There’s a harbor lost within the reeds.

I was getting my things together to go downtown, when my phone buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out and opened a text message from my son, Nolan, which read: #BURRITOWATCH2014?

I smiled, and replied that I had an appointment downtown, but would be up for #burritowatch2014 as soon as I was finished, if he didn’t mind waiting for me. He said that was fine, and a few hours later we were waiting at one of my favorite places for our food.

While we waited, we took a stupid selfie for Twitter

#BURRITOWATCH2014And then our food arrived. I had an Al Pastor with no rice, extra-spicy, and he had a pollo asada, no rice, with mild salsa.

Burrito Al Pastor

We ate our delicious burritos, and then I took him home. When I dropped him off, I said, “Hey, your mom is going to have dinner with Stephanie tonight, and I’ll be home doing nothing. So if you wanted to come over and watch a movie or something, you’re invited.”

“I may be hanging out with some friends, but if I’m not, that sounds great,” he said.

“Awesome,” I said. “I love you.”

“Love you too.”

He walked up to his apartment and I watched him. I know it’s silly, but whenever one of my kids walks away from me, whether we’re saying goodbye in an airport or train station, or even if they’re just walking to their cars from my house, I see them though this strange paternal vision that makes them look like 6 year-olds, going to their first day of school. They’re 24 and 22, now, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change for me.

I drove back to my house, running a few errands on the way, and when I got home, Nolan called me. “Hey, I’m going to see my friends, but not until later. I don’t have time to watch a movie, but do you want to play a game?”

“Yes, I would love that,” I said. “I have some really fun two player games here. Come over whenever you want.”

“Okay, I’ll be there soon.”

I hung up the phone,  and thought, “Holy. Shit.”

For years, I have struggled to close the gap between us that opened up when Nolan was a teenager and he pulled away from me. We had been so incredibly close when he was little, it hurt me a lot that he was so withdrawn from me, but I didn’t want to force a relationship on him that he didn’t want. Through it all, I continued to love him unconditionally, and I always hoped that one day he would come back to me. I always invited him to our house when we did things, and he usually declined. I’d ask him to hang out, or go for a bike ride, or play frisbee, and he wasn’t really interested. But, recently, something changed. He’s been coming over to see me more frequently, sitting with me in my house and talking with me about his life and the choices he’s making right now, asking for my advice, and closing that gap. It’s wonderful.

One thing I never thought would happen though? Gaming together. We played lots of games when he was a kid, but part of his character build during the teenager level was rejecting everything that was important to me, especially gaming.

So when he called me — didn’t text me, but called me — to ask if I wanted to play games, I was as happy as I was caught completely off-guard.

Much sooner than I expected, Nolan came walking into the house. Our dogs adore him, so Marlowe immediately ran laps, while Riley did her happy “rooooooooooOOoOOOOOOooooOOO” noise. Seamus just leaned into him and demanded scritches behind his ears.

Once the dogs had expressed their love for him, Nolan and I went to my nearly-completed gameroom, where all of my games are on a series of bookshelves that takes up almost one entire wall.

“So I have Hive, which is really fun and kind of like chess, All Creatures Big and Small which is like Agricola but for 2 people, Battlelore, which is a minis game with really cool movement rules, OGRE, which is the first wargame I ever played, Carcassonne, which I can teach you in about 5 minutes …”

“You also have all these decks of Magic cards,” he said, showing me a box that does, in fact, have several hundred Magic cards in it, collected from the first edition I ever owned, to the most recent release.

“Dude, let’s play Magic!” I said. We used to play Magic a lot when he was younger, and it was one of those things that, while it didn’t close the gap, certainly bridged it from time to time. In fact, during that time, I gave him unfettered access to my Magic cards, which he used to duel kids in his school. On day, he came home and was really upset that kids were printing cards from the Internet, and using them in sleeves, which he (correctly) interpreted as cheating. “I’ll never use sleeves,” he declared, “because I want everyone I duel to know that I’m not cheating.”

“This is an excellent idea,” I told him, both because it was, and because I really hate playing any game that has cards in sleeves. I mean, that’s like putting plastic on your couch, for fuck’s sake. Andrew.

Nolan took some of my cards with him to Game Empire to play in an open dueling thing, and an ur-gamer of my generation refused to play with him, because, in the ur-gamer’s words, the cards Nolan was using — my cards — were “far too valuable” to be used unless they were in sleeves. He gave Nolan sleeves for those cards, which Nolan used, but then returned when the duel was over, if I recall correctly.

