He just doesn’t stop. As sweat drips off my forehead, and I gasp for breath while sitting in my yard, my teenage son shovels away with a smile on his face. The little dude has energy to spare, and I’m contemplating taking a nap right there in the sun. We are digging a trench for a retaining wall and it’s 95 degrees out. I think I’m done.
It’s at this moment that any illusions that my 14-year-old son is a “little dude” are completely shattered. First off, he’s taller than me and is knocking on the door of 6 feet. I have no idea how that happened. And I don’t know why, but it doesn’t seem fair. How can a son be taller than his dad? This is the same guy that needed me to hold his ears when fireworks went off. Now he has a size 12 foot and walks around on flippers.
But more than that, it’s that he has boundless energy while I’m sucking wind. For the first time, I think my son is out working me. I suppose the next step is to take me out behind the shed and pull an Old Yeller.
In all of the things of fatherhood, this is the one that is the most shocking. Not because I’m getting old, or because my son is growing up. Both of those things were expected to happen. I’ve sat on the couch and thought “one day…” and then one day actually appeared. What makes this harder is that it hits at the core of who I am. It messes with the image that has always been in my head.
I’m dad. Nothing gets dad down. I’m the hero, the fixer, the guy that can make all the bad in the world go away. You’ve got a job to get done? You call dad.
“Take a break, dad,” he says and means it. It’s not said with sarcasm and there is a genuine concern in his voice. “I’ve got this.”
Does he realize the power shift? The moment where he takes over some of my role. No, not my role. But discovers within himself that self-reliance that I’ve always tried so hard to teach? To see him really just use his own muscles and head rather than me, well, it’s a bit disconcerting. I mean, I’m super proud and amazed by him, but at the same time, disappointed in myself that I can’t keep up. I’ve always been able to keep up. Now I’m sitting on the sidelines as he tells me to move my feet because I’m getting in the way.
The trench is 10-feet long and he just doesn’t stop. The shovel hits into that hard dirt like the stabbing pain hits into my back. For him, it’s such a simple job straight out of Cool Hand Luke.
“What’s your dirt doin’ in my ditch?” the warden says.
“I don’t know boss,” Luke says.
And then Luke starts digging.
“You need any water?” my son asks.
“Not yet, boss,” I tell him although he doesn’t get the reference just yet. I’ll make sure we watch that later.
It takes him about 30 minutes to double the work that took me an hour this morning. The trench is finished, and I army crawl next to his progress to level things out. That’s my contribution to the retaining wall. Sliding around on the grass while I wonder how much sweat my body actually holds. I get up from time to time to get a particular tough clump of grass because my experience allows me to know the right angle. But to be honest, I do it just to make myself feel a little better.
My dad was of the philosophy that good hard work could set your mind right. In his Plato type thinking, discover thyself by your sweat of your brow. I didn’t take many sick days as a kid because to do so meant I had to stack bricks.
But I would hate to tell my dad now that his philosophy isn’t working so much now. I have no idea who I am any more. Maybe I’m just the guy that lays on the grass while my son digs all my trenches.
My son finishes and sticks the shovel into the ground hard enough that the handle shimmys in the air. I used to do that, before 95 degree heat sapped me of my power and made my shoulders ache. I’m going to have to pop some pain killers to just get to bed tonight.
“All done,” he says and then heads inside. I should probably get out of the sun for a bit. We’ve got to stack bricks now. Well, he’s gotta stack bricks, and I need to continue my mid-life crisis.
But maybe this won’t be so bad. There’s something to be said for not being needed. It gives you a chance to focus on yourself, and if needed, shore up those areas that aren’t as storng as you would like. Maybe I can build a retaining wall for my confidence next.