Probably my best times with Gabe occur when we're in the car. There's something about the "parallel play" aspect of it that makes it easier for him to actually enter into a conversation with his father (something that I remember dreading when I was 14). Gabe likes to roll the window down, and if I'm not paying attention, he'll stick his head out like a dog. He'll scroll through an astonishing repertoire of noises, whistles and imitations he can produce, almost like a parrot. He'll listen to the comedy channel on satellite radio. He'll make fun of me. And maybe, just maybe, he'll talk. On the way to the dreadful White Sox-Oakland game yesterday, he was doing his homework, but on the way home, after dropping off my parents (who met us at the ballpark) we had nothing but time. And we talked.
Gabe was impressed by watching my aged and revered parents navigate the long march up the steps from our seats to the concourse, but he was saddened, too, by how hard it is for them to do these things that for him are very simple. He started asking questions about my family, about my dad's upbringing, about my dad's dad. I mentioned that I'd never met my paternal grandfather -- he died long before I was born -- but I told him what I knew of his qualities, including that he wasn't very emotionally expressive.
Gabe asked what that meant. I said that it meant he didn't really enjoy talking about his feelings, or expressing himself emotionally. Gabe said, "I'm like that, too," and then it struck me: he really is a Gottlieb.
Gabe said he'd never seen a picture of my dad "in his prime," and I said I would get the old photo albums and show him some shots. We have one old brochure from my father's summer camp; in it, there's a picture of my father, at about age 10, holding up a fish he has just caught. The resemblance to Gabe is astonishing (my dad, not the fish.)
One of the good things about being around extended family is that, when young, you're in closer and more regular contact with the stages of life. You see how people change. You see generations come and go. Just when you're getting used to being the center of the universe -- you're a first cousin once removed, or (God willing) an uncle. A huge fuss is made over the baby, and suddenly, you're not so cute and so young.
On the eve of high school, Gabe is a much more centered person than I was at that age (and probably than I am today). He does not get pressured into doing stupid things. He goes out of his way not to be hurtful, but he has a quick wit and a sharp tongue in reserve, and it seems as though his classmates respect him. He's a pretty good athlete, but he doesn't hang his self-esteem on that. He's very perceptive. He's thoughtful. He's funny as hell. And, for a 14-year-old, he's disciplined.
In some respects, I am already letting go of him. He is watching me for clues, but most of his guideposts are well beyond me, on the horizon: he is determined to be more competent, more even-keeled, more accomplished and more wealthy than he considers me to be. He doesn't say so; I just know.
Leaving the ballgame last night, he helped my father up the stairs, until my father insisted he could handle it himself. When we got outside the park, I asked for a wheelchair to take my dad from the gate to our car. About 100 yards short of the car, my dad got out of the wheelchair and walked the rest of the way. Gabe asked why my dad did that, as he was clearly exhausted.
I told Gabe that my dad has lived into his 90s because he is still engaged in the world, and because he is an optimist. He is still interested: in sports, in playing bridge, in the environment, in real estate; he still decries the idiocy of war, which deprived him of his only and dearly beloved sibling more than half a century ago. He wants to do as much as he can, every day, even if it's a little less than he could do the day before.
I also told Gabe that watching my dad has been a great lesson for me: you spend far more than half your life in physical decline -- and that's if you're lucky. If you let that get to you, the decline is (or feels) steeper, and the color leaches out of your life. My father has stayed as mentally and physically engaged in life as his mind and body have allowed. What a great thing for a son and grandson to be able to witness.
Gabe's dreams are changing; he may talk to his sisters and his mom about them; I'm not sure. He doesn't talk to me about them. That makes me a little sad, but I'm pretty sure I understand.
What I am sure of is that he is living proof of how love and evolution are somehow twinned. The love that created him, that surrounds him, that's within him, has made him a better human being than I can ever hope to be.
And that makes me happy.