Eight years ago, when my older son Jay, was 13, I interviewed him on how he rated me as a father -- and I wrote a column about it.
He said that I:
Hollered too much at him and his brother, Grant.
Paid excessive attention to playing golf and watching football on television.
He also said that he could tell what kind of mood I was in when I came home from the office -- before I ever said a word -- by how hard my heels hit the floor as I headed for the liquor cabinet. He'd learned from the sound, he said, whether it was appropriate to talk to me right then -- or to wait for a few minutes.
But when I asked him to rate me on a zero-to-ten scale, he gave me an eight and said that, despite all the things I was doing wrong, I was doing a lot of things right -- and that, as a father, was OK.
It was a column that was used widely by newspapers around the country, and it seemed to touch many readers.
Letters poured in to Jay from everywhere, and he answered each one of them, painstakingly pecking out on a typewriter a message that often began: "I have received many nice letters, but none as nice as yours. . ."
For a long time after that, friends and readers asked me how in the world I had the nerve to expose myself publicly like that, to share my shortcomings, to reveal that I wasn't everything that society says a father should be. Inevitably, when I made a speech and opened the floor for questions, this is what the audience wanted to hear about.
Well, that was a long time ago, and a lot of water has gone over the dam and under the bridge. I've divorced, remarried, moved from the South to the North, became a columnist instead of an editor who wrote a column. I haven't seen Jay, who now is 21, for three years and, while we exchanged letters regularly, he has made it clear that with my divorce I ceased to be a father to him.
I look back on that interview and I see now that it didn't take much nerve to write what he said about me, that much of what he said was what many 13-year-old boys probably think about their fathers, that most of it was pretty harmless, even humorous.
But the experience did leave me with the feeling that it's important for father and son to have some deep conversation, to level with each other, to ask questions that may draw answers that make us flinch.
Last summer, when my younger son, Grant, came to visit in Philadelphia, we had our first deep conversation in a long time. Instead of talking about college, cars, baseball and newspapers, we talked about marriage, divorce, love, hate, Gold, life, death, yesterday and tomorrow. But there was one thing we didn't talk about -- because I didn't have the courage to bring it up: The things I wished I'd done as a father when Jay and Grant were little, but never did.
For a long time this has stuck like a bone in my throat. It was something I needed to share -- but couldn't bring myself to do.
When he visited a few weeks ago, he and I went to New York -- he'd never been there -- and that's where I got the bone out of my throat. I didn't plan to do it. It just happened. He was finishing a beer and I was working on a gin and tonic, and I told him that what I was about to say was difficult for me, but that I wanted him to bear with me and listen.
In many ways, I told him, I thought that my performance as a father had not been good. I often had hollered when hollering was inappropriate. I had spent on the golf course weekends that now I would want to spend with him and his brother. I had worked too many nights when we could have gone to the ice cream store, to the movies or to the park.
I told Grant that I was sorry, that I'd like to be able to go back and try again, but that since this was not possible, I was doing the only thing that I thought was possible: Sharing what it feels like to look back and acknowledge that I'd not done so well in what surely is one of life's most important jobs, being a father.
"That's as plain as I can say it to you, Grant," I told him.
As long as I live, I'll remember what he said.
"Darrell," he began -- that's what he's called me since the divorce -- "You're the only father we ever had, and when you yelled at us, we didn't think anything was wrong. It's the way it was -- and we accepted it-- just like we accepted your playing golf and working so much. It was the only life style we knew."
I was being too hard on myself, he said. If I didn't rate A-OK in everything as a father, I still did a better job than I seemed think, he said. "I never felt deprived."
Somehow I managed not to cry during our talk, but I haven't been able to hold back the tears since then, as I've shared it with friends, as I'm writing about it at this very moment. If it didn't wipe the slate clean, at least it helped me put things in better perspective and to retrieve more memories of the good times, which I had managed to bury.