I was born legally deaf and raised in a polygamist commune in rural Montana until my family escaped when I was 13. I first picked up a basketball at 14 as a way to adjust to my new life. I endured the discomfort of many bumps and bruises along the way, due to my disability and unique upbringing, but I ended up making it to the NBA—playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers (with LeBron James!), among other teams—as the ﬁrst legally deaf player in NBA history.
While making it to the NBA helped to provide me with valuable insight into making it as a man in today’s world, where the deﬁnition of healthy masculinity is being revised on a daily basis, becoming a father was the experience that helped transform my vision of manhood.
I am the youngest of my father’s eight children and the only child whose diapers he changed. He grew up in a world where his mother reprimanded and chastised him for even trying to change my oldest sister’s diaper, for that was beneath the man, the patriarch. However, my size and strength were too much for my mother to handle by the time I was ten months old, so my father took pity on her after I gave her a good kick in the face and stepped in to ﬁnish the diaper change. From there, my father and I had a bond.
As my father began to watch over me and my development, I know his own emotional development transformed. By being willing to cross the gender role divide and deign to change his own child’s diapers, a metamorphosis was set in motion that saw my father emerge from being a macho man to a much more rounded person who showed me through action the power and necessity of being cerebral. Although my father wasn’t a basketball player, his ability to evolve and be multifaceted was the greatest act of mentorship during my career.
This transformative transcendence was triggered for me as well when my son, Simon, was born. I was thirty-three years old. I felt I was ready to be a father, but I had no idea the impact my son would have on me. Following my father’s example, I changed Simon’s diapers right away, despite my hair-trigger gag reﬂex. While I don’t miss changing the diapers, I appreciate the bond it gave us of pure vulnerability and trust. And love. It was transformational in showing me what unconditional love truly is.
When we understand that men who pose as tough guys are terriﬁed to behave in such loving and vulnerable ways because they don’t know how to process such intimacy, it’s likely because they never received it themselves. We’ve been conditioned to be afraid of pure basic intimacy, as though it signals we are weak, and others will exploit it. My father was raised to be afraid of intimacy, but he broke his cultural and family chain with me. While I already admired him, I didn’t understand how much so, until I became a father myself.
Just as my father grew with me, my own emotional intelligence has grown being a father. In learning to help Simon breathe through his emotions, define his feelings, and not be ashamed of them, I have taught myself to do the same. Helping Simon be bold and brave, unafraid to fail, I only reaffirm the same for myself whenever I feel fear come into my life. Helping Simon to understand that his worth and value are never attached to an outcome, I have seen that same clarity for myself as a single father in the hardest times of my life.
Becoming a parent or mentor is possibly the most powerful opportunity to heal, not only yourself but the generations before you. Having a child, blood or not, is a beautiful mirror to reﬂect back to your own internal dialogue and self-value. It is one of the greatest gifts we can receive. Yet, most of us do not see it so clearly. Some days we see it as a burden that we have this annoying, whiny kid, always clinging to us.
But when you are at peace with your life, you ﬁnd the same peace when you look at your child. When you are annoyed with your child, you see with clarity that you are annoyed with yourself. Simple mirrors. When you see your child with gratitude, understanding the perfect opportunity they are giving you to heal yourself with compassion and accountability, you heal not only yourself but them and, furthermore, your ancestors. You heal the line.
Simon continually pulls me out of my head and into the present, when oftentimes all I want to do is be in my head. He continually pushes me out of my comfort zones. He continually challenges my patience and compassion. In learning to help a four-year-old boy own his feelings, I am forced to do the most uncomfortable thing of my life: face my own.
It is about understanding that your child’s sense of self-worth will grow stronger in correlation to the amount of quality time you spend with him, which is also spending time with yourself.
It is about living in the beautiful dichotomy of love and exhaustion, where you can’t wait for your son to go back to his mother for a night so you can catch a breather, but then you miss him like hell as soon as he is gone.
It is about waking up in the middle of the night from a nightmare in which you are drowning, only to realize someone has vomited a chocolate milk corndog smoothie all over you. And with tired eyes, but a grateful heart that you can be there for him, you eagerly change the bed and bathe your boy, wishing you could take all of his pain away. And yet you know you can’t, and that life will only give him much worse. And all you can do is be there for him, where you constantly help him to know and never forget that his big, bold heart is the most important and beautiful thing in the world.
Simon, the beautiful reflection that he is, has taught me that being a father that can pass along a healthy vision of manhood to his son offers more peace and clarity than any NBA contract ever could.
Photo Credit: Philip Hanamaikai (with permission)