I was in front of my bathroom mirror in the Scotts Valley condo, as I was first thing most mornings. The view in 2011 was pretty much what I was getting used to at 58: hair greyer than I could admit to, but eyes still blue and face reassuringly short on wrinkles. It had been about 15 months since I had moved out of the family home, and I was yet to be ready for a girlfriend. Of course, I was still looking!
Charlie had taken the separation badly, and he was still looking so down so often. I was plugging away at trying to help him feel better, and that morning, out of the blue, as I looked in the bathroom mirror thinking of nothing in particular, getting ready for the day, a spear of electric pain suddenly ran down my spine. It was like nothing that I had experienced before, sudden, sharp and intense.
It is surprisingly difficult to know as a divorcing parent how to help a child going through real distress stemming in large part from the divorce. The only thing that you know is that you and your ex are primarily responsible for it. That’s the consequence of a bad divorce, meaning one in which the parents fight too much. The easy answer is to stop fighting, and that probably would be enough of a cure for most troubled children. For whatever reason, she and I could not stop fighting.
That recognition of personal responsibility, guilt, was behind the electric pain that morning, I suspect, that and the abiding worry: how to help Charlie feel better.
I made a couple of key decisions during those early months, two steps that I could take to help Charlie without the need for his mom to participate in order to get them done. That was how I would neutralize the parental conflict: keep it away from him.
Financially, I was going to do all that I could to keep from him any financial difficulties which maintaining two homes on one income caused. Looking back, that was pretty successful. Rather than getting the Jaguar F-Type I had promised myself, or upgrading my motorhome, I settled for a VW Passat and sold the RV.
I housed the children most of the time, paid their mother child support as if she was housing them most of the time, and still covered the lion’s share of their expenses.
The social part was easier to implement. I decided that I would let Charlie and his friends hang out in his room at my place and do what teenagers do there. There was an element of risk involved here, because the teenage mind is till in the process of formation, and can malfunction quite happily. That’s why so many parents try to lock their teenagers down in some way, to help them reduce their risk. I assumed the risk.
Charlie’s room became a haven for him and quite a few of his friends, a place where they could play video games and watch movies, a place where they could chat and brag and do what California teens do. Which they did: a lot during those years! I really did worry about their developing brains.
But I figured out that they were going to be teenagers anyway, whether or not they were in Charlie’s room, and they would likely be safer there and more comfortable than if they were parked in a lot somewhere or hiding in the woods.
And I remembered from my own wonderful mother how important it is for teens to feel welcome.
With no difficulty at all, he and they accepted clear limits: never involve Alex; and keep to Charlie’s room. High school wended its way on, with Charlie’s room a focal point until he graduated and after.
Forward to 2015: just as a couple of concussions put a hold on his beloved soccer, he began to get into video with a group of boys from his high school. These were not typically the boys who hung out in his room, but he spent a lot of time with them working on video projects. He had never put a lot of effort into his schoolwork, but he put a whole lot of effort into the videos: one of them won the boys a prize! .
Charlie had finally found a passion. High school had come and gone without him finding one, and he spent four years getting through two years of community college.
He announced that he wanted to go to film school, upped his grades promptly and appropriately, and started in September 2018 at UCSB. It all seemed to happen very quickly, once he’d figured out where he was going. Plus, he had found Soraya, a lovely and supportive girlfriend, in the Cabrillo College library, and she moved down to Santa Barbara with him.
Things were already looking up when he was one of five college students invited to direct a short film as a student entry in the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Felix, that film, became his life for a few months. I could tell from a distance that he was very excited about it, and of course shared his excitement. Nothing helps a person cope with life’s sharp turns and pitfalls like a real passion: the hard part is discovering it.
Before I knew it, I was driving down to Santa Barbara for one day of the 2019 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, the day when the student short films were to be shown. Now I was scared: what if notwithstanding the passion and effort, film making was beyond him? He has always been terribly sensitive, which partly explains the creative side of his passion, but what if translating that creativity into a meaningful experience for his audience was beyond him? There are so many steps in making a film from that initial vision to its expression, so many possible slips between the cup and the lip.
Felix came on, about ten minutes of it in all, a silent film except for a great score. I’m his dad, and so obviously a bit biased, but he had me wherever he wanted me: giggling one minute, sad the next, surprised here, satisfied there. Before the end of that ten minutes, a weight was lifted off my mind: Charlie had found his calling, and he had aced it. Felix is a beautiful little film. And I may be his dad, but I’m also a pretty good critic.
I clapped and sobbed at the closing credits, partly with relief, more with pride. That’s MY boy!
