On the day my son’s school bus was forty-five minutes late bringing him home, he said fire trucks had blocked the road because of a chimney fire. He didn’t seem upset about it until bedtime, when I said good night and left his room. He called me back upstairs, saying, “I have bad thoughts on my mind. I can’t get that chimney fire out of my mind.”
I explained how fires get started in a chimney, how good chimneys could handle it without danger, that wood stoves and dirty chimneys were the real culprits, and that we had a safe chimney and no wood stove. No amount of assurance resolved his anxiety. Why were there so many fire trucks? Everybody comes because they don’t know until they get there if it’s serious or not. Why did they stay so long? The firemen like to chat. Why were two firemen sitting on top of the roof? To see if any sparks landed on the roof. I finally told him that I only knew three ways for him to get rid of these “bad thoughts”: read a book, think of good things (“Like what?” he said, so I gave him a list), or do math problems in his head. I’m not sure which of those methods he chose, but he finally went to sleep.
In preparation for Jesse’s first T-ball game on a team called the Pirates, I began playing baseball with him in back of our house. We set up bases. I pitched to him, he whacked it, I tried to retrieve it and run him down before he raced around the bases. When he became fussy, I suggested he go inside for a snack. I lay on the grass, face up, eyes closed, enjoying the warm sun and sounds of spring. Then I heard his thundering feet as he ran down the back slope in my direction. Closer. WHACK! He had jumped over me, clipping my nose and knocking off my eyeglasses.
“Are you all right?” he said in a panicky voice. “Are you all right, Dad?”
“No, I’m not all right. I think you broke my nose.”
He began to cry. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
I called to my wife, who was raking leaves from her flower garden. Shelley came and examined my nose.
“Damn baseball,” he sobbed.
“This had nothing to do with baseball,” I said. “You just made a bad decision.”
Later as I lay on the sofa with an ice pack on my nose, Jesse came cautiously and asked, “How’s your nose, Dad?”
“Better. Thanks for asking.”
After awhile I went outside again to haul Shelley’s leaves. When I came back in, Jesse was busy writing. Shelley would tell me later he’d started crying again and, with palpable anxiety, said, “Dad will say a lot of terrible things to me. Dad will hate me forever.” She said he needed to talk to me. He said he couldn’t. She then suggested that he write down his feelings. As I sat in the living room, reading, Jesse came to me and silently placed a note in my lap. The note said: “Dear Dad. I’m sorry I kicked you in the nose. I did not mean to do it. I hope you forgive me.”
I put my arm around him. “Of course I forgive you…it was just an accident.” Then Shelley came in, and we each recounted times as a child when we’d made bad decisions that led to accidents. In retrospect, I regret insinuating that he broke my nose and adding to his anxiety. I was pissed off and in pain, which had caused my exaggerated reaction. This event changed my view of how Jesse saw me. He needed to know he could approach me without anxiety and that I’d be nurturing during painful times.
Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird mentions writing about events like this that change us. She says, “…there is still something to be said for painting portraits of the people we have loved, for trying to express those moments that seem inexpressibly beautiful, the ones that change us and deepen us.”
Jesse seemed unaware of the anxiety he caused Shelley and me by not getting dressed until two minutes before the school bus arrived. “If I miss the bus,” he said, “you can drive me to school.” Not a good idea. Jesse is happy and the duty parent gets to work late. At the end of a particularly bad week, I said to Shelley, “Nagging him about getting dressed is not how I want to begin my morning. I get upset when he dilly-dallies, I just can’t relax.” Shelley felt the same way, and we agreed to a new rule. “Mama and I have been upset lately about your not being dressed by eight each morning,” I told him. “I want mornings to be a happier time.” I explained that his clothes would be on the sofa each morning and that he couldn’t watch TV or do anything else until he was dressed. He asked, “Can I leave my shoes off until later?” Shoes were often the slowest part.
“No,” I said, “You have to have your shoes on too.”
“But I can always put my shoes on fast.”
“I know. But I’ll be happier if you have your shoes on too. Okay?”
Shortly after this incident, I was taken by a quote by former Boy Scout director Lew Powers in the book How to Raise a Son. Powers said, “Boys want to know three things. One, who’s the boss? Two, what are the rules? And three, are you going to enforce ‘em? To have a strong relationship with a boy, you have to be the boss, and a very kind one. Only set rules that you can enforce, and always enforce them. Then you have the basis for a relationship. From here comes respect and more importantly, trust. Then you can be kind, he’ll listen, and he knows that you are on his side.”
After setting the rules, mornings became less anxious for all of us.
With respect to his anxieties, I wish I’d known how to alleviate his night fears. When the wind blew in the giant pine tree outside his window, he often called for one of us. As I sat on his bed one night, he said, “Are you afraid of the wind?”
I said, “No. In fact, when I was a kid, I used to sleep on the screen porch during summer storms.”
“Are you afraid of anything?”
“Yes. I’m afraid of people with guns and truck drivers who drive on my tail.”
“You could always let the trucks go by.”
“I could. You know, I’m also afraid to die.”
“I’m not afraid to die. There will be so many people I know in heaven when I get there.”
“That’s true, but we’ll have to make the trip alone, and that’s a little scary…like if we sent you alone on the plane to Indiana to visit Grandma and Grandpa.”
“I wouldn’t be afraid then because the airline would have flight attendants to watch me the whole way.”
Shelley says God has angels who act as His flight attendants. I hope she’s right.
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