So, you’re 21. It kinda snuck up on me. Life has a way of doing that.
I heard you rustling in the kitchen last night after you got home late and smiled this morning to see the leftovers had left. You know the door will always be open.
I can’t help but see, in your day-to-day challenges, echoes of my first steps into the world as an adult. Living paycheck to paycheck, scratching for groceries, putting in two gallons of gas at a time. Nothing gives you an appreciation for life like having to fight for it.
Your birth was a celebration. It was the night of our doctor’s engagement party, and a whole team of doctors came rolling into the operating room, cracking jokes and laughing. It was the liveliest c-section ever. I’ve always suspected wine was involved. “It’s official, Dr. Jacobson said, “He’s a member of the whopper club!” You were two weeks overdue.
Later, they brought you to me. I rocked you in a small, quiet room and told you in soothing tones how good life was and how much better it was going to get. You looked at me with those piercing blue eyes, listening attentively.
Your Grandma Jan said when you were born, “Anyone can be a father. Tony will be a daddy.” After you were born, I became a better person. And a lot more adaptable.
I had imagined I would take the drill sergeant approach to parenting. Ha! It was obvious from the beginning that you were marching — no, meandering — to a beat all your own, a contrarian from the start. You crawled backward.
You didn’t respond to rank. It wouldn’t have worked to say, “Because I said so,” because your motivation had to be grounded in reason. Fair enough.
The Lakota call bold spirits who challenge convention and the arbitrary nature of the social order Heyoka. Heyokas see absurdity and point it out. They hear lies and speak the truth. Necessary nonconformists. That’s how I see you.
On your first day of school, you ambled out into the fog to board the bus like you had all the time in the world. Your mother watched it from the window, weeping, because time is a thief.
Every school day thereafter, while the driver drummed his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel, you strolled to the bus, crunching brittle leaves underfoot in the fall, trudging through snow drifts in February, always at your own imperturbable pace to your languid Heyoka drumbeat.
I think about your days as a pee-wee wrestler, going up against kids who were steeped in the culture, whose brothers, fathers and grandfathers had wrestled. And you, with none of that history or instruction, were thrown into the deep end, with predictable results. You lost every damn time, but every damn time you went back out there. You bled on the mat. I bled in the stands.
Finally, you won one! I remember the ride home from Edgeley, how we couldn’t wait to call your mom to give her the news. The look on your face in the dim light of the pickup cab is indelible in my memory. The thing is, everybody gets knocked down in life. Not everyone gets back up. Resilience is something you earn.
I’m not sure it’s possible for courage to exist without heart, because when you have heart, you understand the potential for pain when you take a stand. Without that, it’s just blind recklessness. You knew when you stood up to a bully in the hallway in defense of a friend, you might have to back it up. You knew when you stood up to a bad teacher acting badly, there would be consequences.
As parents, we had one simple goal. We wanted to raise kids with good hearts. I’ve never doubted yours. This week, I thought about how you dug into your own pocket when a customer at the grocery store came up short. It’s funny. We may set out to do great things, but it’s moments like that people remember.
It takes courage to carve out your own trail. I remember how you thought you couldn’t go on stage the first night you ever played with a band. But you did — even sang — and I smile when I see you playing with your new band. Did you know I was asked to join a band when I was your age? I have few regrets, but I’ve forever regretted not leaping in. So, bravo, Dylan! I did things my father wouldn’t have dared and so have you. It’s the natural order of things.
I wrote in a letter to you 21 years ago, “The time will come, as you’ll mature, that you’ll see my imperfections. It will mean you’re growing up and thinking for yourself. That’s the way the world works. But, in the end, you’ll still be my son, and I’ll still be your dad. And that can fix just about anything.”
I’ll stand by that.
Tony Bender is the former Editor of the Adams County Record and current President of Redhead Publishing in Ashley, ND. He has been a featured columnist around the state and earned multiple awards for his writing.