by Stephen Jay Schwartz

I like that the guy who works at Trader Joe’s sees us and says, “Hello, family.”

I like that people stop us at the beach and comment on how the kids have grown.

I like that, at the West Hollywood Book Fair, Jerry Stahl leaned over and said it’s nice that my family is so supportive.

People in the book community have watched my children grow for a number of years now. My wife and boys have attended just about every book event I’ve had since Boulevard, my first book, was published.

I like it. It’s a good feeling. Especially since, for the first eight or so years of my children’s lives, I was almost never around. I was working a national sales job that kept me crossing the country every other week. One week in, one week out. For years my youngest son said he didn’t like me. He actually used the word “hate,” which I knew was much stronger than what he meant. When I asked him why he “hated” me, he couldn’t think of a reason other than, “You have too much hair on your arms and face.” At the same time, he loved the daylights out of his mother. I realized that Noah felt this way because I was hardly ever there. I was the one who LEFT. His mommy was the one who STAYED. She is an at-home mom and has been by his side his entire life. I got the picture – why would a parent leave his family every other week unless he really didn’t care? And then, when he was home, why would he spend most his time hiding away, writing a book? Noah was too young to understand the sacrifice of working a day job to support a family. He thought I wanted to go. He was too young to understand the commitment and sacrifice necessary to excel at an art, despite the challenges of raising a family and working a nine-to-five job.

I couldn’t get this point across and soon I had to accept the fact that this was how it was going to be. Although this saddened me, I didn’t blame him for not liking me. I told him I thought he would change his mind someday, and I would patiently look forward to that moment.

Since I traveled so much I figured I’d better put something in writing, in case I met with a terrible accident along the way. I wrote a letter to each of my boys, sealed the letters and placed them in a drawer. In the letters I told my boys how much they meant to me, how special they are, singling out the special qualities that makes each boy unique. In Noah’s letter I said I knew he loved me and he should never, ever think that I didn’t get that message. Just because he didn’t say the words didn’t mean he hadn’t shown me, in everything he did, how much he cared.

I wanted to put him at ease. I know from experience that there’s nothing worse than wishing you had said something to someone before they died. Nothing worse than wondering if that person thought you didn’t care.

One day, just a few years ago, Noah turned to me and said he had something important to say. I brightened, guessing what was up. He was a bit shy about it, so I prompted him.

“Is it that you don’t hate me anymore?” I asked.

He smiled.

“So, you like me now.” I deduced.

I could sense there was something more. My chest started tingling.

“I love you, daddy.”

Damn. That was the best feeling in the world. I’d been waiting nine years for that and, frankly, I’d been wondering if I was ever going to hear him speak those words.

Since then we’ve been peas in a pod. The best of buds. He’s twelve now and we often walk around in public holding hands. I relish it, knowing he’ll soon cross that line where holding his daddy’s hand isn’t cool anymore. But that’s the funny thing about Noah – he doesn’t care what is and isn’t cool. He goes against the grain in everything he does. And, to me, that makes him all the more cool.

His older brother, Ben, surprised me with some critical family support the day Boulevard launched at Book Soup in L.A. There was a group of about fifty people and when I asked if anyone had questions, Ben, ten years old at the time, raised his hand.

“You have a question, Ben?”

“No,” he said, “I have a statement.”

“Okay,” I said, warily. He came up to the podium and I put the microphone to his lips.

Ben studied the crowd confidently and said, “I watched my daddy writing all the time, for years. He was always writing and saying he was going to make a book. I really didn’t think it would be that good because, well, it was his first book, so how could it be that good? And then he finished it and it got all these great blurbs (yes, he knew what blurbs were!) and everyone is saying all these nice things. And I’m really proud of him.”

Another touch-my-heart moment. If you saw the pictures from that day and saw my face you’d see the look of a content, grateful father.

You see the same look in my author photo right now.

I’m the kind of guy who just can’t smile for the camera. I try, but I usually end up looking like an insincere dork. Anyone who spends a little time studying body language knows that a sincere smile is seen in the eyes. The eyes have to smile, and that’s a response that can’t be faked.

