I’ve told this story before.
When Michael was about three or four, he used to play “Sir Michael the Knight.” Sometimes it would be on the sand in the yard of a beach house we rented one winter where we would build elaborate castles and he’d be Sir Michael and I was the dragon inevitably slain by the knight, culminating in my plunging death into the castle. Most often he occupied himself on rainy days when he would don his shield and sword and cardboard helmet and then barrel around the house. One time he ran through his grandmother’s home in Pennsylvania, cardboard sword before him, through the kitchen to the living room to the dining room and back into the kitchen, several times always calling “Sir Michael the Knight is going to slay the dragon!” or “You can’t get away from me dragon!” as he passed again, his voice fading in some Doppler effect as he disappeared into the kitchen, emerging around the corner seconds later. On one turn he was mid-sentence running into the dining room when his shoulder clipped the table and his feet flew out before him and his entire body slammed to the floor in perfect professional wrestling fashion. I jumped from the couch when I heard his head hit the ground, but he only lay there a second before he said, “Sir Michael the Knight hurts himself bad.” He got up and kept running.
He is still running. Michael turned twenty-three today.
When I was young my father brought my brother and me to play golf. We really didn’t talk about anything other than the round of golf as we played, and often we finished with hotdogs at the grill. But it was bonding time, a chance for us to be together somehow knowing just the time together was more than enough; we didn’t need long, deep conversations. I can recall those times as clearly as if they happened yesterday. In the later years Dad and I would have Scotch together every Tuesday night. I’m not a fan of Scotch but of course that wasn’t the point. We’d sit and talk about baseball or teaching or whatever movie might be on, and we’d slowly sip the single malt.
Still there was always that gap that separated his generation from mine. For my dad’s generation “dressing down” meant loosening their ties. They listened to news on the radio and more often than not for most of them the first trip out of town was World War Two. Their music came from crooners and orchestras and nearly all their relations lived relatively close.
But the generation gap between my age group and my son’s is much less evident. We listen to the same music, dress the same, share the same adventurous spirit for travel, and communicate through social media more often in one day than I might have communicated with my father at all in a month. There are differences, of course and thank God, but the gap today is more of a small ravine with a variety of bridges compared to the canyon which stood between “the Greatest Generation” and the baby boomers.
I’ve been especially privileged to spend time with Michael. It isn’t unusual to find us at a local oyster bar splitting a dozen and drinking hard cider. Together we’ve ventured to various east coast spots like Long Island and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, trained across Europe and Asia on the Trans Siberian Rail Road, and walked across Spain. We’ve been around the block together, and we’ve seen more together than most fathers and sons get to experience in a lifetime. I am constantly aware of this and deeply grateful.
But none of those journeys compare to the pilgrimage we make to the river every evening when we’re both home to take pictures of the setting sun and we wander around in silence to listen to the water and watch the wildlife. One of us might mention a colorful cloud formation or the approach of an osprey, but mostly we take pictures and point out the peacefulness. This has been a steady routine since he was four; the picture taking started just a few years later. In the summer the sand fleas can be unbearable but we tolerate them, swatting our legs and faces determined to remain at the river a bit longer. In winter we bundle up ready for whatever wind whips down the Rappahannock toward the bay. Over these nearly two decades we must have taken thousands of pictures. I prefer to point my camera up at the ever-changing cloud formations picking up the last bit of light from the fading sun. I try not to allow anything “earthbound” into the frame, including trees or even the water. I like the fluidity of clouds, how beautiful they are ever so briefly before they dissipate. Michael aims at the surface, seeing hues and shapes that swirl and gather and disperse as fast as he can find them, capturing just the right combination of color and design before the tide takes over.
It is about perspective. When people my age get older, we are “getting older.” When a man Michael’s age gets older, he is “growing up.” Twenty three years ago today I can tell you exactly what I was doing, where I was, how I felt, what I was wearing, what I ate, and the temperature outside. That was a lifetime ago; it was moments ago. Twenty-three years ago I was someone else entirely, a character in a story. Today it is almost as if I should find Michael coming around the corner, cardboard sword pointed toward an imaginary dragon.
These days I prefer to look forward so I don’t slam into anything. I am not sure where Michael’s going next but wherever it is and for whatever reason, I am confident it is with faith, a sense of humor, and an instinctive ability to be kind to people. I am as excited as he is about what’s over the horizon.
Happy Birthday, Sir Michael.