We Jacksons are not effusive types. There ain’t a helluva lot of hugging and touching at family gatherings. However, one of the few exceptions is my son, who’s been unfettered with his affections since he was toddling around his mother’s New Jersey home – he and I have never lived together full-time. My son’s been a boy who, unprompted, says, “Dad, I love you” and wraps me in the tightest of hugs. Who, when he’s seen his sister after a long absence, almost tackles her with glee. Who’s still apt to let a deluge go on account of hurt feelings. In plenty of explicit ways, he’s my emotional opposite, a boy who showed me how to embrace; who, along with his sister, softened parts of me that my own boyhood had hardened; a kid who’s been instrumental in ushering me as close to comfortable with physical expressions of love as I have been in all my almost 45 years of life.
Speaking of which, my son celebrated his 14th birthday during the pandemic. It was the first birthday that he and I spent apart. The best I could do was join a Zoom celebration from my Harlem apartment. At the time, I was several days – 40 days, 50 days, umpteen days – into sheltering, and in fact, hadn’t so much as hazarded a single step outside of my apartment building in that whole however-long. Sheltering was a kind of boon for my writing. On the other hand, sheltering apart from my son (in the old normal, I’d see him every week) and daughter (who lives in California) became a formidable trial.
The most testing time during that span was the night my son called me and wept that his mother was sick with Covid-19, and that he was worried she might die. That one phone call transmuted what had been a difficult but tenable distance into a tick-tock torture. Because I couldn’t comfort him beyond the empty promise that things would be fine. Because I couldn’t rescue him unless I put myself and my partner at risk. Because I had to consider the fact that my son, the little boy who’d been a blessing all his live-long days, was now also at risk of dying. Because. Because. Because.
All my life, I’ve prided myself on my emotional resilience, on keeping cool when everyone else panics, on nurturing hope in the face of hopelessness. But the moment I got off the phone with my son that night, I wept like somebody who’d had every bit of faith smacked right out of him.
His mother was hospitalised but, thank God, recuperated with the help of an oxygen tank. Once she was well enough, she proposed driving my son to see me in New York. That offer discomfited me with revised anxieties: what would we do during the visit? If not in my apartment then where could we go and remain safe in a semi locked-down city? Was bringing him into my apartment unsafe? What if my son had the virus and was asymptomatic? Would I catch it? Would I be asymptomatic myself and infect my partner? Would I be foolish to flout all I’d hitherto read and believed about this novel-ass virus? Would a simple visit with him be the death of me? What kind of father was I that I was scared to receive my flesh and blood?
Maybe I was being dramatic, but what – please tell me – if I wasn’t?
He came to visit. He wore a mask, and I wore a mask and gloves and sunglasses. “Hi son, I missed you,” I said, noticing what seemed like a full foot more height. “Hi Dad, I missed you, too,” he said, and I’ll be damned if his voice didn’t sound an octave deeper.
It’s worth mentioning that, despite our two-plus months apart, we didn’t hug. Matter of fact, at no point during that visit did my skin touch my son’s skin. We decided on a bike ride and pedalled circuits around Central Park in what was otherwise a perfect spring afternoon. We sat on opposite ends of a park bench and chatted. We people-watched. It was simple, and yet it bordered on the surreal.
During that distance-charged day, I kept reminding myself how much I loved my son, kept wishing he could feel that love leaping from me to him as he rode ahead. But to be true, I also couldn’t keep from blaming myself for failing him during what might’ve been his greatest personal crisis.
That night, I wondered what insight he’d gleaned during our time apart, if he’d arrived at the primal wisdom (as, too soon, I did about my own parents) that there would be important moments in his life when my words would be but words, when he’d be forced to suffer a tribulation alone, or at the very least, without my physical presence. What I mean is, that night I worried whether he’d learned a fact that I’d hoped to forestall eternal: that in a crucial moment, and ever against my will, I would fail him.
• Mitchell S Jackson is a writer based in New York City. He is the author of the novel The Residue Years, published by Dialogue Books, available in hardback on 13 August and ebook now.