I’m Not Always the Parent I Thought I’d Be

I wish I could parent like a grandparent. 

I want patience when my son comes outside with the plate of chocolate cake that he walked across the carpet. He’s smiling because he feels helpful and the cake was my idea in the first place. But all I can think about is that carpet and how he might have dropped it and how I might have had to clean it and how this would have been a nuisance. There he is, as eager to share joy as he is cake, and I throw cold water on it. “Don’t bring that across the carpet. I wish you would have let me get it.” His smile wilts and he says okay and hands it over with his tail tucked.

Why eat sweets and be bitter? Why defend carpet I don’t even like—carpet we’ll be happy to roll up and throw into the dumpster someday because it isn’t our style—and correct a boy for being a boy?

How did he see it? He sat eating chicken until I said out of nowhere he could have cake when he’s done. He gasped; it made his night. His face beamed. And then an idea: I’ll go get the cake so we can be ready. I’ll be the big boy Dad’s always telling me to be when I’m whining about something. Dad will be excited if I help by bringing it out. He’ll feel less “stressed.” He’ll tell me I’m a good helper and smile.

He opened the door and I scowled at him. I told him why it was wrong. I told him to do better next time.

I have plenty of excuses on deck. It wasn’t the first time I was tested today, and work was long, and I’m stressed about family, and the world is weighing in on me, and I’m not meeting my personal goals, and a million other trivial things I’ll have the whole day to fret about when he’s gone. How many times will we sit outside in the early autumn while he’s 5 and eat cake that he was excited to bring out on his own? Not twice. And the one time it happened, I corrected him, because that’s what good parents do, and his face fell. Then I wished he had dropped the cake and broken the plate and ground the icing into the fibers to make a stain that lasts forever if it meant I could take back that scowl.

Please don’t let my heavy brow be a stain on the carpet of your memories, son. Let’s go back. Try again. Carry that cake through the den and open the door and see. I’ll be smiling. I promise.

Maybe next time.

I wish I could parent like a grandparent because they know that love means letting things break sometimes. It means allowing too much sugar, saying yes all night even if they don’t deserve it, acting ignorant of some mischief.

It means remembering you won’t be around here much longer, and in a different way, neither will they.

How a Robin Helped Me Through the Pandemic

In the spring, when pandemic wave one was beginning to rage and the fear of the unknown sat upon us all, I saw a robin on my fence. We looked at each other, her red breast shining against the far leaves in the neighbor’s yard, and she flew away.

A few days later I was surprised to see her in the grass, and I knew it was her by the pattern on her wings. She hopped around, stuck her beak in the soil, looked up at me. There was grace in her motion—politeness and gratitude. She seemed kind.

When I started seeing her daily I wondered why she liked our yard so much. Then, one afternoon, she flew up to a high bough on the crabapple tree and landed on a nest I then saw for the first time. A chorus of demand and thanksgiving erupted from the young beaks that drove her labor.

It all made sense now: She was a mother. She spent her day serving. This explained her innate tenderness and the sense that if she could speak she would say something friendly to me. I started talking to her to ease her caution.

*

The world around us closed to mitigate the spread of the virus; I stayed outside with my family to mitigate our cabin fever. We shared three meals a day at the picnic table, and every meal, we looked on as Mother Robin ran food to her own table. Our boy chattered about dinosaurs; the chicks shouted through the leaves.

One day I watched as a chick chirped and Mother Robin came in response. The chick stuck his tail feathers into the air while she caught his excrement in her beak, flew it away from the nest, and dropped it on the other side of the yard. It was unsettling, but I was impressed by the cleanliness and self-sacrifice.

It struck me: we parents in the house aren’t the only ones constantly feeding, constantly cleaning, constantly being called upon for more and more.

A few more robins appeared in the lawn, smaller and speckle-chested. Wherever they landed, they sat stunned. Flying is intimidating. They let us approach until we could reach out and touch them, but we never did, except for the time I used a glove to get the little one off the fence after he had perched there for more than 6 hours. It wasn’t 2 minutes before Mother Robin landed where the chick had been, food in her beak, throwing glances at me. This was the loudest she ever spoke to me, but still she was gentle. She found him seconds later.

And one day, they were gone.

The young she bore and nurtured and fretted over had flown away to face this world on their own, to escape the feral cats, and to compete with bully grackles for food. Mother Robin apparently had no reason to stay.