Back in the present, he said, “Let’s play two-out-of-three with random decks.”

We grabbed a couple decks, including some Mirrodin Besieged decks, the Knights and Dragons duel decks, and two Planeswalker decks that I got at GenCon or PAX or some con a couple years ago.

Now, I am not the greatest Magic player in the world, and I don’t spend nearly as much time playing it now as I did when I was much younger and had more time (and money) to invest in keeping up with the latest rules and releases, but I still have a good time whenever I play. I also believe that, generally, fast decks that kill with one thousand cuts are usually more successful than slow decks that count on defending yourself a lot while you wait for a big bad to show up and smack the other guy into dust with two or three big hits. I could be wrong, but that’s my general experience.

I mention this because we randomly pulled decks, and Nolan got a fast deck each time, while I got a slow deck. They weren’t especially balanced, and he immediately took the first two games from me, basically by stabbing me a bunch of times with goblin spears, using the Dragons half of the Knights and Dragons duel decks.

We switched to the Planeswalker decks for the second match. I got Garruk (green), and he got Chandra (red). These little decks are really fun. They’re 30 cards each, a very simple build, and lend themselves to really quick duels … which is pretty terrible if you’re the guy with the green deck who needs to get 7 freaking mana out to play his Wurms, while the other guy’s red deck slowly murders you with goblins. Again.

I did win a single game, because Nolan should have taken a Mulligan on his draw, and after five games, it was Nolan 4, Wil 1.

“I just realized that your decks have both been fast decks, while mine were built around withstanding a lot of small hits until I can smack you a couple times for lots of life,” I said.

“I prefer fast decks,” he said.

“So do I,” I said.

He cocked his head to one side, which he’s done since he was little whenever he’s about to get serious, and said, “do you mind that I’m killing you? Like, is it still fun for you?”

When Ryan and Nolan were little, they played Little League. They were coached by their hypercompetitive dad, whose winning-is-the-only-thing attitude ruined the experience for both of them. At one point during one of their seasons, I had to stop going to games because I couldn’t stomach watching their biodad yell at them, oblivious (or uncaring) to how much it was upsetting them. And, Jesus Fuck Shit, Little League Parents: get some fucking perspective, will you? They are 8 year-olds, playing a game, on a weekend. If those little kids winning those games is the most important thing in your life, you fail at parenting, and life in general.

Sorry. I still get angry about how much those games upset my kids, and how I couldn’t do anything to protect them from it at the time. The point is, during that time, I tried my best to support them and provide a counter weight to their biodad’s crap. I told them, “It’s fun to win, sure, but if you only have fun when you win, you completely lose the joy of just playing a game, and being part of a team that works together. You’re not going to win every game you play, so if winning is the only way you have fun, you’re going to have a bad time pretty often.”

I think they intuitively understood that, and I think their understanding of that, coupled with a desire to meet their biological father’s demands, made the entire Little League experience very difficult for them. I know that they internalized my lessons, though, because they’ve both told me as much at one time or another in recent years.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m having a really great time playing with you. Winning just doesn’t matter to me.”

I paused. Then: “Are you ready for the greatest comeback in the history of life?” I asked him, “because it’s about to happen.”

He looked silently back at me, and raised his eyebrows.

“Shut up! It can totally happen.”

More of the look, and we both laughed.

“Okay, which of these decks do you want?” I asked him. One was called Into The Breach, which had a pretty cool-looking, H.R. Geigeresque insectoid creature on the cover. The other was called Infect & Defile, which had a dimilar, H.R. Geigeresque creature on its cover, but more bird-like.

“I’ll take, uh …” he looked at them both, and reached for Into The Breach. “I’ll take this one.”

I took the other, and he said, “No! Wait! This is green, and that is black and blue. I want the black and blue deck.”

“Normally, I’d say it’s not a big deal and you can have it, but you’re destroying me so much I’m going to keep it and consider it a minor victory.”

“Dude. That’s harsh.”

“I know. I’m terrible.”

We opened the boxes, and pulled out the decks inside. They are Event Decks, which I’d never played with before. It’s a pretty cool idea: you get a deck that’s constructed from a bunch of different sets, built around a particular theme, that’s theoretically tough enough to withstand tournament play.

“Hey, this is really cool,” I said, “and there’s even a little insert that tells you how to play the deck.”

I took my insert out and opened it up.

“Are you fucking serious?” I said.

