I always tried to pull my son into my world. After I lost him, I wished I’d spent more time in his.
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illustration of father and son playing with blocks
Credit: Illustration by Anne Bentley

Trigger warning: This piece discusses suicide.

When our second child and only boy, Max, was born, I had all the expectations that every young, naive father holds for a son. Max would walk in my footsteps, would grow up as sports-crazed as I did. He would collect baseball cards—and football cards and basketball cards—and long after his children were grown, he would keep those cards in his closet.

My son's lack of interest in sports is proof that God has a sense of humor. It turns out mothers have genes, too—which, in truth, is unfair to my wife. She had more interest in sports than Max did.

I use the past tense because Max died seven years ago, at age 21, when he ended his life. He struggled with depression, which we knew, until it spiraled out of control, which we didn't. As you may imagine, I've examined our relationship from every vantage. I see where I succeeded and where I didn't, the latter looming larger because his death doesn't allow me to correct my mistakes.

My wife described Max the toddler as "on his own planet and happy to be there." But what we originally deemed cute—such as the ability to recite entire Dr. Seuss books—turned out, after litanies of tests, to be evidence that he resided "somewhere on the spectrum." What do you do with that? There is no X-ray that identifies autism, no shadow on an MRI that announces itself as Asperger's.

Max struggled with social cues, but we bonded over humor. I trained Max to love the Marx Brothers, the arid nonsense of Bob and Ray. He and his sisters introduced me to the zaniness of How I Met Your Mother. Max collected cards—Pokémon, not baseball. My efforts to introduce him to sports ran aground. He played one year of T-ball. He made one trip to the driving range. And then, one night at age 9, Max came downstairs and asked me about Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant. Actually, he asked about Kevin GAR-nett and KOHB Bryant, mispronouncing both.

He had been reading a LEGO catalog, which included the new NBA LEGO set. Instantly, we were in the car, headed to Toys "R" Us. Jason Kidd, another LEGO character, played nearby. I asked Max if he wanted to see him play. And off we went to see the New Jersey Nets. I thought I had established a beachhead.

Max and I went to several games a year for a few seasons. I'm haunted by how desperately I cling to the memory of one NBA playoff game we attended in 2007. Max, 13, and I sat 20 rows behind a basket. When the Nets clinched the victory at the free-throw line, Max and I embraced, jumping up and down. What I love about that memory does not put me in the most flattering light: It's the most vivid moment I have of Max fulfilling the assumptions I made when he was born. It underlines the difficulty I had in reaching him on his terms, his turf.

It devastates me to acknowledge that I built those bridges for him to walk to my interests but rarely crossed over to his. I know I'm not the first parent who's failed to grasp the saliency of a Pokémon deck, or the only one who couldn't take three steps in Minecraft without being cut down by a fellow player. But it pains me to have decided that I didn't have to be interested in the things that most interested him, and yet wanted him to be interested in what interested me.

I'm smart enough to know that had I dived into either Pokémon or Minecraft, rather than pretend to have only a passing interest, it would have had no bearing on Max's mental state. And I know that some of the gap was generational. One shock of parenting adolescents is that a child who once fit snugly in one arm is now a living embodiment of how you are no longer cool.

I believe the trick with any child is to meet them where they are. You teach them where they must be in terms of how they treat people. You introduce them to the topics that you think are important. And you don't dismiss the ones that are important to them. You don't have to immerse yourself in their passions. But if I had it to do over again, I would wade in at least up to my waist.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org, or text "START" to 741-741 to immediately speak to a trained counselor at Crisis Text Line.

Ivan Maisel is a sportswriter and the author of the memoir "I Keep Trying to Catch His Eye."

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's March 2022 issue as "Building a Bridge to My Boy." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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