Breaking the Cycle

So sorry I missed ya’ll last week. I took the family on a road trip to Orlando to see the see The Mouse and The Boy Wizard. Over the course of the week I saw things- great and terrible things. The upshot is there is no hope for human civilization. I will most certainly write about the experience, as the list of potential blog topics is long. Alas, that must wait, as I need some space and time to digest what I saw.

That was my first trip back to The Happiest Place on Earth since my father took my brothers and me in the early ‘80s. Speaking of fathers, I’ve wanted to write about this topic for years, and what better time than the week leading to Father’s Day. This post may contain TMI, but these days I simply write about what I want. The topic never seemed appropriate in the context of a blog dedicated to urban design, but the events of the past few months have changed my writing focus (and put a potentially tragic twist into the tale I wanted to tell).

Like many boys, I grew up revering my dad. On the plus side, he was a handsome, charming, intelligent, and athletic man. On the down side he was an asshole with a temper. My father has two brothers, each of which he was estranged from. I also understand that his relationships with his parents were strained. He and my mother separated when I was eight (I think) and divorced when I was eleven (I think). (He went on to have a prolific marriage career. After divorcing my mother, he got married again. Then he got divorced again. Then he got married again. Then he got divorced again. I have heard that he is now married again.) After the initial divorce I saw him every other weekend for a couple of years until he took a job in another state. After that we would stay with him for a week or so each summer. While in reality he was not a major presence in my life, I made him one in my mind.

Despite his shortcomings, I idolized the man that was a thousand miles away. I wanted to be a banker like him. I wanted to dress sharply, as he did. I wore bow ties like he did (long before the fad I might add). I played basketball like he did. My longing for fatherly approval went essentially unrequited. He just wasn’t there to provide the type of validation that young men seek of their fathers. Through my teen years and into college I got to see him once or twice a year. In hindsight, however, there was no real relationship there. He had his life and I had mine.

The spring before I was married, he had a dust-up with one of my brothers via email that I somehow became entangled in. In the end, he said that the lack of any relationship between him and his children was because we didn’t make the effort to establish it. We are all entitled to our opinions, but I had a hard time fathoming that a grown man could actually believe that the primary responsibility for establishing, cultivating and maintaining relationships lies with the child rather than the adult. He then offered us an ultimatum on the terms under which we could continue a relationship. I told him, in so many words, what he could do with his ultimatum. That was the end of that.

The point is not that my childhood or up-bringing was poor, or that my life is somehow worse for these circumstances. In fact, one could argue that my life is far better and richer for it. The endeavors I originally hoped would earn approval have ended up being rich life pursuits. Had my mother not divorced, I would have never established the deep and loving relationship that I have with my stepfather. I offer those impressions of my father for context only- he is not the point of this particular story. As usual, this is about me.

After we fell out, I didn’t spare him any thought. There just wasn’t anything there. It was only several years later, when my own children were born, that he sprang to mind. My relationship with the boys was a mirror that showed what my father and I lacked. In my weaker moments of parenting I could see echoes of my father in the ways I interacted with them. In examining our dysfunctional son/father relationship, I learned lessons to make sure they're not repeated in my relationship with my kids. It’s not as simple as doing the opposite of what my father would have done, but that’s not far off.

The original version of this story ends with me patting myself on the back. There are at least two generations of dysfunctional father/son relationships in this strain of the Rushing clan, and I was going be the one to break that dreadful cycle.* Not only do I get to lay claim to being a better man, I  get the more important and fulfilling benefit of a long-lasting, loving relationship with my children.

With my current situation, this victory is in jeopardy. What a cruel twist of fate. I'm utterly devoted to the boys, and can’t imagine going through life without them. Should the cancer win, however, their father won’t be there for them. This was the case for my dad, the case for me, and a fate that the boys mY share. What a gut-wrenching, soul-crushing prospect.

The failed Rushing relationships of the past boil down to choices made of free will and out of selfishness. In my case, however, it takes death to separate father from child.

Father’s day has more than one meaning. It's not only a day for the family to acknowledge the role of the dad (and buy him ties and soap-on-a-rope), it's a day to celebrate the most splendid role I could ever play. In the end, all I can only continue to love my boys, and make sure they know it. I'll do this until I draw my last breath, and after. 

*More accurately, my brothers and I will be the ones to break the streak. Despite being the ugly ones, they're both devoted husbands and doting fathers. Obviously, by going three for three, credit for breaking the streak extends to my Mom and Stepdad- well done!

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