Note: Because of the work I’m doing right now, Siberia is very much on my mind; in particular, the ride across by rail my son and I traveled in 2013. I wrote this letter in my journal at the airport in Vladivostok almost four years ago. I just found it while piecing together material from those journals for a book. You know, from the outside, it is easy to judge what life is like for someone else, what he or she is going through and the decisions they make, especially the bad ones. Unfortunately, no one anymore—not even people we’re close to—bothers to ask directly how things are, if everything is okay. I have never had that issue with Michael, and I’m deeply appreciative of that rare character trait in him.
That was on my mind at five in the morning at the airport in far eastern Russia drinking coffee and writing:
When you were born, the Soviet Union had just collapsed, Boris Yeltsin was the president of Russia trying to keep his newborn nation alive, and everyone in St. Petersburg and in Moscow was still trying to figure out what to do. The powers-that-be were people not used to asking for help from anyone. Mistakes were common.
That was me in ‘93 when you came into this world. Like all new fathers, I made decisions based on what I needed to know to keep you alive, followed by decisions based on what I remembered from growing up or from watching other young fathers. I don’t recall asking anyone for help but I clearly remember making many mistakes. And the hardest part of parenthood is knowing when to be there for you and when to back off. If I’ve mixed them up from time to time, forgive me.
Yet here we are at the end of one of the greatest journeys in modern travel. The irony is most fathers of twenty-year-old’s only go to the train station to wave goodbye, not to embark on a month-long adventure. Maybe you’d have rather done this alone; maybe with someone your own age. I’m certain either of those is most likely preferable to traveling with your father, but we find ourselves here nonetheless. Consider it your gift to me; my heart is full.
We’ve covered thousands of miles in twenty years. I was thinking last night about the Brio train set we gave you for Christmas when you were just two or three. We spent endless hours on the floor creating scenarios, traveling across the country, over mountains and even oceans. You learned geography; I learned patience. You learned how to turn a few simple wooden trains into a universe; I learned how expensive toys can be.
During your youth you and I did so much together, and luckily for me as the years passed and you grew older, that didn’t change. And now after traveling across Europe and Asia, I can’t imagine taking the journey with anyone else. I don’t think many fathers and sons stay as close as we have all these years later. Your grandfather and I got along fine but the roles were written differently in the sixties and seventies than the contemporary take. While I’m sure there are more than a few fathers and sons these days who have full-blown, knock down, drag-out fights which leave scars too deep to heal, the cause of most conflict is seemingly subtle. And unlike the shaky lines of communication between your grandfather’s generation and mine, the lines of communication between mine and yours is almost always open.
And now we’ve disembarked, left the final station, spent some time in the city, and are ready to return home to head toward whatever’s next. Spain perhaps. We shall see. In the meantime I need you to do something for me: I need you to forgive me for growing older, for someday losing the energy I’ve had until now. As I write this we’re still at the airport in Vladivostok. You’re looking at maps of Kamchatka planning to come back and possibly do on your own what to this point we did together. I’m looking out at the early morning light revealing itself over the Sea of Japan. At what point you will actually read this is a mystery to me since I’m not sure if I’ll even copy it out of my journals and onto a screen to print and mail. If I do it certainly won’t be anytime soon. Between now and then who is to say what will happen—to me, to you, to us. We’ve done okay together though; we understand each other and maybe that is all a father can ask for. It is probably well more than a son can ever expect. So I believe we’ve done okay so far, you and me.
To use the metaphor of this journey just one more time—I don’t know what’s ahead. At some point we will split off and follow separate tracks. I am lucky we stayed on the same ride as long as we have. Thank you for that. I’m certain your urge to take off has been strong. If our relationship has any scars at all, they are nearly unrecognizable, subtle, mysterious; I think we have come out of these two decades mostly unblemished. But to be honest, I do not know and maybe I never will know just how badly I screwed up as a father. Should I have pushed you out on your own sooner? Should I have encouraged you toward different paths? Maybe I said too much. I know every father wonders how he could have done things differently, and the best we can hope for is we did the best we could.
But before this trite little letter becomes so predictable you throw it out, you need to know how much like your grandfather you have turned out to be. Maybe that is why I allowed you so much room through the years to make up your own mind on so many issues; because you have the same quiet, contemplative manner. I heard once that when a father dies it is the greatest loss of security a son will ever know. I suppose that only is true if the father was a protector to begin with. I certainly have tried to be, just as I always tried to be a good son. I think that if we pay attention to what we would have done differently as sons, maybe we become better fathers. I don’t know.
Maybe in some inconceivable time from now when you’re well beyond my years and I’m long gone, perhaps you’ll look back to this journey and remember how we laughed so long together, discovered so much of the world together. Maybe, someday, you’ll be sitting somewhere and someone—perhaps a grandson of your own or maybe just two strangers on some bench—will be talking about Siberia or fathers and sons or sunsets on a summer night, and you’ll think of me. If you do, I hope you’ll smile and remember the time when we were both so alive, and we walked the hills near Lake Baikal. I hope you’ll remember when we joined our Russian friends in the dining car for drinks and music, and time didn’t pass us by as much as we left it behind.
Mostly, I hope you will recall how we stood alone together between the cars, you playing harmonica and me watching the passing landscape of birch trees and green fields, just you and me, enjoying this random trip through time.