In the early minutes of an April 24th 36 years ago, Martin Gurri’s first son was born. For most of my life I have thought of that day as something that was mine, as my birthday. But I was just an infant—what did I know of days and their significance? On the day itself, the occasion belonged first and foremost to my mother, Amy Tilson Gurri, who endured twenty hours of difficult labor culminating in the surgical removal of the life she had carried for most of a year. The eviction of so stubborn a tenant was her victory, to which she bore witness with relief and with no small measure of exhaustion.
But that day also belonged to my father. He did not endure the pains of pregnancy, labor, and Caesarian section, but he stood by my mother as she did endure those pains, doing what little a husband can. Which is to say, he was in the room, and tried, I imagine, to not get in the way.
These events are told and retold so many times that they begin to enter the realm of story and, in so doing, exit the realm of life. The day as my father lived it was, in some tellings, a joke with a proper setup and the expected punchline (“honey, you sprayed the doctor,” as the doctor displayed his prop in this performance, the pair of glasses splattered with blood).
In other tellings, it was a life-defining, transcendental event. My whole life, my father made it clear that it was that moment—my birth—when he finally understood what it was all for. This once devout Catholic who long ago lost his faith, this man with an insatiable intellectual curiosity, was long nagged by this question, of “what it is all for.” Apparently the birth of his first son solved the riddle, “it’s all for this.”
It was not like that for me. This was partly his fault—I grew up being told “what it was all for” and believing it, indeed I still believe it, perhaps more now than I did then. But that left little room to receive an answer of that magnitude when my own first son was born, for I did not have a question of that magnitude to be answered. My questions were simple, for I was rendered quite simple myself on that day and those first difficult days afterwards.
This was not a day in April, but a December 2nd, more than four years ago. Elliot was no easier on his poor mother than I had been on mine, though she was spared the surgery. And yet when we reached the hospital room afterwards it was I who was dead on my feet, and passed out in the blink of an eye. This was really quite shameful, truth be told, for the person who had actually run the physical and emotional gauntlet of giving birth still very much needed help, and me conscious to give it. Unfortunately, I was not only very tired, I was also very inept at helping.
Rather than receiving a transcendental revelation, I was shell shocked. I stumbled about in a confused stupor, generally annoying my wife and being counterproductive in my aims. She watched my continued fecklessness with rising uncertainty as to whether I would ever demonstrate myself capable of meeting the demands of fatherhood. Fecklessness can be endearing, even charming, when you are single, or dating, or when you are first married. It is less so when you are a father.
I recovered, and worked to be a less feckless father and husband, to some degree succeeded. I am still more than a little feckless I’m afraid, and more than a little shocked to find myself a 36-year-old father.
More shocking, and more important, than my completing my 36th journey around the Sun, is the anticipation of our second son, Max, completing his first such journey three days later. When he was not yet born, my mother suspected that he would come on the 24th, which would have been fine by me. Nothing would make me happier than for all of my future birthdays to be eclipsed by Max’s. His Grandpa Martin’s birthday is the 17th of April, and I’ve recently wondered if he felt, when I was a member of his household, rather the way I now feel about the proximity of my birthday to Max’s.
Max’s first year was not much like Elliot’s. Everything is new for a baby as they slowly learn to master their world, but this year has put everyone through something outside the bounds of their experience, including his parents. The only silver lining is that we have ended up spending much more time with both of our children than we would have otherwise, when we would have been commuting into Manhattan and back to work in an office during the week. We were uncertain, and we were anxious, and poor Elliot reflected our uncertainty and our anxiety right back at us. And so we tried to be confident, and be brave.
The greatest joy of all this year has been witnessing the love of Elliot for his brother, and the reciprocation of this love, as Max grew and began to recognize people and interact with them. We feared jealousy, for Elliot had monopolized our attention for all of his short life until then. But he was overjoyed to be a big brother, and the only problem we have is his inability to understand in a concrete way that babies are fragile even when one really really wants to play with them.
Children are a mirror, a terribly unkind mirror. When he was spending so little time with other children and too much time with his 30-something-parents, Elliot began to sound more and more like a 30-something himself. At times this was simply precocious and amusing, such as when he expresses surprise with “are you kidding me??”
But at other times it’s quite cruel, cruel indeed to hear our own angry words come out of his angry mouth, and hear just how unkind they can be. My wise friend and father of four boys asks “What man in his youth has a desire to become a jerk to his children?” Not one, and yet here we are. Life is already a relentless, unceasing thing before you add children who are, indeed, little persons with their own will and their own ideas about what they (and you) are going to do. I find, to my embarrassment, that just as Elliot reflects his adult parents back to themselves, I too often become childish in the presence of my children, growing angry over small, pointless things. It has been this way from the very beginning, right back when Elliot was an infant and I found myself growing angry—angry at a baby!—that he would not sleep.
James Baldwin once said something to the effect that the real terror is not that children will not understand you, but that they will. I strive, alongside Sisyphus, to master my anger, to not “become a jerk” to my children, to be patient and understanding and also fun and spontaneous and present. I strive to be someone my son can understand without being hurt by that understanding.
I do feel I’ve come to understand my father much better than I could before that December 2nd four years ago. Some understandings are hard to reach across the great divide between those roles, father and son. When the son steps into the role of father himself, and father becomes grandfather, it becomes possible, for some, to narrow that divide. My father’s 72 years seems somehow less remote from my 36 than my first 20 or so felt compared to the years he had then accrued. It’s certainly closer than 36 and 1, or 36 and 4.
Now that I have reached half my father’s age, I can only hope that I can be half the father to my children that he was to me, so that we can narrow that divide ourselves, as we pile on years together.