Leaving the elegant and majestic auditorium, I arranged to have dinner with Charlie and Soraya, Alex and Haley, and three of Charlie’s former high school soccer teammates later in the day, and then to move on to a little party at Charlie and Soraya’s place.
Dinner was great, of course, and it was a particular pleasure to meet up again with the soccer teammates, each of whom had been a regular in his room in the Scotts Valley condo. The boys all chipped in toward the meal, which I particularly appreciated in light of my recent retirement. Charlie liked the restaurant enough to get a job there a couple of weeks later.
I asked Charlie how he had gotten into making videos. It was something I had been thinking about, because I’m pretty attentive as a person, let alone as a parent, and had not noticed it happening.
The answer was, frankly, a shock. “Remember when we were all hanging out up in my room?” he asked. “Well, we watched a lot of films, and that’s when I started wondering how they did it, and watching what they did.”
That electric shock down my spine came back to me over the years. I had gotten it right, after all, letting them all hang out in my home doing their teenage thing. You never really know as a parent whether your choices work for your children, but this was as close to that knowledge as you can get.
I started explaining to Charlie and Alex and their friends a little of the thought process and self-doubt that had gone into allowing those long teenage afternoons and evenings in Charlie’s room.
They were fascinated, I think. Parental thought processes can be a mystery to teenagers, and clearing up the mystery is a discovery worthy of note. Plus here we were at a kind of culmination of the years spent in Charlie’s room, several of the participants together with their facilitator, immersed in Felix with its formerly direction-less director.
Then we’re all back at Charlie’s and Soraya’s place, sharing some good Scotch (my contribution), and the atmosphere is turning in to that warm phase of a little party where it feels as if you’re all sitting around a flickering fire. It was really a delight to see Charlie and Alex still being wonderfully courteous with each other, and to see again these boys who were driving five hours each way to support their friend; everyone deserved a bit of a buzz!
Charlie turned the conversation toward my retirement and pending move to Brittany. The one reason that I felt bad about retiring was that I was not going to finish paying for the boys’ college. Instead, I was leaving after covering half their junior year: eighteen months still to go.
Everything else about retiring, reducing the constant pressure imposed by a career in corporate law, finally changing venue after 22 years in Santa Cruz (even paradise can become a burden), returning closer to my English roots, it all felt right. Except leaving the boys in the lurch.
Charlie was addressing this uneasiness. He didn’t see it that way, and neither did Alex. They were both very grateful for what I had been able to do for them, and totally behind my retirement. I’ve been very lucky health wise, but am starting to look visibly older, and they want me to stick around. As do I!
I had already figured out that this was likely the last time that I would see them before leaving on that jet plane to Paris, and apparently so had Charlie. He was talking about everything that he thought that I had done for him, over the years, and I began to realize that this was planned: he too must have figured out that it would be the last time that I would see my boys for a while.
I was tearing, of course, weeping a little, feeling so warm inside. I’m far from a perfect human being, far from a perfect dad. But I tried my best with all my children, had scaled back my demanding career in 2004 when it became clear that as adolescents they needed more time than as children, and not in fact more money, and here was one of them actually thanking me, in public and with real feeling.
You don’t expect that as a parent. Or if you do, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. I never thought about it, and focused on whether they were growing up reasonably satisfied with their respective lots, reasonably fulfilled.
It had been very satisfying seeing each one of them get on track before I retired, which in retrospect was the only thanks I expected. They were doing okay: each had found himself to a rewarding extent. It was all good.
Then somehow the other boys in the room began to join in thanking me. First came Alex, which made sense; I knew how much he had appreciated his college help too. And then, right out of the blue, came the other boys, all three of them, Charlie’s high school classmates, one after the other, three strapping young men of about 23, each saying “thank you, Mr. Stock.” Each offered his hand, each looked into my eyes as we shook hands. They were thanking me for a high school sanctuary in a Scotts Valley condo.
Jesus, I was not ready for this, flooded with all kinds of feelings, weeping like a child, so touched. A parent never gets that. You make your choices, hoping against hope that they work for the children, and you look for indirect evidence that they did. Normally, that evidence is as much as you will ever get.
But I realized what made the evening so special, such a wellspring of thankfulness on all sides, some time after the buzz calmed down and rational thought came back into play. I rolled out of Charlie and Soraya’s place to drive back to the hotel, and looked back on the evening.
What had happened was that Charlie had coordinated those thanks: he meant his own, really meant them, and he knew that Alex meant them too, and I guess he also knew how much his friends had appreciated the haven that I had offered them all in the condo when they needed it during those later high school years.
It was the next day before I realized that I had just played an unexpected and wonderful role in a surprise scene directed by my son Charles, the budding film director.
And that is how Charlie thanked his dad.