in full costumes and became a part of the stories and games we played out in our living room or backyard. He sang in just about every foreign dialect and accent that he could master and he always found a way to turn a rainy day into the pages of his own colorful children’s adventure. He fostered my own natural abilities to see beyond my limitations, he let me freely explore the world around me and he encouraged me to find my own voice.
My father never missed an opportunity to let loose and have a good time. And through the embracement of his inner child, I was treated to a new way of viewing the universe. But as I got older, I started to branch out into the world around me. I wanted to spend more time with friends and less time at home. And as I redirected my energy and focus in other directions, my father selflessly let me spread my wings and discover the planet around me.
As a teenager, the rose colored glasses that I viewed my father with fell off and broke. It must have been hard for my dad to deal with the changes that I ultimately brought to our relationship. I was independent and as I tried to claim my individuality during a very awkward time in my life, the relationship between my father and I at times was very terse. I thought I knew everything and I didn’t need my father to correct my actions or to teach me right from wrong.
Ironically, it was at this time in my life that my father said the single most important sentence of my entire life. I had been given another detention at school and I radically disagreed with the school administration over the justification for my punishment. And because I had been given another round of detention, I had to miss another baseball game and I was angry. When my father sat me down to discuss it, he said, “You can act in any manner you choose, Douglas, unfortunately there are repercussions for your actions. This is one of those times.”
I think I rolled my eyes when my father said it to me. I may have even unfairly mocked him when I spoke to my friends about our conversation but the point wasn’t lost on me. I have modified his message but my children know that “you have the right to choose whatever you want to do in life, but you do not have the right to choose the consequences.” And the first time I ever said that to my own child, I was instantaneously transported back to the moment when my father delivered the same message to me and I realized how much like my parents I have actually become.
And I have to give my father credit because through my constant rebellion, my father never lost faith in his belief in me. He seemed to instinctively know that, in the end, I would make the right decisions. Through the arguments, the punishments, the days of silence, and the debates that we had with one another, there were so many times that he took the brunt of my anger and swallowed his pride in order to let me learn about life. And through it all, he always found a way to make sure I possessed the tools I needed to be successful.
I didn’t always know that. Ten years ago, I might be telling a different tale than I am today because I didn’t understand the whole story. I didn’t see it from his point of view because I had never walked in his shoes. But today, I am a father as well and looking back on my life, I see his side of the story so clearly now.
My children are young and I am as invested in their imaginations as my father was in mine. Frivolity is our creed as we embrace each new day as an adventure! And each new journey allows my children and me to step out of the real world and into our own utopias where dreams really do come true.
But I worry about those days ending sometime in the future. As I sang Joshua to sleep the other night, I sat and watched him as he snored away without a care in the world and I asked God to let my children stay young forever. And as much as I know that wish will never come true, I think back on those days when I was rebellious and I wonder if I will handle my own children with the dignity and respect my father had shown me.
As I stood up to leave Josh’s room, I caught myself singing Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of The Band” to myself again under my breath:
I thank you for the music
And your stories of the road
I thank you for the freedom
When it came my time to go —
I thank you for the kindness
And the times when you got tough
And, papa, I don’t think I
Said I love you near enough —
My parents came to visit us over the weekend for Chloe’s belated birthday celebration and as I walked out onto the back porch to see where the kids and Grampy Paul had disappeared to, I came across an all too familiar scene. My father and my kids running around the backyard, engaged in a bunch of games. My father was still embracing his inner child. And as I watched them, I smiled as I remembered the good old days when I was the young child running around the backyard with his father while we explored our own active imaginations and games together.
Thank you, Dad, for the stories of Philadelphia, South Kent and all the places in between. Thanks for sharing your eclectic taste in music and the many accents and dialects those songs came in. Thank you for the years of childish play and for the years of selfish rebellion. I’m sorry if either phase of my life created more gray hair than you deserved but I needed both phases in order to know right from wrong and to understand the lessons you were teaching. And most importantly, “I thank you for the freedom when it came my time to go.”
And just in case I haven’t said it near enough, “I love you, Dad. Happy Father’s Day!”