Photo: Courtesy of Kase Johnstun
When I was 23 and doing my best to escape any sense of real-world responsibility, I caught the sunrise while on a ferry from France to Ireland. As the rays caught the edges of the swells of salty water, the world felt so beautiful, new, bright and hopeful—it was the first moment that I can remember where I was fully and emotionally present. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect moment—one that I would crave so deeply. I thought I’d never trade it for another.
I was so wrong.
I’d trade that moment for even the smallest one with my son and my wife, for even the tiniest time with all three of us together on an uneventful Sunday evening, for a walk around the neighbourhood on a search for potato bugs or for the moment when I wake him before school, leaning over his bed to bring him out of sleep. And yet all these wonderful, happy, beautiful moments are beginning to weigh on me. I think I’m having a weird kind of midlife crisis.
Just the other night, I had another seemingly pedestrian moment that eclipsed that ferry ride. In his favourite red sweatpants, my six-year-old son waited for me on the front porch to return home from a run. When I got closer, he ran to me. I picked him up. He felt the sweat on my clothes and neck, but he hung on tight enough to tell me that I was too stinky to hug for “too long.”
So I sat on the front porch while he ran. I sent him off to touch the farthest tree on the lawn, counting to see if he could beat his previous time. He ran as fast as he could, his legs buckling when they hit the random dips and holes on the uneven lawn. He touched the tree and ran back toward me. His arms swung so awkwardly, pumping his body to the porch, beating his goal.
“Why do you keep smiling at me?” he asked.
With his skinny, wiggling legs and serious determination, I couldn’t have stopped smiling if I tried. I sent him off again to touch another tree.
Some parents berate themselves for missing these moments or taking them for granted, but I am too aware. I live too long in them, I swim in them and, recently, I have begun to drown in them. The intensity of the happiness has started to curdle into worry and sadness over the fact that these days will pass. I want to slow down time, to make sure we savour and hold on to every moment. Though every little boy wants to grow up so fast, I know, deep down, that in his growing up, I will be growing old.
At night, after my wife has read books to our son and I’ve rubbed his back, I’m struck by how quiet the house suddenly is. As all parents can agree, there is an incredible sense of relief when the kids have finally gone to bed, when our space has become ours again. I feel this, too. But lately, my peace has been replaced by grief. I am mourning in moments that should be lived in.
I think about life as if it has already passed, as if I am already 75 years old and my life is close to an end. It all begins with the same infectious thought, and it paralyzes me.
As with moments like the one on the ferry when I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful scene, I couldn’t have imagined emotions to be so rich and full and deep as they are in fatherhood, in loving a son. When I look ahead, if I’m lucky to make it to 75 years old, I see myself as aged, but I don’t see my son as the 40-year-old man he will be.
Instead, I see my boy as the boy whose whole body shakes when we drive up to school because he can’t wait to jump out of the car to meet his friends, as the boy who says things like “I’m going to take a miracle poop” and rushes out of the room laughing at his own joke, as the boy whose huge heart brings him to tears when a drawing he made didn’t live up to what he thought it would be in his mind.
When most men hit a midlife crisis, they want a new car, a young wife and more hair. They want the freedom to be unanchored to those things that bring them home. This is not me. (Well, I’d take more hair.) I don’t want that ferry again unless my family is with me.
The lust for boyish freedom isn’t there. I want to stay here forever, in a time in my family’s life when we only need each other to navigate the world. I know that my fear is irrational. I know that we raise our children to be independent and, if we’ve done our job right, they do not need us in the same way when they become adults, but knowing this doesn’t help me shake these feelings.
The other day, with an aching back, I placed a pillow down on the living room rug, put a blanket over my body and settled into straighten out my spine. My son threw a pillow next to me, placed a blanket over his body and snuggled up in the crease between my chest and my upper arm. He turned his head and smiled up at me. It was yet another moment of pure happiness. I looked back at my wife, who sat on the couch behind us. She smiled at the two of us there, just like I had smiled at him on the day he ran from tree to tree. And then she turned her head, the smile still on her face, and continued to watch TV with us. I could see it. She took in the moment, and then she moved on.
I envied her, and then I attempted to mimic her.
I stopped thinking, just for a moment. It worked, at least for a bit. The happiness stayed a little longer. That’s a success I will take because if I don’t change or figure this out, soon enough my son will watch that long-held smile become shadowed by saddened eyes.
I’m not going to let that happen.
Kase Johnstun is an award-winning essayist and author who lives and writes in Ogden, Utah.