A dad in the neighborhood died tragically a few days ago. Along with friends and family, his two oldest children, teenagers, spoke at the funeral service. With tremendous poise and composure, they shared moving, heartfelt thoughts. As they voiced memories of their father, I was struck by the potential that in his absence, his words could take on a life of their own, creating weighty baggage his children will carry forward.
Of course the death of a parent is an emotionally loaded experience, with layers of feeling sometimes taking years to surface. But even in the usual routine of day to day life, I can give my daughters messages that, inadvertently, take on burdensome meaning.
My kids get lots from me — genes and bad habits, for example — things that cannot be avoided, and with which they are saddled. What of their hopes and dreams? I want them to find their own passions and paths, but wonder if I unknowingly push and prod them in one direction or another. I joke with my 14-year-old that she will need a farm with a clothes boutique and wood shop, an image that tickles me and represents a blending of her skills and interests as I see them. My 16-year-old relishes an argument as much for the strategy as the victory, so I tell her the law beckons. As I reflect back their strengths and abilities, am I shaping the roads they will see in front of their eyes?
If I am forming the way they see their destinies, maybe I should be alright with that; my knowledge of the world might be useful and help my girls miss some false starts and disappointments. I can help them translate varied things they enjoy now, like music, math and puppetry, into a future course.
The risk comes if my daughters hear my thoughts as inflexible tracks they must follow. Worst case scenario: at dinner tonight, I say to my oldest she would love to climb a mountain, then lapse into a coma, making her feel bound by my last words, devoting herself to a life of mountaineering, something I never intended and she would hate.
I expect my girls to rebel against my ideas and values, but the idea that they might actually feel obligated to follow the hopes I have for them is hard to shoulder. I think I want them to head off into the world open to everything, ready to find the magical career that blends what they love with what they do well, able to build special friendships, to cherish experience and adventure wherever they find it.
But my kids will never be blank pages, moving through life unaffected and unshaped by me, no matter how hard I try. As long as I’m here, though, I can try to modify, minimize or undo the constraints I’ve unknowingly put on them.
My older daughter and I were at that poignant funeral, as were many, many other friends and family of the deceased dad. Afterwards I told my first born, if I keeled over tomorrow, which I wasn’t planning on, it would be nice if she remembers me but, please, live life freely, any way she pleased, owing me nothing. Now I need to find a way to give her that message while I’m still around.