It’s 14 years later now. Fourteen years separated from the day I held you, my son, for what seemed like a moment of genuinely suspended animation. That moment, comprised almost entirely of sorrow the likes of which I could never, in my most empathetic moment, have ever imagined, was tempered by fear that any movement, any shift of focus, would cause the river of time to start flowing again, its unforgiving waters to come pushing through the doors of the little room just off the nurses station in which we sat together, rising to overwhelm us forever. Sometimes I wish that we could have drowned in that river, you and I. If we had, I wouldn’t need to write this now. More often, though, I just wish for the tens or maybe hundreds of things that went wrong that summer to have magically gone right. I wish that we were here, above water, together.
I’ve spent the last few days beside the waves on the most beautiful of coasts, and tomorrow I’ll be on the water again, in great company, floating, casting for fish, soaking up a world for which I am longing, but from which I am separated for now. And I often dream of how different my world would be if I could have only shared experiences like these with you. This is every father’s dream, of course, and there’s a very specific reason for mine. The dream is a way of keeping you near, of remembering you, of imagining who you might have been, of thinking about all the ways in which you’ve changed me, and the ways in which I might be different still if you had lived.
This is your day. It’s a day of sorrow, certainly, but as the years pass an increment of joy remains in it as well, because there is pleasure as well as pain in thinking about the beautiful young man you would have been on your 14th birthday. It is this way. It must be this way. That pain is the price to be paid for keeping you alive in my heart, in all of our hearts.
On this day I also often think of my own hopes and imperfections, two inseparable considerations, it seems, and contemplate the degree of love that even the most imperfect of men is capable of offering to his son. Two moments in two of the great movies of all time, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, for me perfectly sum up that love, that desire for the welfare and company of one’s children, and the regret for a life that took one too many wrong turns on a path choked with multiple forks in the road. In the second film, we see a young Vito Corleone assassinate a local don practiced in a parasitical “protection” of the neighborhood in New York’s Little Italy which they share. Vito’s escape from the scene, over the rooftops of that neighborhood during a parade commemorating the Feast of San Gennaro, ends when he arrives home to his wife and the three sons, all sitting outside on the steps of their modest apartment. He joins them silently, attending to the youngest, a newborn whose path in life he cannot yet know, though we in the audience do. “Michael, your father loves you very much,” he says to the infant, and there is no denying the exquisitely expressed truth of that simple statement.
The other scene plays out in the story’s timeline some 30 years later. Vito, now old and infirm, expresses to a grown Michael the political reality of the family business he is about to inherit, as well as one of its possible immediate outcomes, and the interaction of the actors, the tenderness of the screenplay, and its aliveness to the way fathers and sons silently express their affection and respect for each other in the way the men take up physical space together and inside the frame, perfectly crystallize the movie’s understanding, without moral judgment, of a flawed man’s dashed hopes and undying love for his boy. It is one scene inside a film full of similar empathy and power, a film that I so wish we could have one day seen together. I can only offer my thoughts of it to you in the hope that somewhere you’ll understand and know that, Charlie, your father loves you very much.