One day Noah took a photo of me at the Festival of Books, standing next to Lisa Lutz. He was just getting into photography at the time and I thought he looked absolutely adorable behind that camera. As I posed for him, my face lit up with a pure, proud, authentic smile. And that’s what he captured, something real, with eyes that smiled with my lips. I carefully photo-shopped Lisa Lutz from the frame (sorry, Lisa!) and submitted the photograph to my agent. When my novel, Beat, was published I showed Noah the author photo in the back, and his name in print as the photographer. His face lit up with pride. I think that was the moment he decided to take a more series interest in photography.

(Movie Magic brings Lisa Lutz back into the picture!  Hello, Lisa!)

After that he took pictures of me and other authors at every panel I did. His passion came to the attention of Diana James, the literary publicist married to author Darrell James. She asked him to take some photos of Darrell at one of the book festivals and, after we sent them to her, she sent Noah a $20 check for his services. It was his first paying gig. Diana was such a sweetheart – she included a letter to Noah saying how wonderful his work is and that he should continue pursuing his dreams. Diana passed away not long ago – a terrible, tragic loss to her husband, friends, and the literary community at large. A terrible loss to a little boy whose life she touched.

(Diana James, photographed by Noah)

I’m aware I’m a lucky guy. The time I spent working and writing could have driven my family away. There was in fact a critical moment when my marriage almost ended and everything had to be rebuilt, from the bottom up. We worked through it, we got past it, we made it to the other side.

Things could be better. I could be supporting myself as an author. I could be working a day job that means as much to me as my writing. I could be out of debt. I could have a car that runs. I could be living in a house instead of an apartment. The list goes on.

But this thing I’ve got is better than everything else combined. The love and support of a loving and supportive family.

I like it.

Well, no, it’s more than like.

It’s love.

12 thoughts on “I LIKE

  1. twist

    O Stephen, what a lovely post. True wealth is measured by the things money can't buy. You are a rich man, my friend.

  2. Richard Maguire

    A really wonderful piece, Stephen. And what Zoe and twist have both said. I think you´re a lucky guy. Hard not to be moved by this.post.

    (Reine: I've only now read what Zoe posted yesterday, and the comments, and I'd just like to say how incredibly brave you are. But I know it isn't easy. I wish I had your strength.)

  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Zoe – thanks, sweetie. I'm lucky to have my boys – they keep me grounded.

    Twist – in the end it's all about the relationships we build, right? I'd hate to be estranged from my kids. Working hard to keep that from happening.

    Richard – thanks, man. The family gives me some rich material to work with.

  4. Lisa Alber

    Lovely as ever, Stephen. It's all about being grateful, isn't it? Even if some days we have to remind ourselves how good we have it. Your boys sounds like wonderful human beings.

  5. Debbie

    I sometimes find it hard not to let my emotions show. A group of kids get up on a stage and sing and tears come to my eyes. They don't even have to be my own children; I just think of how proud their parents are and, voila, tears. So yes, I just finished wiping them away from my eyes having read your post. Thank you.

    I expect that all children 'hate' their parents at some point. I think what they often truely hate is not yet being on equal footing. It is the only power they have, to say that they don't love us. They want our respect; to be seen as peers; to be appreciated for their ideas, beliefs, values, intellect, and their contribution. When we parent them, there is a clear us and them and perhaps, if we can't be there, we can't fully appreciate. I think it might even be the beginning of voicing atonomy and understanding the dynamic of respect, bringing them closer to that destination of peer, as they begin to understand that love is not connected to power.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Lisa – thanks. I do feel lucky to have these boys. I wish I could spend every day with them.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Debbie – good God! Beautifully said! Your comment brought tears to my eyes as well. I think you nailed it – your words spoke to my core, to the boy inside me who always wanted equal footing. Words to live by. Thank you.

  8. lil Gluckstern

    Lovely, and very touching. Your openness is what makes your family so loving, and makes your books come alive-indeed, all your writing touches me. Enjoy where you are.

  9. Penny

    Wow! Steve, you have such a gift. You bring raw emotion to print with honesty and humility. People can not only feel your emotions but our own swelling to the surface. I'm glad I know you.

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Reine, lil & Penny – what can I say? The fact that my words have an impact at all means the world to me. That's why I love having to write this blog every other week – it makes me stop everything I'm doing and dig deep inside. It makes me evaluate every step I'm making in my life and commit my thoughts to paper. It means so much to me that it means so much to you.

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