A Father’s Letter to His Son
By Devin Friedman
Here at goop, we prize intimacy and honesty. We talk about issues that are important, affecting, and often highly personal. It is with that in mind that we will occasionally feature essays and letters from writers telling their own stories. It is our hope that these first-person pieces amuse you, move you, and even make you think in a new way.
So you, Finn Friedman, wrote a love letter. Which was pretty shocking.
You are seven years old. You’re barely even a person at this point. You’re kind of impersonating a person—you like to wear grown-up neckties and say things like “You’re being passive aggressive”—but it’s not always that convincing. You don’t even know if Brooklyn is a neighborhood or a city or a building. You’re more or less six inches tall and weigh about one point five bread loaves, which is six point four blueberry muffins or four unicorn hooves depending on whether you’re into English or metric measurements. But apparently there are more grown-up things inside you than I know. Landscapes, sunsets, engagement rings.
Okay. So last week while I was cooking dinner, you locked yourself in your room with your favorite pencil. You were quiet for a long, long time, which for you means about ten minutes. I was naturally suspicious that you were drawing on the walls or turning your dresser into a space ship using only toothpaste and a hot glue gun. But you wouldn’t let me in or even tell me what you were doing. I don’t know how you learned that affairs of the heart are private, shameful things (and if it’s because of me, I am truly sorry), but apparently you have. You wouldn’t even tell your sister what you were working on. I heard you ask her how to spell “friend” (it was not, you might say, a spelling-genius summit), and when she asked why you wanted to know, you said: “I’m not telling because it’s embarrassing.”
But I was snooping around later and I saw it on your desk, all scrawled over and lopsided.
To Collette can we be frens from your fren Finn
On the other side of the letter, in case anyone was wondering what kind of fren you wanted to be, you’d drawn a squadron of hearts, the one in the middle huge and red and bursting with ardor. And the way you signed your name. That Finn took up like half the page. It was all curlicued and filigreed and dramatic like an Italianate musical clef, the signature of a nineteenth-century poet who suffers from consumption and wears bed clothes during the day, whose physician has warned him against passions because of his sensitive condition. It was the kind of Finn you write and afterward collapse on a fainting couch for three days in the English countryside to recover.
My first reaction was to be kind of terrified. You’re so small, so finely drawn. You’re like a woodcut of a Smurf. I guess the word is delicate—your gestures are delicate, the way you form words in your mouth is delicate. You’re the size of a rolling suitcase, but you walk around like you’re the Jason Statham in your own Jason Statham movie. You practice the lethal art of karate on the street even though you don’t have the first clue about karate. You have to show the world you are tough because inside, I know, you’re possessed of a very tender heart.
Not that you’d ever let anyone know. And what would happen if you finally put your heart out there and Collette (Collette, be careful, girl; I know where you live) destroys it? Would it be like the Groundhog Day of the heart? Would your heart see its own shadow and then you’d have to pretend like you’re a karate expert for another six years? It’s not worth the risk, I thought. Let’s not do this yet, we’re not ready. Maybe I’ll just take this love letter and hide it. But I couldn’t do that either. Being a father is making one decision after another where you’re not quite sure what the right answer is, but at least the stakes are super high. And one of the essential paradoxes of parenthood is that it’s your sworn duty to protect your children from every harm lest they be destroyed, and it’s your duty not to protect them from every harm because that’s probably worse.
Finn, man, I don’t know what it is, but you’ve always wanted to be so tough. You’re like one of those people in Game of Thrones who was born into the aristocracy but still you have to volunteer for the Night’s Watch or whatever it’s called, and you march out toward that ice wall thing while your mom watches and wails and rends her garments and cries, “Why why why must you go to the White Walkers!” (Note: I’ve never seen Game of Thrones.) Here’s an example: Recently, we had a fight about whether you needed a towel when you got out of the bath. I made you take one, but when I came into your room a few minutes later, I found you standing wet and naked in front of the air conditioner, which you’d turned on even though it was winter. You wanted to sacrifice your own comfort to show me how tough you are.
Why? I think partly it’s because you’ve always been small—a shrimp, a piece of chalk in underpants. And partly because you’re the youngest. You came home from the hospital, looked around, and realized you were literally a fifth as big as the next smallest human in the house and decided that you actually weren’t the smallest or the youngest or the newest. Even your pediatrician said it: “This kid doesn’t know he’s a baby.”
