This is the prologue to my new memoir, “Rock, Meet Window: A Father-Son Story.” Buy it at your local book store, or on Amazon.com
Thirty years ago, my father tried to force-feed me a beet.
We were sitting at the dining room table he purchased that morning in an auction at the Delaware County Library. After he struggled to get it through the front door, Mom had him place it just so and then spread an old blanket underneath. Armed with kitchen knives, Dad and I lay on our backs to scrape all the petrified Beechnut and Juicy Fruit off the bottom. We discovered that most of the gum was still soft in the middle, a little wet even. “Maybe it’s still good,” Dad said, smiling.
We usually volunteered for disgusting jobs because they elicited accolades from Mom and accumulated the domestic capital needed to reject more menial household tasks. The risk of contracting typhus or the grippe from a gum-chewing schoolboy outweighed the mundanity of folding laundry or vacuuming the peanut shells we’d let collect under the sofa cushions.
This oak beast of a table wasn’t the only source of excitement in the Good household. As a side dish to pork medallions, Dad made a new beet recipe, which he fully expected me to eat— a ridiculous presumption given that my diet was exclusive to shepherd’s pie, various kinds of chips, and miniature microwavable sausage. No colorful fruits or vegetables touched my lips. Pomegranates looked like student art projects, pineapples were medieval weapons, and kiwis were nothing but limes that had been kicked around on a dirty barbershop floor.
These beets, blood red and topped with a fresh mint leaf, belonged on a Christmas wreath, not inside my mouth. Dad polished off all three of his in less than a minute, and then, as he often did when tasting something unfathomably delicious, slapped his forehead.
“Jesus Christ, Jody, have you ever had a beet this good? Honestly, tell me. Have you ever tasted a beet this good?”
Under duress, Mom agreed, but added that they were “too rich to possibly eat more than one.”
Unwilling to acknowledge that few things annoy a twelve-year-old boy more than the enthusiasm of his parents, Dad turned to me. “What about you, Jace?”
“They’re disgusting,” I said.
Dad said they weren’t. I said they were. Mom left the room. And so it began.
He reached across the table with his fork, stabbed a beet from my plate, and held it in front of my face. “Just try it,” he said.
“No way. It’s gross.”
“It’s not gross. It’s a beet.”
“It looks like human flesh.”
“Trust me, it’s fantastic.”
“No, it’s not.”
“How would you know? You haven’t even tasted it?” He inched the fork closer to my lips. “Okay, just lick it.”
“Lick it? God you’re so weird.” I swatted his hand away and tried to get up, but he stopped me and pressed the beet against my lips, causing it to slip off the fork and fall on the table.
He picked it up with his fingers, mashed it against my mouth, and yelled, “EAT THE GODDAMN BEET, JASON!”
Dad could have opted for a gentler method like crushing the beets and sprinkling the dust over some Cool Ranch Doritos. But I know that his frustration wasn’t fueled by culinary pride. After spending the afternoon figuring out how to tie an eight-foot-long, two-hundred-pound library table to the top of the family station wagon, and then taking heat from Mom for nicking the paint while trying to wedge it through the front door, he was tired and probably hadn’t showered since the gum-scraping job. Add to that the enduring social and financial stresses of being an assistant professor of political science at a small liberal arts college (a middle-class Marxist in a Hee Haw town), and he was ready to blow.
An adult might have acquiesced to Dad’s demand, but children have no desire to avoid escalation, and the jaw is the strongest muscle in the human body. At battle’s end, the color of Dad’s hands matched my big red clown mouth. Together, we looked as if we’d been involved in a ritualistic animal sacrifice.
I recognized this as an opportunity to accrue some emotional capital and ran upstairs to collapse dramatically into my mother’s arms. Within minutes, Dad joined us to apologize. His hands were still red, and they remained that way for days—as a branding of his offense. Not that he needed a reminder. A child’s most valuable weapon, that which has kept all kids from being tried and convicted for crimes against humanity, has and will forever be the innate, near-effortless ability to elicit guilt and regret.
° ° °
As a twelve-year-old boy, I assumed adult frustrations were mature, or at the very least directed at their source. I remember Dad calling the cable company because a football game had caused 60 Minutes to start late for the third straight week. “Why the hell do they call it a two-minute warning when it lasts a fucking hour?” he yelled into the phone. Later that night, he became just as upset over the social injustices reported by Morley Safer. “I’ll tell you what the problem is. These coal miners need a goddamn union!” Mom smiled, and I laughed at how ridiculously passionate he was.
Now I understand that Dad was venting his anger, the kind that all men carry around and release in their own dysfunctional ways. He was just a kid in grown-up clothes doing big-person stuff and trying not to punch himself in the face or intentionally drive off a cliff. I owe this enlightenment to becoming a grown-up kid myself: a state that’s only been exacerbated by parenthood. I imagine Dad’s days never quite went as planned. Mine seldom do. But it’s impossible to address this frustration directly. Sometimes I scream into the innocent gray fabric of our sofa cushions when no one’s looking. I haven’t yet tried it, but I suppose yelling at a customer service representative from the cable company might do the trick too.
