This year marked 10 years since my first wife and I split. I think we’re both happier now, which is great, but I wonder how my 16-year-old daughter deals with it. Having had parents that stayed together, I don’t know what it’s like to have to schlep between houses, between rules, between parenting styles. And I know I feel as guilty now as I did the first night in my new apartment in March 2004, the first night in many that I did not read a book to C, or sing to her (usually Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”). The choice I made back then, I’m still convinced, was the right choice. Unfortunately, the collateral damage is sometimes more than I can handle.
This is all the more on my mind now that I’m a married father again. G turned 21 months yesterday. She recognizes the letter G (or Geeeeeeee!, as she says), loves to draw and color, and loves music. She sings better than I do. There’s a huge difference between her at 21 months and C at 21 months, namely, me. I’m 36 (very soon-to-be 37) instead of 21 (soon-to-be 22). I have a career. Two. Teaching and writing. Back then, I had dreams. I’d sold one story to a small press zine, price: one contributor copy.
My 16-year-old has spent her 3rd summer in a row with my sister in Florida. She comes back this weekend. I’ll be tracking her flight. If I know when it’s overhead, and if it’s during the day, maybe I’ll take the 21-month-old outside to look up in the sky and try to see the plane. Unless she’s landing in Rhode Island instead of Boston. I’ll know soon enough. Anyway, I’ve missed her. She’s spent less time at my house this year than the previous 8. I see her every day since we go to the same school. Hell, I was one of her teachers during her freshman year, and will be again during her junior year. Still, I miss her. Her stepmother misses her. And her sister misses her.
She has another sibling on the other side who is older. She’s missed by this one, too, I’m sure. To her younger siblings, C’s like Wonder Woman, Beyoncé, and Oprah mixed together.
I hope I’ve taught her everything she needs to know. And while I’ve made mistakes, I hope I’ve set a good example. But I guess that’s what every parent hopes, married or divorced. You lead them, then you guide them, and then you let them go. It’s an odd dichotomy to be on both ends of the spectrum, leading one and letting go of the other (she turns 18 in less than two years…egads!).
I love my girls. They’re both insanely intelligent, talented, and beautiful. Sometimes I wish I was a better father, but I know that I give everything I can.
And I always will.
In the last two or three months, three people I’ve known have died, and I found out about a death of someone else I knew from back in 2012. It’s odd.
The first death that blipped on my radar screen was a guy I went to elementary and junior high schools with. We weren’t close friends, but we were in many of the same classes and we’d talked and hung out with the same people (when I was invited to hang out with anyone). Another former classmate had been tagged in an elementary school class picture, one of the years I wasn’t in their class, and a discussion with a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a loooonnng time started. Being nosy, I read through the discussion to find out that this guy died in 2012. Not just died, but committed suicide. I still remember him, small, blonde hair, blue eyes, and always kidding around and laughing. Now he’s gone. Weird.
Then a former co-worker from my school died. He retired last year and had been sick on-and-off in his last year or so at work. I’d known him since I was 14, when I was a student at the school. Nice guy. Not unexpected since he was an older guy, but sad.
Two weeks passed and another former co-worker, one who worked at a bookstore with me, died of cancer. He’d been fighting the good fight for a while now, but it was still very sad, considering he was in his early-50s.
And last week, a woman I’ve known since high school died unexpectedly. She was a friend-of-a-friend in high school, and a family member to my ex-wife afterward. I last saw her about two years ago when my daughter still bowled. She was a year younger than me.
And I already wrote about my dying uncle.
I know at a certain age, death becomes more prevalent, but isn’t 36 (almost 37) too young? I don’t know. But it’s got me a little freaked out. And I’m ready for this trend to end now.
Something happened recently that made me question myself. I won’t go into specifics but it made me really question myself. I came out stronger, I think. And a better person, I think. It may have even been one of the last real steps to me becoming–gasp!–an adult.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to sell my action figures or relinquish my love of comics books, superheroes, space fantasy, Muppets, or Mister Rogers anytime soon. But for the first time I feel…well…like a man.
Let me explain, if I can….