He looked up at me, and I read the first sentence to him: “To win with the ‘Infect & Defile’ deck, you’ll need to be patient.” I skipped a bit and continued: “…given enough time, you’ll draw more cards…”

“Oh man, that’s hilarious.”

“Well, I’ve certainly been training up for this deck,” I said. “Let’s do this!”

We started our duel, and Nolan just ruined me, quickly, in back-to-back games. In the second game, he used a devastating series of instants to cut me down to four life, then a sorcery to finish me off, all on the fourth or fifth round.  “I’m not even angry, ” I said, “that was amazing.”

“You are the undisputed master of Magic,” I said. “You may do The March, if you wish.”

The March is this silly victory thing we’ve been doing in our family since we first played one of the DVD versions of Trivial Pursuit in the early 2000s. Anne loves to do it, and I’ll admit that it feels pretty good to do when you’ve earned it, especially if you’re extremely obnoxious in the marching and saluting.

“No, I’m good,” he smiled. “I think these decks weren’t very balanced.”

I shrugged. “I don’t play enough to know, and if we were really super serious I guess we could switch decks and play again, but I know you’ve got to get to your friend’s house, and I don’t want to monopolize your Friday night.”

We cleaned up the game, and he said, “I had a really good time playing with you, and I’m not just saying that because I won.”

“I know,” I said, “I had a great time playing with you, too. I’m really glad you came over.”

He bent down and hugged me (he’s almost 6’2″, now, and has giant arms, so he pretty much engulfs my tiny 5’11” person when he hugs me). There was a sincerity and warmth to his hug that I didn’t realize had been missing for a very long time. I hugged him back.

“I love you, Nolan,” I said.

“I love you, too, Wil,” he said.

I pulled away and patted his chest with my palm. “Have fun with your friends, and be good. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Okay. Let’s do this again.”

“I’d like that a lot,” I said.

He went out the front door, and I closed it behind him. Through the glass, I watched my little boy walk down the driveway, towards his first day of school.

121 thoughts on “There’s a harbor lost within the reeds.”

  1. Look! A distraction!! (as I quickly wipe away my tears of joy) Dude… you said it was more personal than you anticipated but neglected to mention the tissue requirement… 😛

  2. I know that feeling very well. I also have children 21 and 23. My oldest is on his own and dont have a lot of time for me. My youngest is about to leave college and live her own life. Every time I say good bye I see my little ones not the adults they are. Where does the time go? I’m glad your relationship with your son is growing. You do love them no matter what, it sounds like you are a great dad.

  3. As a nerdy mom to an already-nerdy almost-3-year-old boy, this hit me really hard. My relationship with my parents was strained for years before it finally shattered into an unrepairable mess a couple years back, so I’m already scared of how to be a parent to an adolescent/adult, because I never had it modeled effectively for me.

    This gives me hope that I can still have a strong relationship, with common interests, with my son when he’s grown. Thank you Wil.

  4. God, Wil. Your writing still just destroys me. I’m so glad you shared this with the world. The last line… Jeez, man, I have something in both my eyes. Thanks.

  5. Fantastic. I’ve experienced pretty much this exact scenario, including the magic decks several time with my kids.

    You know I posted your printing the Falcon on Facebook, “lifebucketlist Star Trek char prints my thing on his replicator”. Haha.. Then my older sister sends me a note that tells me how much she loved reading your blog and how you reminded her of me. So I come back , I read this, and I realize she’s right.

    You are a great dad and just a cool person, no wonder you kids love you. Add at least two new fans to your list.

  6. I’m not sure you’ve thought this Magic cheating thing all the way through.

    If I print a card on a printer… that’s cheating.

    If I go raid dad’s card supply to find rare cards… that’s fine.

    Basically, it’s cheating if you get the card for free and it’s not cheating if you buy it?

    Very undemocratic, unliberal thinking, sir. It’s a card game, not polo. Poor kids should be able to play, too.

  7. nerd comment: fast (“aggro”) Magic decks are indeed better for beginners, but for people with more cards and more playing experience, slow (“control”) decks can be as good or better depending on what sets you are playing with.

  8. I got tears in my eyes reading this. I have such a terrible relationship with my mother that my biggest fear is that my relationship with my own kids could go that way. I am not my mother though and intend to be completely “there” for my kids as you are for yours. Thank you for being such a good role model to them and to us.

  9. Amazing writing Wil – you’ve really captured parenthood here. As a father and Magic player, your post here really hit close to home. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  10. I want to go hug my parents right now. I’m adopted and this made me tear up. Thank you for sharing this, Wil.