With two young sons, Silas (five) and Arlo (three), my emotional life is ruled by the untenable condition of being hopelessly in love with tiny people who are too young to understand that they’re slowly killing me. At no time has it been more important to be mature, and at no time in my adult life have I felt less capable. Even so, I would still never force-feed anything to a child. I’m a modern, enlightened father who deals with conflict in passive-aggressive ways that are likely far more damaging.
Silas will eat almost anything as long as it’s exactly the right temperature. His acceptable threshold, however, is plus or minus 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Too hot,” he’ll say, pushing it away with an air of entitlement.
I dutifully blow on it and test the temperature with my tongue. “Okay, it should be better now.”
“OW! It’s really hot!”
“No, it’s barely even warm.”
Feeling like a mere servant, a food cooler for his majesty, I blow on it again, only this time with a defeated gaze focused six inches above his head.
“Too hot,” he responds, smirking.
And so it begins.
My visceral, human need in that moment is to take a forkful of the tepid rice and shove it in his mouth, but since that is no longer socially acceptable, I take the plate back and blow on it with the sarcasm of a teenage girl complimenting her father’s dancing.
“Now it’s cold,” Silas argues.
“Then don’t eat it!” I say and leave the room. When he starts crying, I realize I’ve taken it too far. Only one of us has a valid reason for acting like a five-year-old.
Though Dad and I responded differently, our behavior came from the same well of parental frustration. We were frustrated that it took so much effort to control things; that fatherhood wasn’t easier; that love, frustration, and fear can so easily blend together into a cocktail of angst. And yet, how is it possible that as stressful as family life is, we wouldn’t change a thing about it?
Two years ago, himself many years removed from such parenting conflicts, Dad wanted to provide me with his own wisdom on fatherhood. He gave me a pocket-sized gift book called Father to Son: Life Lessons on Raising a Boy. Upon opening it, I was relieved to see that he’d annotated, crossed out, or corrected most of the “lessons.” It was unlike him to promote pop wisdom. More than comedic ridicule (of which there was plenty), Dad’s rewrites were his way of letting me know that he remembers, treasures, and has a sense of humor about our past.
Lesson: “Be home for dinner.”
Dad’s revision: “But don’t ask him to eat beets!”
Lesson: “Read to him nightly, he’ll love it.”
Dad’s revision: “He’ll love it more if you make up stories where he’s the main character.”
Lesson: “Give him responsibilities.”
Dad’s revision: “Legitimate ones that he can handle and have some value to him.”
Lesson: “Teach him how to lose”
Dad’s addition: “But tell him it’s OK not to like it.”
But just as we entered the stage of our lives during which Dad and I could really understand each other—that period of confluence when he’s not so old that he doesn’t understand things, and I’m finally experienced enough to know who he is, who I am, and who we are—he started dying. The time we might have spent enjoying a mutual acknowledgment that we’re grown-ass men with families, responsibilities, frustrations, anxieties, and flaws, was abruptly shortened by a doctor’s prognosis giving him nine months to live.
This is not a typical father-son tale. It is not about my dad and me scrambling to forge a relationship after decades of estrangement, or struggling to maintain one through a difficult time. As I see it now, this is the story of how a momentary alignment in perspective, coupled with a drastic change in the circumstances of our relationship, revealed that the epoxy in our bond is, for better or worse, professional grade stuff.
Recently, I read that, as medicine improves, death is becoming more of a process than an event. We’re often given ample warning that the end is near. “Pregrieving,” or “anticipatory grieving,” is common enough to have two names as well as various stages through which one can expect to pass. But like any kind of grief, be it anticipatory, chronic, delayed, prolonged, or distorted (apparently researchers’ livelihoods depend on stratifying this emotion), no two people experience it the same way. What we do with the weeks, months, or years, depends on our relationship with that person and the circumstances of his or her illness.
The details and stories here are as idiosyncratic as anyone’s in times like these. Sometimes it’s within the specifics that we find common truths, and of course, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes stories are just stories. Since Dad’s illness, I’ve learned to be more honest and responsible, and as such, feel it’s my duty to admit that I might be full of shit.
I’m sure that in a few years I’ll have a different perspective on the past year. Then two years after that I’ll have another, and perhaps two years after that I’ll choke on a Twizzler and die inside a Walgreens. When you spend time with a person who has very little time left, it becomes clear that waiting to do anything only decreases the likelihood that you’ll ever do it.
In many ways, I’m lucky. I’m lucky to have a close relationship with my father; lucky that I was forced to acknowledge our confluence; and lucky to have been alerted in advance that it would be brief. When I learned of his diagnosis, I entered something of a psychologically convulsive state. I felt an urgency to write, and began immediately so that I might finish before our paths diverged. Fortunately, Dad loves being the center of attention, and if I’m quick, he might have a chance to read this. If he does, I hope he likes it.