I’ve known some “hard” lads at different chapters in my life. My cousin was one of the hardest. An outlaw biker built for war, some said he succumbed to competitors in the local drug scene. Others said he succumbed to love and died heartbroken. As a journalist I also exposed outlaw bikers running extortion rackets and shooting people cold dead in the street. And I can’t ignore all those dads I dealt with who had to work through their decimated existences after their kids were killed in murders and misadventures. Some got up, some never did.
I also can’t exclude my dear friends on the fringes. The boys with gold standard addictions, shunned by the families with nowhere to go but down. And the men I know with minds that play terrible tricks on them. Many of them should be dead. One I know, a beautiful man, will be gone soon.
But pound for pound, I really can’t go past my kid for the World’s Strongest Man award. Yes, I know it all sounds self-absorbed. But hear me out. Hear me out as I deconstruct what a louse I’ve been and what my lad has had to roll with, with his chin aimed in the formidable direction, even though he doesn’t yet know what that word means. He’s a musical, almost straight A, nerdy, just gone 10-year-old who you would never see in a fight or any act of machismo. But I can see that special F word typed old school on his face.
For mine, if you want to know the depth of a man’s character, what he’s made of, then watch how he responds to a genuine crisis when his guard is down. No preparation, no forewarning, what does the man do when he’s confronted by a worst case scenario only he can deal with. All on his own. Our forebears found out in wars, or they watched their kids go to the same wars and never come back. They knew the nature of character and could see the absence of it. But what does the average modern man do in his time of Hell? What even is his Hell in the western world in 2018? It’s a worthy question. Many of us are the Great Untested.
My boy’s Hell should be his father.
His world class performance began when he was one. His mother and I were trying to be delicate, to hold onto the fraying fabric of our increasingly crippled reality. We’d try to be reasonable and we’d try to be gentle with each other, but it seemed to be forever bad boom time. I was edging wildly toward a diagnosis for depression, which would later change to bipolar disorder. But my boy’s mum and I didn’t know this and we were relentlessly fighting. The mortgage, home responsibilities, me partying too much, me working too much, which of our careers should be prioritised, taking care of our boy; these were no longer a source of discussion, they were a source of verbal brawls, which once the neighbours even invited the cops to. No violence people, just screaming our Sydney townhouse down, while my son lay in his cot. Classy stuff.
I was a highly paid television producer and I had made work my life, so of course my job came first. That was implicit in our unspoken, unwritten, unworded contract. Wrong. Turns out my lad’s mum wanted a career too. Who’d have thought? I had no problem with any of that. It was simply that in my splendid arrogance I assumed my blossoming career came first. She escaped the burning bullpen and we moved our boy between two homes, one week at her house, and one week with me.
All the while, in the background, was my beaming boy. He didn’t flinch. I lost my TV career under the weight of my new role as a father and declining mental health. As I flatlined and my ship’s sail was trashed by invisible pirates, my boy danced, even as a toddler, to the precious sounds of Nirvana Unplugged. And then he just kept on dancing. Year on year, as I levelled pain and uncertainty on our home, finding jobs, making money, sacked from jobs, got no money, at the soup kitchen broke, and through it all my boy cackled and beamed and rolled bodaciously out of one calamity and onto the next.
Every three to eight months I will lose it on a manic mind incineration and vaporise out of my son’s life for between a week and two weeks depending on the severity of an episode. I will be florid like Henry David Thoreau on my renter deck on the train line under star constellations, but I could also be so incompetent as to have failed to pick him up from school, and I have missed key dates on his calendar where he may be playing trombone in his school band or racing at a swimming carnival.
But here’s the thing, it’s bloody impressive that he’s been able to deal with all of that and not become a mental health statistic himself. But that’s not why my son is the World’s Strongest Man. No, no, no. What makes my son the World’s Strongest Man in my eyes can be broken down to one beautiful word that is equally misused and underused.
My boy is routinely confronted by mental health bushfires. He returns to me in the midst of the black grind out and up. I can’t concentrate, guilt is hammering down like hail and all my boy wants to do is chat, show me a new song he has learned on the keyboard, or a game he is playing online. He’s not trying to be nice. He simply absorbs a mental health debacle like some people breathe air and eat New York baked cheesecake.
For his birthday I made him vegetarian Vietnamese Pho soup and chocolate and strawberry sponge cake. This week was the first time we’d intimately connected since Christmas. Because after a long stretch with no episodes, I had this double-header – one at Halloween and one at Christmas. They came right on the back of me negotiating up our time together from five days a fortnight to six. Over Pho soup I asked him straight up Buttercup:
“Hey mate, I’ve had a bad run late…
“Yeah you’ve had two quick episodes, Dad.”
“Yes that’s right mate. Do you think you want to drop your days with me and spend more time at your Mum’s.”
“No way Dad. You were sick. It’s not a big deal. I want to keep the days up and maybe go up to seven. But be careful, because if you have another one I think Mum might want to change it.”
“Okay. Are you sure you don’t want that?”
“I’m totally sure, can we go and get some Baskin and Robbins? I want a treat.”
“Sure mate. Done deal.”
My 10-year-old chooses poverty and the bombed out artist’s flophouse where the coal trains snake through in early morn (and we just got carpet), over the safe and the routine. And yet, he knows exactly what he’s in for.
He knows exactly what his dad is.
My nominee for World’s Strongest Man.
Happy Birthday Boy,
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Photo courtesy of the author.