I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is November 2018, about my son turning seven. Since he turns eight next week, this seemed like a good time to re-run it.
The first time I remember getting mad at my father was October 10, 1982. 1982 was a bit of a breakthrough year for the Leitch boys. Try as he might up to that point, my father had found no success, for the first six years of his son’s life, getting his son to care about sports at all. He tried to sit with him and watch the Saturday afternoon baseball game on television, he took him to Mattoon High School football games, he drove him all the way to Champaign to see the Illini basketball team. Nothing stuck. His kid didn’t even like to play catch with him in the backyard; the boy would much rather sit inside with a book. (His first grade teacher actually sent a note complaining that he was spending his recess sitting in the corner just reading.) The nadir was T-ball. Baseball was the obsession of Mattoon, Illinois, and fathers proudly showed off their son’s skills every Saturday at Lawson Park, for the whole town to see. But Dad didn’t know what to do, didn’t know where to look, as his son sat in right field chewing on his glove and watching the trains go by, or striking out even though the ball was just sitting there on a tee, or, when he did hit, running to third base instead of first. His son just wasn’t into sports. So what the hell where they supposed to talk about now?
But then he took me to a Cardinals game. We got seats in the upper deck of the massive old Busch Stadium, and we saw Fredbird, and there was a huge Jumbotron that showed funny videos, and Ozzie Smith did a backflip running onto the field, and Willie McGee made a diving catch, and 40,000 people screamed and laughed and cheered, and I ate a hot dog and it was truly the most exhilarating thing I’d ever seen. I have thought about baseball every single day of my life since then, and much of that I’ve shared with my father. (I wrote a whole book about it, for crying out loud.) The Cardinals ended up having an amazing season in 1982, winning the National League East and advancing to their first-ever National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves. They won the first two games of that series, and they had a chance to clinch their first trip to the World Series in 14 years — and, much more important, a chance to go to the World Series the first season I’d ever paid any attention to them — that night, October 10, 1982. This night also happened to mark my seventh birthday. It was gonna be perfect.
But Dad wouldn’t let me stay up. The game started at 7:30, and my bedtime was at 8. Rules are rules: I got to watch the first inning, and then I had to go to sleep. I was aghast. The Cardinals were going to the World Series! I want to watch! I stomped my feet and screamed and threw my toys against the wall and had a royal fit. I remember, still today, the vivid, palpable rage I felt at my father. The injustice was blinding. It was the Cardinals! It was my birthday! How could he introduce me to this thing and then take it away? I can close my eyes, today, at the age of 43, and still feel the hot fury of that moment. I couldn’t believe this horrible thing was happening. How could he? How could he?
The Cardinals won that night, and 10 days later, won the World Series. Dad let me stay up and watch that one. The father I am today wouldn’t blame him if he hadn’t. I can still feel the anger, friend. It still boils in my chest.
Next Wednesday, young William, my oldest son, named after his grandfather, turns seven years old.
He is a very smart boy, and a strong boy, and a sensitive boy. He is polite and he is kind and he is funny: He has started doing a dance to a certain Kendrick Lamar song that I watch on my phone anytime I need a pick-me-up. He loves football, and math, and writing down stories, and wrestling with his little brother, and playing his one allotted hour of video games, and cuddling with his parents, and trying to call his grandparents on the phone, and nothing makes him happier than when the big kids, the ones in fourth and fifth grade, let him join their pickup football games on the playground. He is almost seven, and he has a big personality that is his and his alone.
And he was of course just this, not so long ago.
And now he is almost seven. He is the age that, someday, when he’s 43, he’s going to remember this. It’s starting to kick in now. His entire life up to this point, when he is an adult, will be mostly flashes, an odd stray memory popping up at an unexpected time, triggered by a smell, or an old advertisement, or whatever tickles that particular part of the cerebral cortex and trudges up that specific, fleeting image. Now, though: It will all take hold. Now the snow is beginning to stick, and compile, and stack.
For the first couple of years of your child’s life, the primary goal is to keep the baby alive. Don’t drop the baby! Don’t feed that to the baby! Don’t let the baby watch that! Does the baby’s forehead seem hot to you? Then, once you’re pretty comfortable (if not ever entirely comfortable) that the baby has been successfully kept alive, you try not to screw the baby up. You do not want to break the baby’s brain. If the baby’s brain breaks, it is your fault, and your life has been a failure and now you’ve ruined somebody else’s. The baby is everything. And then the baby isn’t a baby anymore, and it begins to totally not like it when you keep trying to treat it like one. And then the baby is a person, their own person, and you’re an entirely different person, just another person in their world. Their memories are theirs, and theirs alone.
What we do now around them, they will remember. The way I remember seeing E.T. on the big screen, they will remember what they see now, and it will stick with them, forever. The adult they will become, with their own hopes and fears and regrets and joys, it’s all starting now. This is the part that counts. It’s wonderful and exciting and unfathomable and, let’s face it, gang, absolutely f — king terrifying. Happy seventh birthday, William. It’s about to start getting very real. May the inevitable rage you feel toward me at some point be sustaining. May the memories you’re creating make you smile in 36 years. May this be the good time.
You still can’t stay up for the end of that game, though.