As a teacher, I began telling my students to grow up to be the kind of person they want to be. If they see themselves as a good person, then work their asses off to become a good person. Everything else will fall into place. Now, as I reread that, it looks a little hippie-dippy to me. The best way I can explain it is this….
When I was a kid, I hated to be asked the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I hated that question because I didn’t know. I was 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, fucking 10 years old! How the hell would I know?! (An aside: This is one question I will not ask children until they are teenagers. I’m more interested in what they want to be now. Childhood is such a short period of time, why sully it with a glimpse into the grown-up darkness that awaits?). So I’d give them some bullshit answer that would shut up the grown-up and get them off my back.
“A baseball player,” I’d say, though I never played Little League, didn’t watch any sports on TV, and generally despised competitive athletics (I still do).
“A police officer.”
“A weather man.”
In other words, I’d give the standard answers that adults expect. The only one that really came close to what, in my heart of hearts, I’d hoped to do was be an actor. I’ll explain why I think I never pursued it another time, perhaps.
But around the time I was 9 or 10, I began to get a glimmer of what I might want to do as an adult. Not a job or career, but a general way of being. I knew that I either wanted to help people or entertain them. Those were the two things that I decided I wanted to try to do.
Now, my choices were limiting, because even as a 10-year-old, I knew I couldn’t work in medicine. I’m too squeamish. And I knew I’d make a horrible police officer (although I think I’d make an excellent detective, but I could be full of shit). So that left…what?
For awhile, I thought I would be a comic book writer and artist, until I decided to focus solely on writing when I was 13.
Fast forward 23 years. I’ve had many bouts of wondering what was happening in my life in the last few years. Turning 36 last August was hard. In age, I was an adult. I could no longer blame my stupid actions on being young and naive. Maybe naive, but certainly not young. And I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I had a job—a career—that I really liked, that I’m really good at, but…it wasn’t the career I wanted. But…I liked it. Loved it, even. Not the paperwork, and certainly not the politics, but the interaction with students. The knowledge that I’ve made a difference in lives. I mean, I have students who have given my cards and notes and vlogs telling me how much my classes, how much my work, has meant to them!
And yet…I was so sad. Because I wasn’t writing full-time. Or working on movies. Or comic books. Because I wanted, in my mind, more.
So one day I was talking to some students after school. This was about a year ago. The two were best friends and one was leaving to go to another school. And I told him that I would be there if he needed me. And then I said:
“One of my favorite writers, Harlan Ellison, has said that his definition of success is ‘achieving in adult terms that which you longed for as a child.’ I’d add to that that if your childhood self met your adulthood self, would he be happy? Would he say, ‘That guy’s pretty cool. I wouldn’t mind becoming him.’
“When I was a kid,” I continued, “I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew that I wanted to either entertain people or help them.”
And before I could go on to whatever I was about to say, one of the young men said, “And you do both every day right here.”
“Yeah,” said the other. “You’re a success, Mr. Gauthier!”
We laughed and talked a few minutes more before parting ways for the day, but it stuck with me.
This year, I began telling students not to worry about future careers. To have an idea and work toward it, but to decide what kind of person they wanted to be, and the career would present itself.
So I went through a little bit of a fire this year. It made me question myself, and the way I got out was by realizing who I wanted to be. I’ve known since I was a boy. Now it was time to actually be that man.
I’ve always wanted to help and entertain. I’m a teacher and a writer. In my classroom, I help and entertain. If I can make a student laugh, or cry, if I can make a student feel, then I can make them care enough to learn what I need them to learn. In my stories, I can help people escape their lives for a little while, make them laugh, cry, or frighten them. I may try stand-up comedy at some point. I may try acting. I know I’ll write a comic book. I may even try screenwriting. And while I’m still hungry to make the creative part of my life my sole profession, for the first time I’m truly happy with the part of my life that pays the bills.
As a result, I’m a better teacher. I’m a better writer. I’m a better father. I’m a better husband.
I’m a better man.
Harlan Ellison, one of my heroes, turns 80 tomorrow, 27 May 2014. I will leave my usual birthday greeting on his website, and go back to lurking. But I now lurk as the man I know I want to be, not the guy who’s unsure of himself.
It feels pretty great.