Further Reflections on Fathers & Sons

It has been since January, 1997, that I last wrote about the father-son relationship. At that time, I wrote about the opportunity for a father to revisit (and heal) his own childhood through having a son. Also, how a father needs to establish his own relationship with his son, rather than patterning it after his son’s relationship with his mother.

Last May, our son John-Nuriel turned 13. Joyce and I had talked with him all year about what kind of initiation or ceremony he wanted to symbolize his journey to manhood. I had a Bar-Mitzvah when I was 13, but this had never appealed to John-Nuri. He finally came up with a ceremony that was meaningful to him. He invited only those adults who played a significant role in his life to date: his two grandmas, those special persons who cared for him as a baby and child, his martial arts teacher, his voice teacher, and of course our family. He gave real consideration to how he would appreciate each person, and then went around the circle speaking to each one. We, in turn, each appreciated him. He sang a song that was special to him, played a piano piece he had rehearsed, and was presented with a sword by his martial arts teacher to symbolize initiation into the next level. We weren’t sure how my mother would respond to such an unusual ceremony, but she said, “More than any Bar Mitzvah I’ve ever attended, this ceremony tonight held the essence of a real Bar Mitzvah.”

In addition to this ceremony, I have often thought about some kind of “rights of passage” initiation in nature. So, when John-Nuri suggested he and I climb Mt. Shasta in northern CA this summer, I was delighted. He had attempted the climb two years ago with me, but had to give up at about 11,000 feet elevation because his ankle was hurting. Then last year, with his sister Rami and a few others, he made it to 12,500 feet before having to turn back. At 14,162 feet, Mt. Shasta is a formidable climb, and very few 13 year olds have made it to the summit. Inwardly, I was prepared for however high John-Nuri got on the mountain’s slopes. For me, the summit was not the goal. It was the climb, my son’s journey of life, and my relationship with him.

We set off from Lake Helen at 4am with a 17 year old friend, Brian Rowe, whom John-Nuri admired as an older brother-figure. There were only a few groups ahead of us. At 13,000 feet, a group of young men had to turn back because one of their members got altitude sickness and became disoriented. John-Nuri was exhausted. We had to rest and catch our breath every few steps. I kept asking him, “How are you doing? Do you want to keep going?” He’d answer yes from some deep reservoir of resolve within him, and then we’d climb some more.

Right below the summit, at a place aptly named “misery hill” because of the soft and slippery shale deposits, John-Nuri couldn’t take one more step, and collapsed on the slope. I suggested he take a nap. He was asleep immediately. He only slept a short time, maybe 5-10 minutes, but it was just what he needed. At 11:30 that morning, seven and a half hours after setting out in the dark with our headlamps, we triumphantly arrived at the summit of Mt. Shasta. We found the summit log in a weatherproof box. John-Nuri proudly signed his name and age. I wrote about my joy of making the summit with my son. The crowning moment, however, was watching him sit and meditate in a nook between some boulders protected from the fierce wind, with a serene expression of gratitude on his face from having undertaken a huge challenge.

In that moment, I once again knew the joy of fatherhood. It was my first time summiting Mt. Shasta as well, but my own feat paled in comparison to watching my son in his triumph. Being part of my son’s joy more than doubled my own joy. I love the Yiddish word, “nakhas,” often used to describe the ecstacy of a parent celebrating his or her child. As a father raising a son, there is the commitment to teaching, the consistency of setting limits, the striving to acknowledge ten times more than criticize, the constant sacrifice of time. But more than anything else, there is the nakhas, the deep inner pride that blesses our sons as long as they live. Climbing Mt. Shasta with John-Nuri showed me once again just how important it is to celebrate my son’s life.

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