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Throughout my tumultuous youth I always took comfort in knowing that no matter how badly things were going, I would always be welcomed at my father's apartment with open arms. Being a particularly tormented kid who spent much of his formative years in a group home, things were pretty much perpetually going bad for me.
Every once in a while I would show up at my dad's front door with a long train of failure, disappointment and rejection trailing me like Pigpen's cloud of dust in Peanuts. I didn't smell particularly good, was depressed, borderline suicidal and there was probably a better than average chance that I reeked of alcohol, or of less legal forms of sensory derangement. I was a raging ball of anger and barely concealed resentment who communicated exclusively in sarcasm, one-liners and profane outbursts.
And yet, my dad greeted me as if I was Santa Claus standing there with a magical sack full of hundred dollar bills.
I could not, at the time, understand his joy over having his depressed, foul-smelling screw-up of a son come to him when things went from bad to worse. Didn't my dad realize that, objectively speaking, I was not worthy of love? Didn't he realize how deeply unlikable I was? How could he have treated a flaming garbage pile of a human being like my 21-year-old self like someone worthy of kindness, compassion and empathy?
Now that I'm a father, however, I understand my father's reaction perfectly. I understand that for him, my value, then and now, wasn't derived from me being immaculately groomed. His love for me wasn't dependent on me being successful professionally and making lots of friends. He didn't love me because I was charming and filled his apartment with intelligent conversation.
No matter how badly I treated myself, or how badly the world treated me, I would always be his boy.
No, my dad smiled beatifically when I came to him in my lowest state because I was his son. That made me worthy of being loved. That gave my life value to him. That made him never want to give up on me, even when I gave up on myself.
I may have been a stoned teenager with a messy personal life, but to my dad, I clearly never stopped being the bright-eyed boy who sat in the rabbi's lap with a giant smile during my dad's second wedding. I never stopped being the little boy who stared up adoringly at him when we played catch in the front yard. No matter how badly I treated myself, or how badly the world treated me, I would always be his boy.
I hope my son's life turns out much different from mine. I want him to be happy, successful and functional, but no matter what happens in the years to come, he's never going to stop being the angelic little sprite whose smile has the capacity to fill everyone around him with joy. He's never going to stop being the amazing little being who is the light of his mother and father's lives, and has filled our existences with so much happiness and meaning. And I'd like to think that no matter how things go, I will always have a big, beaming smile on my face when he shows up at my door, for whatever reason.
Before I became a dad, I never understood why my own dad was always so excited to see me no matter how badly I had screwed up. Now I understand that you don't love your adult children because they're successful or accomplished or reflect well upon you or make your life easier. No, you love your adult children because they're yours, and you belong to them, and if you're any kind of a parent, then that's enough to keep the unconditional love going strong.