  11. Mr Wheaton thanks for the wonderful story. I am so JELOUS for I wished that senerio for my dad and I. Kind of the same “but different”. Lol. Hope to see you more on shows like Big Bang. Loved that character.

  12. My name is Andrew, and I use Card Sleeves, because I’m terrible with spilling stuff, so when you said: “[…]I really hate playing any game that has cards in sleeves. I mean, that’s like putting plastic on your couch, for fuck’s sake. Andrew.” I got really spooked, because it felt like you were admonishing me.

  13. You are such a great writer and this is an amazing moment in time. Thank you for sharing it with us. My boys have completely skipped playing baseball because of the parents attitudes in the little league in our town. We play Munchkin instead.

  14. Great story. I have no kids but I understand the sentiment no less. And despite your many losses on TableTop as well, I suspect you’re a bit like me in that the fun is the in the play, not in the win. I have no problems losing a game to friends, though I have friends who would not play games they think they couldn’t win or haven’t mastered. While winning is great to experience, having fun playing the game is supposed to be the whole point. Congrats on being able to have fun. :)

  15. Someone a lot wiser than me once said “I’ll miss the boy but I am looking forward to meeting the man he’ll become.” So very much to look forward to by the sound of things.

  16. This gave me a little smile. Have experienced similar with my dad (but he’s my true biodad) in the time since I returned from the military and went to school, as well as with my GPa, who passed away at the age of 77 (just a week before Christmas). It’s always a good thing when someone realizes that your family is going to be there for you, so enjoy what time you have with them.

  17. Why oh why do my eyes keep leaking? What a wonderful story. Give me hope that the bridge will be gapped with my son someday.

  18. Thankyou Wil, that was beautiful. I don’t have a very close relationship with my dad but as a father of 3 young boys I take great inspiration from this. I hope to keep this kind of closeness with my boys as they will inevitably grow up like yours boys did. I have some family activities too, but you’ve got me thinking of adding Tabletop Games.

  19. Oh. Tears. My husband just re- started playing Magic with our nearly 12 year old. I cover the Dr. Who and Anime side of the equation. We are all very close, but she’s taking steps out into the world now and moving a bit, just the beginning – -towards teen years. I hope we have the understanding of the process you had. Thank you for writing this.

  20. “To win with the ‘Infect & Defile’ deck, you’ll need to be patient.”

    That totally was the universe telling you to not be a dick. 😉

    1. I’ve also realized that there’s a parallel to parenting there, too, that I didn’t think about when I was writing this.

  21. It floors me, amazes me and reduces me to tears when my nephews morph back into the little goobers I adore. I love them as adults/pre-teens, but the little boy image ghosts around them. Thank you for reminding me of the ghost, the love and fun we have playing Uno or Legos.

  22. I confess to tearing up a bit when I read this blog. As a parent of a 19 and 21 year old I so relate to watching through those parent eyes and seeing your kid as ….well, a kid. And I loved your story of playing Magic with your son. Beautifully told. Thanks.

  23. hey Wil – Thanks very much for sharing that. I’m going through something similar with my son right now. He’s been home from college for Christmas and I take him back up today. We played video games for a little bit, which was kind of like your playing cards with Nolan, but it was your last line that brought back a memory I wrote down a bit ago. It’s called “Letting go of the Saddle” – and – well, you’ll get it… – take care – keep writing, and keep sharing your stories.


  24. Hot damn. Awesome article. Applies to a lot of things, in terms of bonding. Watching movies, talking about a book, board games, sports, whatever. It is these bonding experiences that I think everyone really hopes to have with people in their family.

  25. So can we expect Nolan in the next season of Tabletop? :)
    Nolan’s dad sounds like Emilio Estevez’ dad in The Breakfast Club, and I thought people like that existed only in films. :(

  26. I only got to start being the pseudo mom when our boys were 9, 11, and 14 and I wish I could have gotten here earlier. Only the middle one lives with us these days and the youngest is just stuck in a cycle that is breaking his dad’s heart and it breaks my heart to see it. Thank you for holding out some hope and encouragement to keep trying.

  27. What a wonderful piece of writing! As a dad with kids from 18-25, in the spectrum from bio-dad to you, Wil, I have to judge myself as falling closer to the former, I’m very sad to realize and say. I seldom see or hear from my older two, and when I do it’s always the same joyous feeling you describe so well here. Does anyone else hear “Cats in the Cradle” in their head?

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