The son I never knew

I have a son I never knew.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m speaking metaphorically not literally.

What I mean is that I looked up one day … and didn’t know my own son.  Spencer the youngest who, at 22, is wiser and more poised than I ever knew . He’s way more solid than his old man was at that age.

What a shameful, delightful revelation. Shameful in that, where the hell have I been?  How could I not have known? Seen?

Some of you parents can relate.  If you have kids, you peg this one a certain way, another one that way. You feel like you have them figured out. You go through life, certain in your knowledge of how one would handle this, what another will do about that. Based on that “knowledge,” you, by turns, lose sleep and rejoice.

Until the day you do a double take, and suddenly, introductions are in order. But instead you just stare, forehead all a-wrinkled, and wonder when they changed.

Of course, they’ve not changed. Your eyes have just lost their scales.

I’ve always been proud of Spence, and naturally loved him dearly. He was a good kid; never caused any problems, never did anything wrong. But he’d been something of an enigma to me.  As a child he had fears. Like he would awaken afraid that the house was on fire, or that spiders were all over him. And he’d cry and cry. Reminds me of Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The World is Too Much With Us.” Spencer was my sensitive child, preoccupied, living inside his own head.

We always had a good relationship, but he was the youngest, third to eldest son Justin, who now is my business partner and keeper of the company legacy. It is a role for which Justin is superbly suited. And middle son Andy, the boy who was instantly the best at everything he did. Star athlete, top of his class. Spencer always seemed eclipsed by his shadow.

Andy’s a third-year medical student at the University of Michigan. He told me as a child that he wanted to be a doctor. By contrast, Spence, who will be a freshman at U-M medical school this fall, likely always knew, but never said so aloud. Different personalities.

Andy and I always had a unique bond. Tall and gregarious, yet studious, I think of him as my clone.  And although they are different, it was like he and Spencer, who are very close, shared the same brain, with Andy in the fore, mostly because he’s older. But I was wrong to fold Spencer into Andy. Spencer is completely his own man. He has all of my strong points with none of my deficits.

I never realized how extraordinary he is.

It hit me on a recent trip abroad. I was knocked out by how Spencer handled things, with incredible aplomb. Cool as a cucumber. We would be facing some snag or another and Spence would rise to it, already looking past it, fait accompli. Every single problem.. he just dealt with it. In fact, I thought, who’s the father here? What a damned impressive adult persona. He is bright and smooth and has gained a sense of intellectual and physical equanimity that’s unmatched in our family. I told him about it, too, about how impressed I was. He just quietly said “thanks”.

And that must have always been there, to some extent. It’s just taken me 22 years to appreciate and learn what an extraordinary man he is.

pic2Now, he can be really difficult. He knows his own mind. He’s smart. On the trip, we were in some area that so moved me, I suggested that he return as part of his education. His instant response? “I’ll decide what I want to do.” Bam! Right in the mouth. He didn’t mean anything by it; he’s just his own man. A man with supreme self-confidence.

Most guys his age aren’t into reading as much as looking, if you get my drift. But in the airport I peek over, and his nose is in Primo Levi’s “Survival in Auschwitz,” the author’s account of his year as a concentration camp prisoner. Apparently, Spencer’s also reading a book by Ezekiel Emanuel, brother of President Obama’s chief of staff, on national health care. Not exactly kid’s stuff. I just shook my head.

Actually, I began looking at Spencer differently last year, when he worked at a high-profile U-M lab run by the venerable surgeon Dr. Robert Bartlett, a professor emeritus who has mentored generations of med students, and is best known for developing the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine, or ECMO, used globally for patients with heart or lung failure. Spencer’s basic job, during his time with Dr. Bartlett, was to mind sheep that’d had their kidneys replaced. He’d also been invited into many surgeries. This experience with Dr. Bartlett caused an absolute tidal change in him. He’d spent time before with doctors, but his time with this man sparked a fire in his belly. It changed him, this six-foot-two young man with the warm smile. He wants to be like him.

He’s on a road trip now with a buddy, before med school begins. But what I learned from our trip was that, sometimes with the youngest, it can take longer to understand their depth and completeness.

I came back almost in awe of him. I saw him in a completely different light, and for the first time, I saw the future. Here was a man who was going to be one helluva physican, one who will make big decisions, and make them well.

No longer is he the “baby,” to be stereotypically protected and nurtured. I now see him with different eyes, and it’s just one of those evolutions in relations between a father and his son.

As Shakespeare said, it is a wise father that knows his own child.


Better late than never.

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