SEVERAL YEARS ago, when my son was about 7, I received a phone call from him on Father's Day that affected me deeply. He was crying, sobbing, fighting back the tears.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"I'm scared," he answered.
I could hear his mother protesting in the background; then she got on the phone.
"He won't go outside to play," she said, "because the boys he's been playing with have threatened to beat him up. I told him he can't run away like that and expect them to respect him."
My son got back on the phone, denying the implications of his fear. I tried to console him and asked what had happened. A minor disagreement had led to a scuffle, to the taking of sides, and he was left alone to defend himself and had fled instead.
My heart sank as I listened to him. It was Father's Day -- a beautiful sunny day, and I was in Washington and he was in New York. I was already missing him, feeling guilty and alone, and now this. His mother's tone suggested that it was too much for her to handle alone -- a concern I had heard, spoken and unspoken, at other times since our separation. And rightfully so. She was, after all, raising a man-child in the danger zone on the edge of Harlem.
Luckily, I was in when the call came. I talked to my son, telling him that it was all right to be afraid, that I was very often fearful, even when I acted like I had everything under control. I told him it was okay if he didn't want to go outside to confront his tormentors, but he would have to meet them eventually because he could not stay in the house forever. He listened, his tears dammed up for the time being. We discussed the fights I had had as a child his age and older, how I had handled my anxiety about being thought a coward, or weak. We would see each other in a week or two, so we made our plans and hung up.
Afterwards I sat staring out the window, not knowing what to do with myself, praying I had somehow helped him. Then I decided to call one of my best male friends, also in New York, and I told him the story. We went back and forth about how difficult it is for boys to avoid or get over the tests of violence that other boys -- and sadly sometimes adult men -- hurl at one another. The taunts, the challenges, the macho reaction -- and quickly someone ends up humilated or bruised or cut or -- commonly nowadays -- shot dead. My friend made me feel better, less guilty, and I went out and I enjoyed what I could of the rest of the day.
Afew years later, when my son came to live with me, we often talked about what it meant to be a man, especially an African American man, for our different generations. I introduced him to my male friends, men whose strength of character and sense of purpose I wanted him to witness, men who are committed to fostering the best for our collective future. I wanted him to see signs of those same traits in himself.
I was very pleased when his mother found a job in the Washington area and moved here. Though my son went back to live with her, we see each other frequently. Now 15, a muscular 6-foot, 220-pound tackle for his high school football team, he's doing well on the playing field and in the classroom. And nowadays tears sting my eyes when I think about how much I love him and how happy he makes me.
On my birthdays the past few years, he has taken to writing "Thanks, Dad, for being there" inside the cards he gives me. This last time I joked with him and my friends about the repetitiveness, though I never doubt his sincerity. But he gave me the best compliment of all when he once compared our relationship to mine with my father, thinking that I was giving to him what had been given to me. But in reality I barely knew my father, even though we lived in the same house until I moved out at 18.
For Mother's Day, my son and I took his mother, my ex-wife, out to brunch and to a jazz concert. I am thankful she and I can be friends and share his love without anger or rancor.
Mothers usually reap most of the garlands and applause, and my mother was no exception. So as a father, what should I expect? Father's Day, if not fathers, seems almost an afterthought. But I believe I have been more than an afterthought for my son. Boys need men to guide them to adulthood. Too many of our young African American men are killing each other because no adult male has been able to hold them in the comfort of a love that only another man can give to a man-child. At the very least, we need to tell all those angry, resentful and frightened young men wandering our streets, alone or with their friends, that it's okay to admit to being scared of being scared.
Calvin Forbes is a poet who teaches in the department of literature at American University.