When my son's life was in neutrality last fall, I decided to take him on a country road trip. I thought adventure would give him new experiences and perspectives and open his mind to possibilities.
Driving from coast to coast changed my own life 30 years ago. There's a reason stories about the street have long been a staple of America.
And it would be good to spend some time together; we don't see each other much. We have a unique relationship. Indeed, we do not fit in with most traditional notions of family. We're not connected by DNA or formal paperwork, but in our hearts and minds we are father and son.
We met years ago through an online mentoring program: a middle-aged gay, white atheist in a comfortable suburb of Boston and a straight, black, evangelical teenager who lives with his mother in a South African settlement. We were an unlikely game to say the least, but something clicked. I saw him as an adorable sucker, brimming with the hopes and dreams of youth. In me he saw a window into another world.
When the mentoring program collapsed, our relationship grew. Knowing that his aspirations were unattainable given his circumstances, I took him to college and helped a naive child from a farm school navigate fairly uneven roads. I became a coach, a cheerleader, and an enforcer. He called me his best friend ever. He called me father.
Gradually he was transformed. His shyness and insecurity subsided, replaced by bold trust. He saw a way to a bright future and knew he would get there. We loved it when he got a job after graduating. It was just an office gig, but it was experience – in a year he would get something better.
However, the South African economy has little chance for young people, and one year turned into four. He got grumpy and tired and bitter. His idealism and ambition had faded; his spark faded.
We worked so hard. He had come this far. When he was in college he had skyrocketed. I would not let him fall back to earth defeated.
I was sure the trip would be cinematic, like old Kodak advertisements marking the times of our lives. We had only a few brief visits in the 10 years that we had known each other and I was excited about the chance to be a personal father for a few months to my son, who would turn 27 along the way. I imagined sun-kissed days marveling at America's majestic sights. Trading ignores inside jokes. Sing in perfect pitch on the radio. And warm conversations full of fatherly wisdom as we sped through a mugwort desert.
What I didn't expect were the screaming matches. Conflict is not my style. I grew up in New England in a family of Catholics from Eastern Europe: the Trifecta of suppressed silence. We don't have good feelings. And bad feelings are simply pushed under the carpet – which now looks like the Himalayas. If it gets really difficult, we'll go away. Sometimes forever.
But escape was not an option this time. At the beginning of our relationship, my son told me that his life would collapse if I ever left him. I promised that would never happen.
So we fought. It was only twice, but each was enough to register on the Richter scale.
In the beginning everything was fine. From the Statue of Liberty to the Lincoln Memorial. Through the Shenandoah Valley, Charleston and Savannah. A soccer game in Atlanta and a birthday dinner in Montgomery. It was three weeks full of smiles, selfies and souvenirs. It was everything I hoped for.
And then, on a steamy New Orleans night, a little comment from him set things off. It quickly developed into a sidewalk scene that rivaled every episode of Real Housewives. We yelled at each other for 10 minutes as tourists carefully looked at us and stepped out of the line of fire. We argued in disjointed outbursts about respect, expectations, and attitudes. Finally, panting and exhausted, we hugged and then ducked into a nearby bar – and soon hopped up to a tight blues band.
And we kept jumping. More music in Memphis. Barbecue in Fort Worth. Star filled skies in Santa Fe. The Grand Canyon and Hollywood Boulevard and Big Sur.
Then Yosemite: a battle as epic as the landscape. After two days of fun, we made our way back to t-shirts and one last look. I don't remember what lit the fuse. As the car drove down the winding road, a decade of withheld things eventually exploded, and the volume rose to 11. If I'd missed a corner and we sped down the hill, we wouldn't even have noticed. The small room was full of anger and resentment, frustration and disappointment. We argued for half an hour until we finally reached the valley.
I was angry and exhausted. Concerned. Frightened. So much came out that it couldn't be taken back, things that probably shouldn't have been said. It was bad.
After silently buying our memorabilia, I stopped to take one last look at El Capitan: solid, immobile, stunning. We lay at the foot of a meadow and pointed out climbers moving towards the sky, small patches of color on a huge stone wall. Then we made our way to Tahoe. The morning conflict faded in the rearview mirror.
The next day, on the long drive to Idaho, we had a deep, honest conversation about his life and the difficulties he is facing. About what he had learned from the trip so far – and what he could take home to turn things around. We never mentioned the argument.
Sometimes the best part of traveling isn't the postcard scenes, but the quiet spaces in between – when the experience points are sifted and sorted. I rolled across the bare void of Nevada and looked at my son, snoring softly, trusting that he was in good hands. This stranger who fell into my world and gave me a crash course in parenting like no other. Who taught me long overdue lessons about myself? And life. And love.
It always surprised me that I love him no less, no matter how much he disappoints me or makes me angry or crazy. And here, a day after the biggest fight I've ever had, our bond wasn't weakened at all. It was actually stronger.
I know this is not the case in every relationship. Some arguments end things. Anyway, they move the ball. With so many people in my life – friends, lovers, family – the ball hasn't moved. It's exactly where I left it. When I closed the door and left Not ready to fight, to risk, to trust.
My son's situation requires him to have courage every day. It was time for me to show off some of my own.
Michael Beckett is a writer working on a memoir about his role as a surrogate father.