"TAKE YOUR BOY HUNTIN’, OR FOREVER BE HUNTING YOUR BOY.” That is how a bumpersticker read that I saw on the tailgate of someone’s rusty pickup in the high school parking lot. It resonated to me at 16 years old. I wasn’t confident that my dad cared much for my haircut or my music- but I was sure that I had a good time with him when he took me to the field. Those early mornings hunting likely made him feel sentimental for his father, that passed away the year I was born. My granddad knew every inch of country southwest of Charlotte- handshakes with every old farmer, he followed dogs to every shady rabbit hole, and kept tabs on every last wild quail covey. When dad would take me to the remains of these great spots, he was able to spend time with me around his friends, with their sons- my friends to this day. Amongst first sips of beer, giggling about girls, and showing off passed down shotguns- we learned this was just the way dad and his pals met each other too, a generation back. The actions of our fathers were teaching us to be men.
It is reasonable to believe that anyone that has ever listened to Cat Stevens took a deep breath and thought about their childhood. Looking inward to songs like Cat’s in the Cradle or Father and Son makes for a teary moment about shortcomings. Growing up, we heard these songs with the ears of a child and likely projected the experiences onto relationships from the eyes of a son. These folksy tunes are still with us. Their themes can be navigated with the maturity and vantage of father if we allow ourselves to hear. They are instructive and sentimental alike.
I’m a whole lot like my dad. Besides looking like him and being named after him, our lives are facsimiles of the others in so many ways. I was conceived in Chapel Hill in a modest apartment and born the moment he graduated school and moved back to his hometown. This is same story my wife and I lived with my oldest son, Mac, and starting our professional lives, thirty years later. The little bits I remember about being really young are that I was by my dad’s side, always— in a backpack on his shoulders, jogging the first quarter mile with him up our street on his daily five mile run and racing him back upon his return. One of my greatest memories of my early fatherhood experience was coming home for lunch from work on a hot summer day and sitting on the patio with my wife. Our third baby son, Sam, was on a blanket at our feet and my the two older toddlers were playing under a sprinkler in the grass. I recall many moments like this, but this one stands to memory because of the photograph on my desk of me that day- soaking wet, on the ground, in work clothes. That picture in the wet grass, holding my two year old boy, Forrest, in a tight hug minutes before I had to return to the office to treat a patient makes me smile daily. At forty-five years old, I often have a little pit in my stomach and space in my head that I have never have expended this energy for my youngest son, Elias. We don’t jump in the mud together or climb a trees. He’s that much younger outlier and I’m no spring chicken anymore. With four sons, three of them teenagers, it’s hard not to see myself these days as Cat Steven’s ‘Father’. The man that goes to work every day and grumbles from behind the newspaper in the evenings. I never had a resentment toward my dad for all of his hard work and dedication to keep running- but there are times I look at myself doing the same and wish I had more moments rolling in the grass with the baby boys. I just have to be present for them, where they are and where I am.
I was watching. From my dad’s presence in my life, just his simple actions, words in between, and the times he stopped to talk- I learned to be the man that I am today. My dad’s action taught me to never be afraid, to love and treat women with respect, and to treat other men with fairness and kindness- but never to be taken advantage of. My dad taught me the values of friendships, hard work, and financial responsibility. He taught me that the circumstances of your life are consequences of your values and choices. He taught me when to be rowdy and get away with it without doing too much damage or hurting others. I know my boys are watching. I feel guilty when I am a lessor version of myself because they are the meter by which I can measure my words and actions. I have learned that you can not always be fun, you can not always run through the sprinkler- but you can be present as the best version of yourself. They might just turn out alright and say nice things about you at your funeral.
Father’s Day is always a paradox to celebrate. From my vantage point, it’s a day to honor my father. I feel humbled to unfold the hand-drawn cards and the official one that my wife writes kind words in that all the boys sign. It’s really a day to celebrate family- those boys that make me a dad. I’m so blessed to have them in my life to define me. I know they are blessed for me to have the responsibility of being a steward of nurturing them. My sons are in the front of my mind and their names sit on the tip of my tongue. I will always take my boys hunting. They will be riding shotgun to witness how I pursue and navigate the world. It is a blessing to have a quiver full of arrows.
Written by William Kelly
of William Kelly Dentistry