Tom Matlack finds unconditional love through a series of in-the-moment connections with friends and family.
At night I stroke my wife’s hair as she snuggles into my chest. I don’t really know how it started or why I continue. I sometimes wonder if I was a wild cat—beasts that take great care in grooming each other—in another life. But the very action of touching my wife’s hair at the end of every day soothes me and connects me to what is most important.
Family dinner at my sister’s house a few weeks ago turned into a brawl.
My 15 year-old-son and I had been talking smack. A few seconds later I find myself at the bottom of a pig pile. I think my daughter and youngest were involved in the initial take-down, but the whole thing is a bit of a black out. And it quickly became mano-a-mano.
I did try to tap out, declare “uncle” and generally beg for mercy. But there was no stopping the inevitable. For what seemed like an eternity, I felt the exquisite pain of being helpless in my son’s arms as he tickled me. Then came the humiliation.
When I stood up, my boxers were somewhere around my eyeballs. Everyone was laughing. I felt spent. And happy. I was laughing. Kinda.
“And you have 60 pounds on me, Dad.” A 6-foot, 160-pound 15-year-old can take down his 6-foot-3, 220-pound, 46-year-old dad on pure desire.
One of my best friends lives around the corner from me. He’s happily married and has two beautiful children. We meet for coffee pretty much every Friday morning. We’ve known each other for over a decade now. He’s a sports fanatic, a software engineer, and has perhaps the best laugh of any human being I have ever met. I love him like a brother. And I know he feels the same way. We hug when we see each other and when we go our separate ways—full body hugs like men are too scared to give most of the time.
When I first met him, my life was not going that well. But it was going better than his. He had been a rapper and found himself in jail. Not long after our first meeting, he called me from the wedding of his best friend in the rap group—a guy who had gotten a stripper from the Foxy Lady pregnant and decided to “do the right thing.” Unfortunately another member of the band, who was the best man, made some smart comment about the first band member’s now-wife at the reception and a fistfight broke out. The cops were on their way when my new friend called to ask my advice.
“Get the fuck out of there,” I told him.
There’s a section of country road in Tiverton, Rhode Island that runs right next to the Sakonnet Bay. It starts at a farm on a hill and continues through a long, leafy straight-a-way next to cow pastures. Around a hairpin turn, a salt marsh appears on the right and the Atlantic Ocean on the left. When the tide is just right, and the sun is out, kids jump from the bridge separating the marsh from the ocean.
I ride my bike over that little bridge every day I can during the summer months. On the far side, the road bisects a potato farm. The plants flower and grow high. But not too high to obscure the view of water nearly all around. It’s barely a road, more of a pasture path that happens to be paved. It could be in Tuscany or somewhere in France. But it’s not. It’s a bike ride, albeit a dozen miles or so one way, from my house.
My youngest son’s first grade class waits in a line just off the main lobby at 3 pm each day at pick-up. There’s a mass of parents, kids, and teachers. His teacher stands guard with a clipboard, waiting to check her students off as their parents arrive.
Just as I come into his range of vision, the muscles in my son’s face tighten with pure joy. I suppose there is a possibility this has something to do with the promise of release from captivity. But the fact that he runs at me full-speed for an enormous hug has me convinced that perhaps my unbridled love for this toe-headed boy is a mutual thing.
My college roommate Brian lives in Los Angeles. I have business in LA every couple of months these days, so whenever I am in town I stay with Brian rather than at a hotel. More than 25 years after we graduated college, it still feels like the closest thing to home that isn’t my home. I sleep better, eat better, and relax more than just about any place on the planet.
We’ve both become road biking enthusiasts. So when I visit, we often go for rides. Six months ago he took me north along the Pacific Coast Highway and then up a seven-mile climb into the canyons. It didn’t end well. I “bonked” two-thirds of the way up, which means, roughly, that I laid in a pool of my own vomit at the side of the road unable to move from exhaustion.
The chain reaction from that insult to my masculinity has resulted in twice-a-week torture sessions with a Russian trainer capable of murder, both metaphoric and real, in a friend donating a titanium frame to the cause, and in mile after mile of riding.
Most recently I have been training on a 12-percent-grade hill right near my house, called Summit Avenue. An older lady was out raking her leaves as the cleat on my shoe came out by accident midway up the hill. As I swore loudly, she looked up to find the lunatic who had invaded her neighborhood.
My next LA ride is scheduled for the end of December. The Russian keeps talking about “the race” like its some kind of Tour de France: what to eat beforehand, how we are going to taper the training regime, how to pace myself during the event. I’ve told him that it’s really just a ride with my best friend. But I don’t have the heart to tell him again. We both have too much invested in my fitness. He can’t comprehend that I would be working so hard just to go for a ride with a buddy.
My office is on the third floor of our house, tucked in the southeast corner. It gets the morning sun and is my hideout. I share the third floor with my daughter, whose bedroom is across the way.
There are times when a 17 year-old girl really doesn’t want to share too much with her father. And for good reason. I have been known to sneak around the corner to make a cameo appearance in her coed video chat “homework” sessions. Her friends seem to find it funny; my daughter not so much.
But the physical proximity has created the space for talks that probably wouldn’t have happened any other way. I have a rocking chair in my office. My daughter often comes in to sit and talk. Sometimes I go into her room and lie on her bed, while she does homework.
Sometimes there are words and sometimes there is silence. The message is always the same: unconditional love.
I’ve been feeling older recently, in a good way. I’ve spent my life running, chasing, miserable in headlong pursuit of something better. Just recently I’ve begun to see glimpses of something different, something that doesn’t require gut-wrenching action, pain and suffering, and always a fight.
Maybe it’s grace or serenity or thanks. Or maybe it’s just getting tired of being a SOB.
I do know that I’ve been married nearly a decade to the woman of my dreams, that my three kids are an unmerited gift beyond any realistic expectation, that I have men in my life who I love with gusto, and that most nights I go to bed happy.
But what happens during the night—my dreams—are another matter. I am grateful but that doesn’t mean I am dead. I don’t want to fight quite so much anymore. But I still have ambitions yet to be fulfilled. I try not to be a greedy man. But I do know that the more thanks I can muster, the more there is to be thankful for. And that living well doesn’t mean walking away from a fight, just being willing to take the wedgie when it’s well deserved.
photo: Bengt Nyman/flickr