But maybe it’s because you were born male. Which is, statistically a very common occurrence, but that doesn’t stop it from being a really weird experience. It’s a lonely thing in a way. I don’t know if it’s that the world doesn’t want you to have a tender heart when you’re a boy, or if it just feels like the world doesn’t want you to have a tender heart. But I know what it’s like to wonder if you’re the only one who’s not really tough. I know what it’s like to wish you didn’t care about anything, to wish you were just a tiny bit more of an asshole, that you could be the kid who bullies other kids rather than the kid who gets bullied. Boys will do anything to prove they’re fierce, that they aren’t on the bottom of the totem pole. History is littered with the casualties of men terrified to let the world know they weren’t tough. Schools are littered with the casualties of boys who felt insignificant and didn’t want anyone to know it.
But Finn, my son, please remember that tough isn’t the only thing you are. You are also filled with yearning and vulnerability. (Everyone is full of yearning and vulnerability, of course. That is why music is beautiful and we cry at good movies.) You do pretend karate, but you also tuck your stuffed animals in to bed and stroke their little heads. Sometimes when you wake up early and I’m still in bed, you come into my room and say, “I love you, Papa,” or when you mom’s out of town, I’ll find a note on your desk that says, “I miss Mama.”
And sometimes I sneak into your room while you’re asleep and hold your hand. You take up like an eighth of the mattress, sleeping like a cat in the little pillow fortress you build before you lie down. And you’ll squeeze my hand and kind of pet it in your sleep. As if we were an old married couple who have emerged onto the front porch in our last years, and now we can enjoy the feeling of the sunlight that finds us late in the day and the trees that heave in the wind because we are together.
Something unlocks in moments like that, a secret door that you, in waking hours, guard so vigilantly. I can almost hear it, as you lie there with your eyes closed, your little body dispensing sleep-warmth like a midpriced space heater—the slide of a metal bolt, the door opening, and there it is: your heart.
I understand what it’s like to be a boy. I understand what it’s like to need to get into a fist fight at least once so you’re not afraid of it. But I also know how much more courage it takes to not be tough. I spent a ridiculous number of years wishing that I weren’t sensitive. Pretending I didn’t care. All of my twenties I mastered the art of being in control in any relationship so there was zero possibility that I could get hurt. I don’t know why it was so important to me. Maybe it’s because my mom left my father when I was three and I always felt that I had to protect myself from some terrible loss. But I worry that I’m already luring you to the Dark Side, like the Darth Vader of cynicism. You’ve already learned your father’s technique of deflecting feelings with jokes, of hiding your heart in some secret Wakanda protected under an invisible dome of sarcasm.
And if I could give you a single gift as a father, it would be to free you of that. If I could solve one problem in your life that I have never been able to solve in mine, it is this: Live your life with an open heart.
And it would scare me even then.
God it sounds so clichéd, but I’m going to say it: Don’t be afraid to love. Don’t be afraid to love your friends before they love you. Don’t be afraid to love a girl (or whomever) before you know whether she loves you. Protecting yourself may be smart sometimes, but it’s not brave and there’s nothing beyond self-preservation to be gained. Let your heart want what it wants (I don’t know if you’ve heard yet, but it wants what it wants anyway) and sing it from the rooftops! In a not-annoying way! Like: not in like a theater kid way, please! And if you get hurt, don’t be afraid to get hurt again.
We’re moving to Los Angeles in a few weeks, and you’re about to start a new school. And I’m mostly worried about you. Your sister is different. She’ll walk right up to someone and say: “Do you want to play with me?” Or: “Do you want to be my friend?” I can’t even imagine you saying that. As a kid I would have never said it. I figured the only way to make a friend was to prove you didn’t need one. And you’re a whole lot like me.
But there you were, in the dim light of your room at your shitty little Pottery Barn desk that looks like a Crayola factory just got carpet-bombed, asking Collette: can we be frens? God, I’ve never been so proud of you. It’s the most beautiful question in the world. When you ask it, you’re saying: I want to be loved, I am open to love, I’m not trying to dominate the world, I’m not trying to force it on you. I’m just a boy, signing my name with a quill, and then collapsing on my fainting couch.
Never stop asking it. Never.
aka Papa Jones
(why do you call me Papa Jones?)