I talked to my parents today. I've spent the last few weeks stressing myself out over work projects and trying to sleep, and had completely neglected to talk to them since my birthday. They were up in the Adirondacks, enjoying the summer months as only people who work for school districts can.
Contained in this phone call were two concepts which made me uncomfortable, but my discomfort does not make them any less true. One I had been confronting for a while now, while the other was new to me but carries concerns that have broken my head for the last few hours. Both of them say things about myself that I am not happy about.
I have not been back to the valley since Christmas. That trip was a mess of chain smoking and awkward but well managed moments, and I suppose that should be the spirit of holiday visits home. But it is now more than seven months since I have laid eyes on my nephew and niece, and they are of an age where they can sprout new dimensions to themselves in the blink of an eye. Their current condition was the first question that I put to my mother, and she was full of stories about first words and youthful misadventures. I intellectually understood that these changes were taking place, but hearing about them second hand over hundreds of miles of telephone line filled me with angst and heartbreak.
I feel that I am neglecting them. I feel that I made choices that cause me to live so far away, and these barriers are damaging the relationship that I should be having with them. Every missed moment is one that cannot be recreated, and it is my fault that I am not there to witness them. I am not doing enough to leap over this hurdle. I should be bringing myself into their lives more, whether through phone calls or webcams or weekend road trip blitzes. I should be reaching through the space that I have made and grabbing onto them with whatever grip I can manage.
But then, the question that isn't asked in any of that is what I would be winning by emphasizing my presence. What kind of impact should I be having on these little children, so small and fundamental? Is my desire to merely be in attendance for this time in their life? I believe that I need to clarify what it making me feel this way, so that I figure out what the plan should be.
I didn't tell all of this to her. That would have made for an awkward conversation that didn't need to happen. Instead I told her in exasperated terms that this was quite possibly the longest I had gone without seeing them since prehistoric times, and that I was trying to figure out the best time to make the drive.
I want to be there now. I want to grab those children and squeeze the hell out of them. I feel pathetic for feeling this way. It is a little too close to homesickness for my liking.
In the middle of some small talk with my mother, she was suddenly interrupted by my father asking to speak with me. My first instinct was to immediately assume that something terrible had happened. My father and I do not talk on the phone except some quick words about work or cars. His explicit request was a declaration of something horrific, and I spent the rest of my chat with my mother running ghoulish scenarios in my brain.
He got on the phone, and asked me how the quitting was going.
"Almost seven months. It's been a pain in the ass."
"Are you still having cravings?"
Bluffing, "Yeah, but they're not so bad."
"I'm on day two."
I dropped the clutch in my brain too quickly, and all of the passengers were thrown out the windshield. Two days? Holy fucking shit.
My father has been smoking since he was about thirteen, I'm assuming. Surprisingly, we've never actually talked about how he started. So he's been at it for more than forty-five years. He smoked his way through four children, through the Sterling plant closing and the layoffs at the port, through both of his parents dying. He uses smoking to concentrate, to meditate, to pry his way through stress, and to embrace simple moments. Perhaps watching him engage in these moments over the years was the reason that I used smoking the same way. These are ethereal concepts, so putting words to them is impractical. Regardless, smoking was as much a part of his identity as his name and his family. Two days of quitting probably feels like two days at the bottom of a well with a broken leg. Two days of watching his house burn down.
"What are you using?" I say, trying not to drown it in concern.
"What? Nothing. I just stopped."
"That's, um... wow. That's really hardcore"
"Well, they raised the taxes, and now a pack is over $10. Even the Seneca mail order. That's crazy."
"That's city prices."
"Right, so I just stopped."
I wanted to say so much then, and it all smashed against a brick wall. The fucking taxes got you? Drug addiction and health concerns are a meh, but throw the taxes in and that's your critical mass? Wait, isn't that the same logic I used to quit? Wait, do I want to have a philosophical argument with my father? Wait, can I have a philosophical argument with my father? Is that a thing? Wait, why I am trying to talk him out of this? For someone having a day-to-day struggle with quitting myself, I was suddenly unsure of every position I had held regarding this issue. I was at a loss of words, but also at a loss of context. The world had melted around me, and I was standing in the middle of it suddenly trying to be encouraging.
I did try to be encouraging. I talked with him about what my experience had been like. I asked him what two days of nicotine withdrawal had felt like for him, and reminded him that it only takes 72 hours for the chemical dependency to be broken. Then, after those first three days, quitting smoking is all in your head and can be manipulated if you run the facts hard enough. In the end, I said something that I thought I would never say to him:
"If you need to talk about it, just give me a ring. Any time."
I've been running those words in my head for a few hours. I'm trying to imagine the world I live in now, where my father and I have both chemical dependency in common, but also similar experiences in breaking that addiction. I'm imagining him thinking about how I did it, and holding me as an example of how it could work and an ideal to strive toward. I'm an example for my father.
I wonder where this starts feeling right.