Essay copyright 1991 by Barrie Maguire
|THE PRODIGAL SON
Such memories I have of him.
I remember when he was nine years old and we would go to the Flyers games, and try
to make each other step on the cracks in the sidewalk outside the Spectrum. Then
after we'd climbed all the way up to our seats in the highest row, we'd argue over whose
turn it was to go all the way back down and get the pizza and coke. And I remember the time the Canadians scored a
shorthanded goal that put a crucial game out of reach, and he was so mad he punched me in
the stomach. And all the times we laughed at
the guy with the neck veins down at the end of the row who kept screaming, "You
turkey!" at the refs. And driving home
together that delirious, crazy afternoon the Flyers won the Stanley Cup. I remember his very first hockey practice at the
Radnor Rink. He was eight years old. He fell down a hundred times, and afterwards he
looked up at me and said, "I liked it!" And the time six years later, during his little
brother's father/son game when he had been pressed into action on the father's team, and
he threaded that amazing pass to me as I stood poised in the slot on bent ankles--I swung
at the puck, missed and fell down while everybody laughed.
And I remember the feeling I got during his Bantam seasons when the other fathers
would say, "If only all the kids hustled like Maguire."
I remember his very first hockey practice at the Radnor Rink. He was eight years old. He fell down a hundred times, and afterwards he looked up at me and said, "I liked it!" And the time six years later, during his little brother's father/son game when he had been pressed into action on the father's team, and he threaded that amazing pass to me as I stood poised in the slot on bent ankles--I swung at the puck, missed and fell down while everybody laughed. And I remember the feeling I got during his Bantam seasons when the other fathers would say, "If only all the kids hustled like Maguire."
And then, of course, that amazing moment the night I gave a music party and it was after midnight and I was playing "You Gotta Move" on the Dobro, and from out of the darkness came a high, clear, haunting blues riff that gave everyone in the room goosebumps. I looked up and it was him, sitting on the stairs, playing my other guitar. He was fourteen.
Whether it was just the normal urges of adolescence, or a long-delayed reaction to his parent's divorce, or some combustible combination of both, he changed. In his sophomore year his grades began to fall, and when I talked with him about it he got defensive and blamed his teachers, using language that shocked me. Whenever I offered to help with his homework, or pressed him on getting it done early, he'd blow his top and insist he didn't have any, or he'd done it in school, and accuse me of never believing him. I'd wake up at two in the morning and hear him playing the guitar in his room, then the next morning I'd see his book bag lying undisturbed in the front hall where he'd dropped it the previous afternoon.
It was frustrating to argue with him. He was quick to anger, and he would never admit he had done anything wrong. "Barrie," I would plead, "why won't you ever admit you're wrong? Why can't you just once say you're sorry?"
By early in his junior year it was taking me several attempts each morning to get him up for school. And whenever, in exasperation, I decided to make him responsible for getting himself up, he would miss the bus. Then I would have to drive him to school and we'd argue in the car, and by the time I finally arrived late to work my voice would be hoarse from yelling and I'd tell my secretary that I had a sore throat.
Even as our relationship darkened, for Barrie and me the hockey rink somehow
remained a sanctuary. Here we still shared an
unbroken string of happy memories, the years of frigid pre-dawn practices and post-game
cokes, and those priceless moments when, after a good defensive play or a goal, he would
look up into the stands and make eye contact with me, and in that instant a lifetime of
love and understanding would pass between us, me grinning with my fist raised high, and he
gliding slowly back to the bench, giving me an almost imperceptible nod of his head.
grinning with my fist raised high, and he gliding slowly back to the bench, giving me an almost imperceptible nod of his head.
But no matter how happy the day, by bedtime we'd be fighting again.
I tried sympathizing with him, I tried placating him, I tried trusting him, ignoring him, screaming at him, forgiving him, grounding him, begging him. I told him I was worried about him, I told him I loved him. Nothing worked. I began telling my friends, "He's ruining my life."
I took a week-long business trip and left the kids alone, and during a Thursday night phone call, his older sister let slip that Barrie hadn't gone to school all week. I was furious, but he was not there to talk to, and when I called back the next morning, after the start of school, there was no answer on the phone.
That evening I rushed home from the airport with twenty-four hours of pent-up anger and frustration boiling inside me. Once home, I went straight to his basement room to confront him. He was sitting in the mess of his room playing the guitar, and he smiled when he saw me. "Hey, Dad. How was your trip?"
