To my second son
When your mom and I first saw the guy, we thought he was carrying a rope or a white horseshoe draped over his hand. Either would have made as much sense as the yellow and white snake that gets a twice-a-day trip through the little boxes on the hillside.
We don’t know what kind of person walks his snake. In college, there was a guy who went everywhere with a pair of headphones. He sang until his lungs bled and people two blocks away could hear him. There were two prevailing theories on the man. He was either conducting a psychological experiment to analyze how people react to strange behavior or he was a bit loose in the noodle. I have come to feel the same way about the man who walks his snake, but I have yet to decide which theory is correct.
You are nearing 72 hours old as I write this. You sit beside me with a mess of black hair. You’re sleeping and involved in some infant’s dream. While it is likely just electrical kisses on your synapses, I prefer to think you’re imagining yourself as a conductor of a giant orchestra. Every few minutes your hands shoot into the air and hang there. It’s as if you’re begging your musicians to hold the dream note for one more second, just long enough for you to trip the infant’s light fantastic. You will never sleep this well again.
I’ve spent 35 years of my life wondering if life simply is or it is for a reason. I’ve never felt as sure of the answers as I do now. If I were any less sure of myself, I couldn’t be as presumptuous as to sit down and write this letter.
Tonight, your brother and I went out for dinner while your mom fed you. Along the way, he asked from the backseat, “Daddy, what happens to us when we die?”
I stumbled over a couple of answers before doing what I always try to do. I resorted to honesty.
“I don’t know, buddy. I don’t know.”
When your mom and I were driving to the hospital to bring you into the air-breathing world, we turned onto Greenville’s East North Street and had to slow down to avoid hitting an old black man. He stood nearly 6’5″ and walked with a cane. He looked lost and alone.
Your middle name came in memory of one of our very close friends who died when he was a little younger than I am now. That friend believed that the old man may be lonely and lost now, but has a place to go when he dies. I’ve never been sure if I can agree with that, but I don’t fault people for the faith. Berke Breathed’s Oliver Wendell Jones, a troubled atheist, once conceded to the stars (something to the effect of), “Everything is a little bit too orderly to be one big mistake.”
He made sure no one heard him when he said it.
Maybe it’s that I’m older. Maybe it’s that I paid more attention when your mom was pregnant with you. I only know that I’ve spent the last few days faced with a certain awe I can’t shake. Your birth was so hard to comprehend. I watched your mom’s body change. It took no doctors to conceive you and took no drugs to start your mother’s labor. It happened as nature or God or the aliens intended. When it was time for you to breathe, your mother’s body shook violently. She felt fine, but it looked like something out of a science fiction film. Our nurse told me she had seen very few women who didn’t shake. It still looked supernatural.
When I first saw your head, it was less than one second after you had been breathing liquid. One second later, you were breathing air. Nothing will ever amaze me more. I can accept the universe’s near impossibility. I can fit the animal kingdom and humankind inside my head. I cannot figure out how you can breathe liquid for nine months, then breathe air, and then never again be able to put fluid in your lungs. The only way to accept it is to ignore it, and I’m having a hard time doing that.
Most of what science tells us makes sense. We can understand small particles multiplying and making bigger particles. We can understand how plants and animals change to adapt to their surroundings. We can even understand the science of endorphins and how they make us love.
Science does a pretty poor job of explaining the why of it, though. Most people go their entire lives trying to figure that part out. I lived what will probably amount to half of my life without being able to settle on anything. My hope is that you will not have to spend as much time wondering as I have.
I took your brother out for a big boy’s dinner tonight. We listened to Ray Charles, ate greasy diner food, and talked about our days. I think I told your brother I loved him ten times between the time we left the house and the time he had finished his strawberry ice cream. As we got ready to pull back into our neighborhood, Gram Parsons’ “Ooh, Las Vegas” came on the radio. By now you should know the significance of the singer, and you would likely have heard how I made my living when you were born. You can understand how I found a little serendipity in the radio rotation.
One verse in that song always sticks out to me:
well, the queen of spades is a friend of mine
the queen of hearts is a bitch
someday when I clean up my mind
I’ll find out which is which
Parsons may have only been singing about Vegas, but I like to think he knew the city represents a lot more. I’d like to think he knew how hard it is to get your head clear enough to tell the difference between two very similar icons. Even if he didn’t, I do, and tonight as you get ready to celebrate three days of life, I’m wondering if I will be able to help you figure this out long before I did.
I know a lot of people who don’t grok the idea of bringing kids into the world. A lot of times, I can barely justify it to myself. What about this world is beautiful enough to force people to suffer 80 years of struggle with no guaranteed reward? Many of the people I’ve known have spent their lives trying to be something preprescribed and ostensibly better. They’ve followed a set of rules they barely understand, lived their life like a bad job, and only woke up with the hope of surviving until some poorly defined point in the future. I’ve even thought it’s terribly selfish to have kids. Logically and scientifically it is rather selfish. Humankind has survived because of the selfish desire to propagate.
It may be that I’m comforting myself with a simple little epiphany, but tonight I feel like helping give you life was a noble and good thing. If anything, it’s helped me understand myself and my role.
Son, no one will be able to tell you what to believe. Moreover, no one will be able to tell you how to believe. If you need a jumpstart, however, think on this.
You live to be happy.
You live to be happy and make the people you love happy. You do what you have to do to achieve both goals and do it without hurting other people.
It sounds so naive and simple. If it’s that simple, society should be a lot better, shouldn’t it?
I don’t have an answer for that. I don’t know why Earth can seem like hell and heaven is only promised to people who live as part of a regimented spiritual collective. I don’t know why it’s so easy to slip into the darkness or why we’re so driven to hurt people. There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense that you could breathe liquid 74 hours ago and that liquid in your lungs could kill you now. Life doesn’t make sense, but what we make of it does.
I don’t know what the guy who walks his snake would say. I don’t know how the old jaywalker would feel. Both of them seemed as lost as I’ve felt over the past 20 years. I only know that I believe my life is useless unless I am happy. I am fortunate to love a lot of people and my purpose is to make sure they are happy. If I can make that happen without hurting anybody else, I’m going to live a full and purposeful life.
You, your brother, your mom, our family, and our friends make me love. I’ve never loved as much as I do now. That makes me happy. That gives me meaning. It may be too simple to be right, but I’m beginning to feel that this is what it’s all about.
I hope you find the same thing. I hope we can spend the next several decades making ourselves happy and making sure the people we love feel the same.
Life is complicated and nearly impossible to fully understand.
Love is simple.