A Father to the Fragile World

THE other day it happened. I was banging the dust out of the old catcher's mitt in the meadow behind my house with my young son when my father dropped by. He's 60 now and lives a couple of states away, but he just happened to swing by and, as if no time or space had elapsed in the 25 years since we shared this spring ritual, grabbed the ball to pitch. My father hurled it just the way I remembered, cupping it tenderly in his freckled fingers, bounding into his throw as though the ground was nearly as kind as it had always been for him, as though his relationship with it had grown only a tad more complex. The pitch was wild; leaping to nab it, I heard him yelp ``good boy!'' to me with the same pride he'd shown 25 years ago.

Our voices collided; I was at that instant yelping ``good boy!'' to Marshall, who was daring to steal second base. And in midair, with the sound of the generations reverberating in stereo, I acknowledged that an invisible line had been crossed when I thought of myself primarily as a son; I was now primarily a father.

And what a relief for my old man! For 2 1/2 decades, he had to stand in as Mankind to me, representing the march of time to the scrutiny of his offspring.

Merciless scrutiny: Whether he knew it or not, I invested mad amounts of energy both battling and celebrating this figure who seemed singlehandedly responsible for making the world as imperfect as it was, and occasionally as fine. He personified history to me - if my Baroque piano lessons were boring, it was because he who forced me to them was a drag; if they sometimes had flashes of brilliance, it was because the guy had something on the ball, after all. He personified the challenge of manhood, and a challenge it was - wary and hostile, I figured he put his teenage baseball trophies in my room to dwarf me. Why would he want to dwarf his own progeny?

The attention I lavished on him, in retaliation, was the hard loving attention of an opponent. One time I was angry enough to exult when he dropped the applesauce dish; he was fallible! Another time I was empathetic enough to feel a stab in my chest when he clutched his chest; not until a moment later did I discover that he had merely been cupping a smoked almond that had slipped from his lips, and was not ill at all.

And all those years I'd assumed as a matter of course that we were separated by three centuries at least, as though he were not merely of a rival league but of an alien time zone: a colonial portrait of a dad, all starchy pink cheeks and ruffled collar and, of course, that museum-like mien of stern alertness.

Suddenly in midair, in the presence of both my father and my son, it shattered: What was all that about? Was it merely the nature of a son, all that ardent scrutiny? Why hadn't I been able to accept this innocent stranger as my teammate in time, realizing that he was my next-door neighbor in history, that in the ongoing fable of humanity we were practically the same age?

Now it's I who personify history, to offspring of my own. This whippersnapper who steals second base, this dead-serious daredevil, watches me with hawk-like brilliance: obsessing over my shortcomings, marveling at my occasional displays of wit. Now when I press Marshall's reluctant fingers on the piano keys, I'm the one who hauls the freight of the Baroque, not because I think the Baroque is so great but because how else will it be passed down?

Now when I put my teenage trophies in his room I do it not to dwarf him but - so obvious - to give him someone to look up to.

THIS transition from son to father, which I now see has been evolving for some time before it crystallized with my father's pitch, this inner milestone tinges my whole outer life with paternalism.

If a motorcyclist cuts me off I no longer feel competitiveness kick in; I think ``Poor kid! He might get hurt!'' With women, too, I feel more protective, sometimes, realizing with unasked-for clarity that they are someone's daughters. Lately I've even been experiencing a reverse paternalism towards my dad, indulging the impulse to buy him things: a rain hat, a cardigan - my way, I suppose, of urging him to bundle up. And in a museum, I am forced to acknowledge that the portraits of colonials look less like father figures that siblings - younger siblings, half of them - not so much stern anymore as hobbled by doubt, their starchiness merely a defense against uncertainties.

Most of all, this sudden and unprovoked paternalism colors the way I look at triumphs around the globe - the Earth straining to reach Jupiter, like a toddler achieving its first distance; and how I share in the tragedies: reading about an earthquake in Peru, I grieve along with the parents of dead children to realize we're all in it together, common fathers and mothers banding against misfortune.

Ultimately, by a not circuitous line of thinking, it makes me spend a lot of time honing my fury against terrorists. How dare they handle a grenade in the presence of young life - don't they have children themselves? In most cases, I'd venture they don't: It's hard to think car bombs when the infant in your arms is peeling open the first buds of May to bite what's inside. Take it as a maxim: No matter what your politics, having a kid makes you that much more unable to harm others. It clues you into the world's vulnerability.

When I was a son in my father's meadow, banging the dust out in springs long past, I had moments when I could almost have been a terrorist myself. To get attention, to test my indomitability, to measure myself against the world's injustices, I was that impatient; I felt if I didn't get my due, I'd blow up a bus station. It's kids who entertain such notions - kids being people who don't in any abiding sense have kids themselves.

At a certain point in a man's life he must decide when he's going to stop interfacing with the world as a son who is owed things, and when he's going to start acting like a father who wants to protect the almost heartbreakingly fragile world, a world he wants to yelp ``good boy!'' to, coaxing it forward. Thereafter, from that instantaneous midair moment on, new questions will engage him.

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