The Pocket Watch: Parenthood and the Fine Line between Joy and Sorrow

What is the difference, I’ve been asking myself, between my son, whom I recently watched with utter elation walk across a stage to receive his diploma from one of the finest universities on the west coast, and the two boys he grew up with, whose parents, just a few weeks prior, endured the nightmare of watching their sons being slowly lowered into the ground and covered with dirt? How is it that I get to throw a graduation party, while they have to host a wake?
It can’t be anything notable that I did differently. I know these other parents. They are very good people who loved their sons, I’m absolutely sure, every bit as much as I love mine. The boys attended the same schools, played on the same sports teams, went to the same birthday parties, walked in virtually the same footprints for the first 20 years of their lives. Like me, their parents volunteered, they coached, they taxied, and they interceded swiftly to address any situation that needed it. From my perspective, they weren’t just good parents; they were great parents.
How did it come to be, then, that, within months of each other, one boy dies face down in a driveway on the wrong side of the tracks, killed from gunfire returned during a drive-by shooting that allegedly stemmed from a drug deal, and the other dies in a tiny home in a faded neighborhood of South Sacramento from an overdose of, unbelievably, heroin? How did they fall into this fate? How did my son avoid it?
At any point in time, we can all look back and retrace the steps we took that got us where are. It’s easy to tell which moves had positive results and which ones had negative, but it only works when you’re looking backwards. “Hindsight is 20/20,” my grandpa used to say. A lot of good that does us when, facing forward, all we have is our best guess, based on a combination of our life’s experiences, the lessons we’ve learned, and the wisdom, in whatever measure, that has been imparted to us along the way, as we confront the multitude of options that come up over the course of raising a child. The misfortune of making a bad turn, then, seems like it can befall us almost randomly as we make our way through life. We never know for sure if our decisions have been good or bad until it’s, well, too late.
So this is all we have, as individuals and as parents: our best. And, quite clearly, sometimes our best isn’t even good enough. I guess that’s why none of us can afford to offer anything but our absolute best when making parenting decisions. Because, even when you’re convinced you’re doing the right thing, it can ultimately turn out to be a bad decision. Though no one can fault you when you’ve done your level best in a situation, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions,” is another popular old adage.

If you believe, as I do, in a divine creator, whatever form that creator takes, perhaps you’re inclined to think that we all have a predetermined path laid out for us, and our ultimate fate has already been established, no matter what we do. But where’s the living in that? If we’re going to end up in the predetermined place no matter what we do in our lifetime, personally, I think that absolves us of too much of the responsibility for our choices along the way. I like to think that there’s someone out there who may have a destination in mind, but that the plan is rendered only in the boldest strokes. The detail work, the painting with the little brushes, is done by us. Anyway, I’ve never been one to turn the wheel over willingly, a “wake me up when we get there!” kind of guy.
Last week, Ruben and I were going to Hughes Stadium. He wanted to jump on the freeway at 43rd and get off at Sutterville. But I ended up taking 43rd to Freeport. Either way, we would have ended up at the college, but the route made a big difference to me, because I wanted to stop at 7-11 for a Slurpee. Our lives are flavored greatly by the little choices we make. I may ask for direction from time to time, but I’m not at all inclined to defer to anyone else to make the ultimate decisions in my life. This may be my failing as a Christian: I can’t bring myself to surrender the wheel entirely. I think I have too much of my grandpa in me.
In raising my kids, I’ve prayed a lot, especially with Ruben, because these momentous decisions come up, and you think, “I don’t know… I’ve never done this before!” With Gabby, the decisions still come at me nonstop, but at least I’ve had a little on-the-job training, courtesy of her brother. I figure that, if I’d had seven or eight kids, I’d have had the job down pat by the time the last couple of them left the house.
But as it was, we only had two kids. So without much trial and error, they’re stuck with nothing more than the best that I can do. We hope our decisions are right more often than wrong, and, if that’s not the case, that our children will take into consideration in their hindsight evaluations the fact that everything we have done with them has come from a place of indescribable love and a fervent desire for nothing but the best for them.
I think, initially, I looked around at the people I knew who were having children at the same time that we were, and, with the aforementioned lack of experience in mind, came to feel like we were all in one big boat on this voyage together. These were my shipmates, more or less partners in this adventure. We participated in the same activities and frequently compared notes. Invariably, the course of our day-to-day activities varied, but we were still aboard the same vessel. To see one of my shipmates lose a child overboard is crushing for me. I can’t help but think, “That could be me.” I experience a twinge of guilt—“Survivor’s Guilt,” I’m told—at these tragedies and wonder why I am so lucky. I pull my kids closer, hold on just a bit tighter.
For someone such as myself, with somewhat more divine core beliefs, the ultimate conclusion is that luck has little to do with it. “Grace” becomes the more appropriate term, as in “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” This explanation works for me. More importantly, it gives me someone to thank. It also provides a set of core values to follow and consult in every decision I make. And someone to turn to in the face of great suffering. God bless my friends and bring them comfort in this time of unimaginable grief.
The Pocket Watch appears in every issue of the Pocket News. Jeff Dominguez can be reached at:

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