Back when I competed in middle school debate, my dad would rouse me early on Saturday tournament mornings. With night sky still hovering, I’d pull on my only blue suit, grab the thin attaché case that was once his, and he’d drive me to the waiting school bus. If time allowed, we’d pick up a box of glazed donuts for the team.
Roughly 12 hours later, the bus would pull back into the school parking lot. The sky would be dark, as if the day had never arrived. I’d spot my dad’s car, its dome light illuminated so he could grade papers while he waited. He graded a lot of papers those nights.
“So… what’s new?” he’d ask while I climbed inside. At the time, I thought the question had everything to do with my trophies.
“What’s new?” is how my dad greets me to this day, albeit slower and with slightly more vocal gravel thirty years later. I understand now the meaning with which these words are imbued. My dad expresses affection in sacrifice, devotion, and time — not in simple words so overplayed in greeting cards and the closing scenes of romantic comedies.
It was my dad who cut his thumb open making a birdhouse for my third grade cub scout project. As he hammered away, he continued bleeding into the house even though we begged him to stop. I’m not sure we were concerned for his safety so much as utterly grossed out by the splattering of bright blood onto the light wood. The only thing driving him was a determination to do right by us. That he was creating a Dexter-themed birdhouse wouldn’t stand in the way.
It was my dad who drove to the mall where I worked to hand-deliver my SAT scores, hot off the mailman’s truck.
It was my dad who supported my paper-thin rationalizations to start law school, and he supported me just as much when I left six months later, the first Schwartzberg to quit an educational endeavor since I dropped AP biology.
It was my dad who visited me at the tiny video store where, at 24, I competed for the title of Assistant Manager against a teenager who wore sports-themed ties. It was my dad who told me it was okay to quit three weeks in, with no other prospects.
It was my dad who opened his home and every possession to me following my divorce. He treated it like a routine event, even though it was the first divorce in our family. He insisted I wear his work shirts and pants — as if sensing holes the separation had left in me and trying to cover them with pieces of himself.
Throughout a childhood spotted with quits and failures, I’ve never felt like a quitter or a failure. That’s a parenting trick bordering on magic.
Sometimes on Friday nights, while I wait in my ex-wife’s driveway for the children to emerge, I think about the kind of father I am, about the pieces of myself I try to give to my own kids. I try to assess the cumulative effect of my fathering, and how it might be remembered years into their future.
The kids knock the ridiculous thought out of my head as they pile in.
“So… what’s new?” I ask instinctively.
They smile, and start spilling their stories.
Joel Schwartzberg is a nationally-published essayist whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, Babble.com, AOL ParentDish, the Good Men Project, and elsewhere. Author of the award-winning collection The 40-Year-Old Version, Joel lives in New Jersey and is currently at work on his next personal anthology Yes, I Want a Medal!
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