Fatherly Love in a Different Wrapper

When I was nearing my 50s, I realized I needed to face a fact in my life: I'd never had children, and at that point I probably never would.

So I went to Big Brothers/Big Sisters, an organization in most cities from coast to coast. The nearby chapter in Rochester, N.Y., had names of 300 boys and girls, all looking for an adult friend and mentor.

The listing for Christopher didn't give much detail. He lived with his mother in a small apartment on the edge of the city. He'd never seen his father. He was bright, though he sometimes had trouble in school. He was 8 and had been waiting for a Big Brother since he was 5.

Unlike any of the others, though, Chris's name was accompanied by a picture. He was sitting on the floor, looking right at the camera, grinning in a worried kind of way. Grinning at me, it seemed. I asked the social worker to set up a meeting.

After that, I can only describe life as a series of snapshots.

* * * *

It's a week later, and we're sitting around a table - the social worker, a big, gregarious woman, and Chris's mother, tall, smart, friendly - on either side. Chris sits across the table. He's not smiling.

Mom wants to know why I want to be a Big Brother to her son.

I tell her my thoughts about never having had children. I had for a while dated a woman whose two boys had Big Brothers, and in one case the boy and the Big Brother had kept up their relationship from the time the boy was 8 on into college. I hope I will be that fortunate, I say. She seems satisfied.

The social worker turns to Chris. "What do you like doing?"

"Stuff."

"What'd you do after school yesterday?"

"Oh, nothing."

"Well, this is up to you. Nobody wants to force you to do this. Do you want to?"

Chris looks at me, then at his mother, then at me again. I silently mouth the word "yes" at him.

"Yes," he says.

* * * *

Another week passes, and I pick up Chris for our first outing. We're going to hike up a creek to a waterfall I know. When I get to the apartment, Chris is wearing a backpack, and he's got peanut-butter sandwiches for both of us. He hugs his mom goodbye.

I'm afraid our first trip might be awkward, but as we drive through the countryside Chris chatters on. He doesn't have a lot of friends, he tells me. He had an uncle whom he liked, but the uncle died. When he grows up, he's going to be a lawyer. Lawyers make lots of money.

"There goes a Viper," he says suddenly. I thought a viper was a snake. He explains that it's a cool car.

It's a mile-and-and-a-half walk up the creek to the waterfall. Chris starts up the path, while I splash through the water. "Come on," I tell him. "It's more fun this way."

"I'll get all wet."

"So, you're made of sugar? You're going to melt?"

Chris splashes in. The creek bed is rocky and slippery, and he falls a couple of times. But he grins and keeps going.

There's a deep pool at the base of the falls, and I ask Chris if he wants to swim.

"It's probably not allowed," he says.

I dive in and come up with my shirt and shorts soaked and cold. Chris is laughing. He dives in, too.

* * * *

Months later, at my house, Chris is helping me with a minor repair job on my furnace. The final piece won't go back on, and I'm banging it with my fist.

"I think you've got it on backward," Chris says in his little-boy voice.

I look at it. He's right. It goes on easily.

Now, whenever we're at my house, Chris asks: "You got anything you want me to fix for you?"

* * * *

One day we're driving along, and out of the blue Chris tells me, again, that he's never seen his father. "I hate him for it," he says.

Another day, Chris says that when he grows up, he's going to have children and give them everything they want. I tell him that sometimes being a good dad would mean saying "no." He looks at me, but doesn't say anything.

* * * *

We're at a cottage on a lake, and Chris is fishing for the first time. He pulls in five small perch; I have to put a new worm on the hook each time.

* * * *

A year later, we're hiking in the Adirondacks. Chris is complaining. "This is too hard. Why do we have to do this?"

Too hard? He's 20 yards ahead of me the whole time.

When we get to the summit, the whole world opens up around him. "Take some pictures of me, for my mom and my friends." He asks another hiker to take a picture of the two of us, together.

"When you're down at the bottom looking up at the mountains," he tells me, "it looks like they go up to the sky. But when you get to the top, it looks like the sky goes up forever."

The next day he's fishing for bullheads. He's putting his own worms on the hook.

* * * *

One evening we're heading to my house, and Chris says he wants to build a go-cart.

This is an idea he's brought up a dozen times. It's hard for me, because I'm not good at that kind of thing. I wouldn't be able to help him.

"Well," he says, "everybody's good at some things, but not others. So we can teach each other." That's a line I had used on him many times, in other situations.

* * * *

Nearly four years have passed since I first met Chris. We're in a restaurant, and the waitress comments what a good kid my son is.

"He's not my dad," Chris tells her. "He's my Big Brother." Chris always says that. Nothing but a real father will do for him.

Still, I hope that having a voluntary father adds as much to his life as having a voluntary son adds to mine.

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