I advanced on him, yelling. "You didn't go to school this week!" "Yes I did." "The hell you did!" "Who said I didn't?" I shoved him in the shoulder. "It's none of your goddamm business who told me, you didn't go to school!" I wanted to rip his head off, "How can you do this to me?" I couldn't strike him but, oh God, I wanted to. I bore into him, provoking him, yelling at him and he yelled back. I shoved at him, and he gave ground, pushing my hands away, shouting, "Stop it, dammit, get your hands off me!" "Don't curse at me, I'll push you if I want to, goddammit!" "Stop shoving me!" Then, from out of the tangle of our arms, he threw a punch at me. It hit me flush on my jaw. I couldn't believe it. It hadn't hurt but I thought, I can't let him get away with that. I took a wild left-handed swing at him and he turned right into it. It landed on his mouth.
I will never forget the softness of his mouth on my fist.
He turned back to look at me, his eyes wide in amazement. His mouth and chin were covered with blood. His braces! He saw the look of horror on my face and put his hand to his mouth and looked down at it and saw that he was bleeding. Enraged, he screamed at me, "I hate you!" and bolted up the stairs. I yelled after him, "Barrie, come back here!" but he was already out the door. I staggered up the stairs after him and out the front door in time to see him backing down the driveway and, tires squealing, roar away down the street in my car.
He went straight to his mother's house, thank God. But when she called, I said to her in shame and bitterness and self-disgust, "I can't handle him. I don't want him living here anymore."
She said, "I feel so awful for both of you. I told him I want him to live here with me. But he said, no, he wants to live with you."
Barrie returned home under terms better suited to a prison than a home. A tense truce had been declared, on my terms, terms as one-sided, as emotionally humiliating as any victor ever imposed on a defeated foe.
I treated him with distrust, cold anger lurking just below the surface, watching him for any sign of relapse, studying his face for any hint of insubordination.
One morning during the second week he overslept. I lay awake, aware that he was still asleep, but damned if I was going to get him up. The school bus roared past the house...got him! I leapt out of bed in a rage. Barrie was frantically pulling his clothes on when I stormed into the room. "You missed the bus again!"
He looked at me, his face contorted with disappointment, and said, "I know I did. I'm sorry."
I screamed at him, "What the hell good is it to say you're sorry?" But he would not fight.
"I know," he said softly, "I'm sorry."
I angrily drove him to school, frustrated that he wouldn't argue back.
It went that way for several weeks. Whenever I jumped on him for not having started his homework, or for making a mess in the kitchen, or for ignoring some household task, his arms might tense at first, his face might flush, but he would deliberately calm himself and reply, "You're right," or "I will," or "I'm sorry."
The atmosphere in the house grew more tolerable as Barrie continued to return my aggression with passivity, my criticism with quiet apologies. But still I couldn't--or wouldn't--let my guard down. Still I expected the worst from him.
Then one night at the end of the hockey season Barrie's team lost a tough game that eliminated them from the post-season playoffs. He had played well, but had spent most of the third period on the bench as the coach kept only his very best players on the ice. Finally, when the game was out of reach, Barrie got on for two shifts near the end, digging hard right to the final whistle. Twenty minutes after the game had ended, he emerged from the locker room. I watched him as he walked along the side of the rink, his heavy equipment bag slung over one shoulder, two hockey sticks in his free hand. His face was flushed from the exertion of the game and his hair, wet with perspiration, still clung in curls to his forehead. When he came to where the parents waited, I went over to him and put an arm around his shoulder and said, "Tough loss, Bar'. You had a great year. You made me proud."
He dropped his bag and sticks to the floor, and for the first time in a year, he put his arms around me, and I realized how tall he had become. He squeezed me tightly and said, "I love you, Dad." I put my arms around him and squeezed him back, and we both began to cry.
It was too late to salvage his junior year and it eventually took him an extra semester to graduate from high school, but graduate he did. After a year of work, he went on to music school in Los Angeles, three thousand miles from home.
He's twenty-four now. And I wish I could put him on videotape and show him to every father who's crying tonight over a "lost" teenage son.
He's living in L.A., delivering for a deli by day and playing his music by night. He's a member of a band that writes its own material, that's being "watched" by a record company, and that's already performed at the Roxy. He's doing what he loves. Now his homework is playing the guitar.
I wish him luck, I send him my love. And my respect. If he's lucky, before he's through thousands will have memories of him. Maybe even millions. But none of those memories will be better than mine.
Eleven years later: Today Barrie is a happy, healthy, successful music producer with four or five gold records in a box under his desk. (Turns out practicing his guitar instead of doing his homework wasn't such a bad idea after all.) But more importantly to me is that he is as strong and loyal a friend as I have in all the world.
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