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My Father's Rule

When my son landed in jail—and in danger—I got a surprising new look at the difficult parent I thought I knew.

My Father's Rules

— Courtesy of Ann Bauer

We park near the courthouse. It's not quite nine o'clock, but the sun is hard and bright.

"There's a coffee shop." My father points. "I've got cash," he says again. We start across the street, momentarily blinded by the glittering sun. Then we step up onto the opposite curb.

My father turns and raises his glasses, squinting down at me. "It will be all right," he says.

This is, literally, half the man who raised me. The father of my youth loomed with an Orson Wellesian bulk. Now I look at the shrunken old guy standing at the counter—brushy eyebrows drawn together as he studies the latte menu—and see a glimmer of the person I once knew.

He has always been unpredictable in a way I could neither understand nor explain. Not long after my failed attempt at accounting, my father happened across an essay I'd written. He called me at work, where I was stacking trays. "You're going to writing school," he said, as if we were resuming a conversation from that morning. "I've found a good one. You're not going to believe it; it's in Iowa! And it costs a bundle, so you'd better do well." And I did.

With me, my parents always emphasized education, decorum, achievement. Yet the moment Andrew was diagnosed, each of them softened. "I think he's actually smarter than the rest of us," my mother would whisper. And my father—Harvard educated—would nod. "As long as he's happy," he'd say, stroking my son's cherubic blond head.

A decade later, after I'd gotten divorced and gone broke, my parents offered to support me and take care of my kids while I finished a novel. My mother took my daughter shopping, and my father played chess with the boys while I wrote in my parents' basement. They celebrated like soldiers on V-J Day when a publisher accepted the book. And the following year, when I introduced them to John—a tall, slim biker with hair down to his waist—my family welcomed him. "He's so good to your kids," my mother said. "We wouldn't care if he wore women's clothes." Then she shot me a questioning look.

My father insists now on carrying both our cups, a little shakily, toward a table in back. "Five goddamn dollars!" he mutters, sitting down next to me and shaking his head.

I am online, reading e-mail. "The hearing's been moved to eleven o'clock," I tell him, braced for his tirade.

But my father simply nods, blowing on his expensive coffee. And this kindness, after everything else, is too much. I look down and a tear falls on my laptop; I wipe it away so it won't short-circuit the hard drive.

 

"This is not your fault," my father says, at which I cry harder. He ignores this. "You do the best you can. When you make a mistake, you try to fix it. Children forgive you, as long as you stick by them. Your job is just…" He shrugs. "To be there. It's all you can do."

In three hours we'll manage to convince a judge to drop the charges. But I don't know that yet. Right now, all I know is that we are here, together, my father and I. He leans back, silent. And we wait side by side, more alike than I ever imagined.

Novelist Ann Bauer splits her time between Seattle and Minneapolis. Her son Andrew lives in New Hope, Minnesota, and studies painting at Interact Studio.

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