Photo: Mila Supinskaya Glashchenko/Shutterstock

6 Important Moments Where I Realized My Parents Are People

by Colin Heinrich Nov 17, 2015

When I saw my mom throwing up from a hangover

My parents have always been “the cool ones.” In high school, they would allow my friends and I to drink at the house. My mother was the first person to ever get me drunk, putting a bottle of rum on the counter and telling me she couldn’t remember how much was left before going back to her New Year’s Eve party. Later that night, after I had projectile vomited all over the bathroom wall, she held a pair of barber’s clippers near my head to show the power of sobriety before writing in sharpie on my forehead: “Next time, I’ll drink responsibly.”

I knew then. Not my limits, of course. Those, I’m still figuring out. But I knew that my parents were these super beings of responsibility and maturity.

I kept this impression for years. Through high school, through college. Finally, a few weeks after graduation, I went out with my parents. This was new: while I had often drunk with them at home, it was rare that I shared anything more than a beer at dinner in public. This was not a beer at dinner. This was a haze of color and taxis and jaywalking leading to a vortex of memory that went nowhere but the blinding morning light of my bedroom.

As I stumbled into the kitchen to make eggs, I heard a retching from the bathroom. My mom was slumped over the toilet, emptying a cross between a Bloody Mary and the Swamps of Dagobah from her stomach. She looked weakly up at me as I snapped a picture.

“I’ll kill you.”

Sure she would. The amateur.

When I first told my dad about the more lurid moments of my life

Growing up, I was never particularly close with my dad. He was in the Navy. He traveled for work more often than not, and there was always the looming threat of a six month deployment hanging in the air. He was (and is, despite his retirement) a workaholic. For most of my life, he rose at four in the morning and sometimes didn’t return from the office until I was already asleep.

He loves me. He loves me more than I could possibly state. But for a long time, his presence in my life seemed more like that of a guardian angel, operating behind the scenes to keep my stomach full and my future bright. Conversations, when they happened, never had the ease of flow that they did with my mom. The result was that by the time I was an adult, my mom knew far more about my life, my loves, my mistakes. My dad, on the other hand, had never really scratched the surface.

Dad retired from the Navy a few years ago. And as he started a new career, he was suddenly faced with a nine-to-five schedule that left him open more than he was used to. Certainly more than I was. And even though I was no longer living at home, I wound up spending more time with him than ever before. We went to football games. We went to San Francisco. We saw movies and went shopping. Over the course of these adventures he’d ask me about things I’d never told him before – the places I’d been, the girls I’d slept with, the drugs I’d tried. It was all new territory.

And in these conversations, I never saw that military man conducting an inspection. And I never saw somebody simply looking to gossip, either. He was just a guy. He wanted to know about my life beyond the formalities of school and work and sport. He could get those conversations from any of the assorted passers by in his life, the people he hadn’t raised and had no obligation or desire to really know. I was his son. My dad needed to know who I was.

So I told him. Everything. The distance of our previous relationship gave us the freedom to connect as adults on new ground. And our relationship has never been better.

When I met my dad’s older friends

Part and parcel with the distance between my dad and myself was the fact that I didn’t really know his friends. Sure, I’d seen them at the occasional party, smoking Cuban cigars on the back porch and talking about work, but I never realized that an adult would filter the things he’d say in front of a child until I had to do it myself. I thought adults simply didn’t have much else to say.

I recently went on two trips with my dad. The first was to a football game at his alma mater, the Naval Academy. Dad was in the class of ’79, or the Last Class With Balls (being the last all-male class at the academy), so needless to say, there was bravado involved. The second was to the redwood forest of northern California with his old friends.

For the sake of propriety and respect – we just had Veteran’s Day, for God’s sake – I’m not going to detail the stories I heard or the things I saw. I will simply acknowledge the fact that my dad’s life has been far more exciting than I had ever known before, and I am now forced to wonder how on Earth he turned into the man that raised me.

When I saw them crying at my graduation

College was never easy. I spent far too much time balancing studying, sports, and a social life to even consider putting stock in sleep. But I was lucky. I had my parents’ undying support. By the time I skidded through the tape of the finish line, covered four years worth of collected sin and memory, I was able to finally let go of a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. I was done.

And in the crowd, I saw my mother. Tears in her eyes. For the past four years, she and my father had been a rock in the river. They were the source of wisdom I had turned to countless times, the sages that had walked the path before me. But seeing them there, reflective streams marking their cheeks, made me realize – they were never just the monks at the top of the mountain I would consult in times of crisis. This was just as much an accomplishment for them as it was for myself.

They were crossing their own finish line. They had brought this person, this thing they had created, through to the point where he would be the rock of another successive generation. And suddenly I realized that my parents, after all their immutable sturdiness, were simply people running their own race. Their goals were different and perhaps more grand, but they could take pride in it as much as, or more than, I could.

When my mom had a cancer scare

When I was twelve years old, I broke my wrist while skateboarding on my mom’s birthday. We sat in the hospital for hours waiting to be seen, and I cried as they shoved the bones back into place before putting on the cast. My mom held my hand and bought me McDonald’s on the way home. In all the excitement, I never even bought her a birthday card.

Recently, my mom started bleeding. Because she had moved so recently, she didn’t have a local doctor, and she wasn’t able to get an appointment for two weeks. She told me what was happening, and I told her she’d be fine. What were the chances? She agreed, and I made us some lunch.

That night, we were watching a movie, and I glanced over to see my mom on her phone. She was looking at the risks of a hysterectomy. And suddenly I realized just how scared she was. I had blithely told her she’d be fine because in my heart, I truly believed that there was no other option. She was my mother. She was the woman who had held my hand in the hospital like some higher being, amused at the concept of mortality. She would be fine. She had to be fine. I needed her to be fine.

But she wasn’t as sure as I was. She wasn’t immortal. And though the condition turned out to be benign, I had to suddenly face the facts. She wouldn’t be here forever.

When I had a frank discussion with my parents about the future

Currently, my entire family is at a bit of a crossroads. I’ve just moved to New York. My brother’s just moved to New York. My dad has moved around constantly since leaving the Navy.

Once I got home from my travels, I sat on the balcony with my parents and a cocktail, waxing nostalgic about where I’ve been and where I’m going next. It’s scary, looking into the future and being unsure. All my life, I’ve had a guiding hand. My parents were that rising sun to which I shackled myself. Elementary school. Middle school. High school. College. Even after college, when I began my world travels, I had their advice if not their constant presence. No longer.

As we sat on that balcony, I realized that they were just as unsure about the future as I was. Sure, they have about thirty years worth of experience and financial stability on me. But life is a crazy and chaotic beast that throws curveballs from behind cover and doesn’t give a shit about who we are and what we mean to other people. My parents are just like me. They’re people. And time will take us all by surprise.

I’m not sure where I’m going. Maybe they’re not either. But whatever the destination is, we’re all walking this path together.

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