*

Mother Robin, would you believe that an ache came into my heart when you left? And I am a full grown man. It humiliates me to admit that—other men derive pleasure from slaughtering elk and bears for trophies—but it’s true. I miss the peace you brought, which was so out of proportion to your size. For all I know, you thought nothing of me, or maybe you thought I was a threat to avoid.

You don’t know the light and peace you brought to me in this tumultuous year, in a time when I needed it. Your presence showed me we will survive, even if it hurts, and even if we must strain move forward.

You showed me also that we are not alone in the humble toil of caring for offspring. In my duty to bear with the cry for more from those in my nest, I am blessed.

It was not below you to spend your days tending your home while other birds around you lived more adventurously. Hawks chased field mice through the swaying grains, swans drifted across lakes in romance, starlings inked the sky with jet black murmurations—you hopped about our half-dead bermuda, feeding crying babies.

You never complained or showed disdain for your lot. You searched and ran and fed and cleaned, and you looked at me, a menace, with light in your eyes.

I hope you stay warm this coming winter. I’ll be inside doing the same.


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Feeling Far Away

It was one of those nights when you feel far away from everything, like you’re drifting through an emotional outer space every bit as dark and empty as the real one, but closer; when you’re walking around your neighborhood with your five-year-old dinosaur aficionado before bedtime and he’s using a “power stick” he found in the road to beat back a charging T. Rex and you run around the elementary school to “headquarters” where you’re safe and you wonder how it is that this kid exists. You’re five years in now. You haven’t wrapped your head around it any more now than that first night when you heard he was coming and you were elated and dizzy and you knew life was going to be different but had no idea—could never know—just how much.

It was one of those walks where you hear your shoes crunch the first fallen leaves, and in the late summer air the cicada song no longer plays but the crickets croon from weary lawns. The boy’s stick scrapes the asphalt behind him and cuts a dissonance into the calm. You realize, even with the crickets and the rocks and the leaves and the footsteps, that silence looms. It bears down upon you.

With no forethought you stop and look at him. “I want to tell you a secret that’s not so secret,” and he stops and stares back at you. The cricket sings. “It’s that I want to be close to you for the rest of my life. I want to always be buddies and friends.”

“I want that too,” he says.

And then you say something his young brain can’t follow:

“Someday, when you’re a grownup, I’m going to do things that annoy you.”

“Why?” he asks, frowning a little.

You chuckle and say, “I won’t try to. It’s just a thing that happens in life. You’ll be my age and I’ll do things that make you say ‘why does my dad do that?’ But I hope you’ll still love me and still want to be my friend.”

“I will,” he says, lifting his stick and thrusting it at an imaginary raptor.

You laugh and look both ways before leading him across the street and pretend you aren’t weeping inside from the loneliness that hangs over life like a pending autumn.

One of those nights where you wave off sad realizations like horseflies. Like that winter is coming and there’s not a thing you can do to slow it, and though you have food and shelter and warmth, you still hope you’re able to survive. We’ve conquered the elements without; the elements within still threaten. Realizations, like that your kid is changing and he doesn’t ask you to play with him at lunch anymore like he used to every day. After enough times being told no, he has learned better. Realizations, like if we stay in this house much longer I’ll be sitting at our table in the same dining room in the morning and I’ll look at the chair where he used to sit across from me and I’ll wonder why he doesn’t visit more. The quietness which is so scarce now will be ours in abundance then, and we’ll wonder how it all could have gone so fast—when day after day we heard dinosaur noises without refrain in his every waking moment and all of a sudden it’s gone. He won’t ask if he can have a graham cracker or watch more TV. He won’t stomp through the backyard, roaring until our ears hurt, whining when we say it’s time for bed. His face won’t ignite when he sees me drop to my knees to be a Triceratops. Realizations, like that the very things I find a nuisance now will be far away treasures I covet.

It was one of those nights when, lying in the den in quarantine, isolating even from your wife because you tested positive for COVID, you begin to wonder if the prolonged feeling that God isn’t there isn’t more than a feeling. You begin to realize that faith will never be to you what it once was, and that maybe that’s a good thing. This brings a comfort, but it makes you feel alone. Alone in this world with the thoughtlessness of all people. Alone with your inadequate self, feeling thirsty and unclean.

It was one of those nights.

In that space you drift, and had you gone to the moon itself, you wouldn’t be lonelier. From this cosmic distance you stare at the planet of your life and ponder that in a universe so black and severe there should be a circle of color as meaningful as this.


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