The Day I Broke My Son’s Heart

By Brad Meltzer

I remember the exact moment I hurt him. I was in bed, lying on my side – my body in the shape of a letter C – and curled around my eight year-old son as we read together. It was one of those pictures Norman Rockwell paints: father and boy, temples nearly touching, lost in a good book. But the moment didn’t stay Rockwell for long – because this was the moment where, for the very first time, I broke my child’s heart.

Of course, I didn’t mean to. Like the time I made my son cry when I accidentally slammed him in the face with a basketball, or when I (hypothetically) put him on the back of my bicycle and then got off, not realizing it would tip over and send him (hypothetically) crashing into a deathtrap-like snare of razor-sharp shrubs (“Dad, I told you I didn’t want to go on the bike!”). My worst moments as a parent have been much like my greatest moments as a parent: the product of complete and perfect accident.

Much like that night where I’m doing the Norman Rockwell.

So there’s the picture: me and my son, sharing a book. And not just any book.

Since the day my son was born eight years ago, I’d been writing a book for him. It’s a collection of heroes — from Jim Henson, to Rosa Parks, to Mr. Rogers. I spent the better part of a decade not just finding great people, but finding the single moment that makes each of these people great. Thomas Jefferson not taking credit for writing the Declaration of Independence. What Miep Gies did when she first found the red-checked book that was Anne Frank’s diary. This book was a gift to my son. It was written to teach him. To inspire him. To prove to him that anything is possible. And now…finally…that book – “Heroes For My Son” – was bound and edited and just waiting to be shared with its true intended audience – the audience of one: My Jonas.

Naturally, Jonas went for the sports heroes first. He’s eight. He’s a boy. He couldn’t care less about Eleanor Roosevelt. He flipped as fast as he could, looking for someone holding some sports gear. He found one quickly – the sixth hero in the book: Roberto Clemente.

It’s one of my favorite stories: After an earthquake in Nicaragua, baseball player Clemente personally funded three emergency relief flights. All three got diverted by corrupt officials – which is why Clemente decided to fly on the fourth plane himself. It was packed with as much food and medicine as he could possibly bring. The plane crashed into the ocean, killing everyone on the flight.

What a story, right? Selflessness. Bravery. Chutzpah like you only see on the relatives your parents hate. These were the lessons I wanted for my boy. So as he sat in my arms and began to read aloud about Roberto Clemente, I proudly waited for him to tell me I was the greatest father of not just time, but actual space as well.

Until.

Jonas’s voice slowed as he got to the part about Roberto Clemente’s plane crashing into the ocean. As he read the words, I felt him lean backwards, slightly pressing against my chest. Did he not get the story? Did he not understand it?

I was still curved around him, and in my arms, I could physically feel my son shrinking…he was shrinking as the air left his lungs. The plane crashed in the ocean, killing everyone on the flight.

Oh. Oh crap.

Time slowed to that same hypersensitive crawl that I’d experienced when I hit him with the basketball or sent him crashing into the deathtrap bushes. I could hear that same high-pitched hum that you take home with you when you leave a rock concert. I saw the three stray hairs that swayed at the top of Jonas’s head. And, as he stuttered the final words, I could absolutely feel the pain splintering through him as I broke his heart for the very first time.

“This is…sad,” my son said to me, on the verge of tears.

Why the hell was I surprised? It’s a horrible story, really. But in my race to teach my boy about heroes, I forgot that you can’t show someone a high without also showing them a low. And though I wanted to present him with wonderful people doing wonderful things – what I presented him with was sadness and heartbreak and a lonely defeat.

But as I look back on it, I think I had to.

And that was the worst part. It wasn’t just that I broke his heart – it’s that I had to break his heart.

Every father does. Eventually. Whether we want to or not.

To teach heroism, you have to teach loss.

The next night, when it came to reading time, I decided to avoid the hero stories. I purposely put my book aside to give him a break. I’d done enough damage for awhile.

But eventually, a few weeks passed and I decided to revisit the subject. I asked him, “What do you think about Roberto Clemente?” He smiled and said, “I like him.” Still, I was terrified that, when it came to the story, the only thing Jonas got from it was tragedy. So I pulled out a quick follow-up: “Why do you like him?” My son turned to me, his cheeks lifting with the biggest smile I’d seen on him in a long time. There was no tragedy in sight. Just…admiration. “Because he risked his life,” Jonas replied, looking older – and far stronger – than I’d ever seen him.

I love when I teach my son a good lesson. But I love it even more when he teaches me.

© Brad Meltzer