Story by Bob Welch
I was sitting in a bathtub full of moldy sheetrock when my 13-year-old son asked the question. “Can you take me golfing sometime?” he said.
I had a bathroom to remodel. It was fall, and the forecast for the next week was for a 100 percent chance of Oregon’s liquid sunshine. I wanted to say no. “Sure,” I said.
“What did you have in mind?”
“Well, maybe you could, like, pick up Jared and me after school on Friday and take us out to Oakway.”
Friday came. The showers continued. Looking out the window, moldy sheetrock seemed the saner choice. But at the appointed hour, I changed from home-improvement garb to rain-protection garb and loaded the boys’ clubs and mine in the back of the car.
In front of the school, Ryan and Jared piled in. Ryan looked at me with a perplexed expression.
“What’s with the golf hat, Dad?” he said.
It was, I thought, a silly question, like asking a scuba diver what’s with the swim fins. “Well, I thought we were going to play some golf.”
A peculiar pause ensued, like a phone line temporarily gone dead.
“Uh, you’re going, too?” he asked.
Suddenly, it struck me like a three-iron to my gut: I hadn’t been invited. Thirteen years of parenting flashed before my eyes. The birth. The diapers. The late-night feedings. Helping with homework. Building forts. Fixing bikes. Going to games. Going camping. Going everywhere together — my son and I.
Now I hadn’t been invited. This was it. This was the end of our relationship as I had always known it. This was “Adios, Old Man, thanks for the memories but I’m old enough to swing my own clubs now so go back to your rocking chair and crossword puzzles and — oh yeah — here’s a half-off coupon for your next bottle of Geritol.”
All these memories sped by in about two seconds, leaving me about three seconds to respond before Ryan would get suspicious and think I had actually expected to be playing golf with him and his friend.
I had to say something. I wanted to say this: ‘How could you do this to me? Throw me overboard like unused crab bait?’ We had always been a team. But this was abandonment. Adult abuse. This was Lewis turning to Clark in 1805 and saying: “Later, Bill. I can make it the rest of the way to Oregon without you.” John Glenn radioing Mission Control to say thanks, but he could take it from here. Simon bailing out on Garfunkel during “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Why did it all have to change?
Enough of this mind-wandering. I needed to level with him. I needed to express how hurt I was. Share my gut-level feelings. Muster all the courage I could find, bite the bullet, and spill my soul.
So I said, “Me? Play? Naw. You know I’m up to my ears in the remodel project.”
We drove on in silence for a few moments. “So, how are you planning to pay for this?” I asked, my wounded ego reaching for the dagger.
“Uh, could you loan me seven dollars?”
Oh, I get it. He doesn’t want me, but he’ll gladly take my money.
“No problem,” I said.
I dropped him and Jared off, wished them luck, and headed for home. My son was on his own now. Nobody there to tell him how to fade a five-iron, how to play that tricky downhiller, how to hit the sand shot. And what if there’s lightning? What about hypothermia? A runaway golf cart? A band of militant gophers? He’s so small. Who would take care of him?
There I was, alone, driving away from him. Not just for now. Forever. This was it. The bond was broken. Life would never be the same.
I walked in the door. “What are you doing home?” my wife asked.
I knew it would sound like some 13-year-old who was the only one in the gang not invited to the slumber party, but maintaining my immature demeanor, I said it anyway “I wasn’t invited,” I replied, with a trace of snottiness.
Another one of those peculiar pauses ensued. Then my wife laughed. Out loud. At first I was hurt. Then I, too, laughed, the situation suddenly becoming much clearer.
I went back to the bathroom remodel and began realizing that this is what life is all about: change. This is what fathers and sons must ultimately do: change. This is what I’ve been preparing him for since he first looked at me and screamed in terror: not to play golf without me, but to take on the world without me. With his own set of clubs. His own game plan. His own faith.
God was remodeling my son. Adding some space here. Putting in a new feature there. In short, allowing him to become more than he could ever be if I continued to hover over him. Just like when I was a kid and, at Ryan’s age, I would sling my plaid golf bag over my shoulder and ride my bike five miles across town to play golf at a small public course called Marysville that I imagined as Augusta National.
I remember how grown-up I felt, walking into that dark clubhouse, the smoke rising from the poker game off to the left, and proudly pluncking down my two dollars for nine holes. Would I have wanted my father there with me that day? Naw. A boy’s gotta do what a boy’s gotta do: grow up.
I went back to the bathroom remodel project. A few hours later, I heard Ryan walk in the front door. I heard him complain to his mother that his putts wouldn’t drop, that his drives were slicing, and that the course was like a lake. He sounded like someone I knew. His tennis shoes squeaked with water as I heard him walk back to where I was working on the bathroom.
“Dad,” he said, dripping on the floor, “my game stinks. Can you take me golfing sometime? I need some help.”
I wanted to hug him. Rev my radial-arm saw in celebration. Shout: “I’m still needed!” I wanted to tell God, “Thanks for letting me be part of this kid’s remodel job.”
Instead, I got one of those serious-dad looks on my face and stoically said, “Sure, Ry, anytime.”