Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Relief of Rescue

One night a couple of years ago, I was having the most pleasant dream.  I was sitting on a bench, sipping a drink, while a parade marched by.  There were banners and horns and everyone was waving.  And my foot was very, very cold.  Suddenly I awoke, and my foot was still cold.  I looked down to the end of the bed, and I could make out my daughter’s silhouette.  She was shaking my foot with her chilled hand and she was whispering, “Daddy.”  I knew at once why she was there—she had wet the bed, again.  It was the third time within a week.  “I’m really sorry!” she said, as I was pulling off her sheet and covers. 

She was already changed and had gotten her sleeping bag out to sleep on the floor, but she had decided to tell me before bedding down on.  “Are you mad?” she asked.  “Well,” I began, “if pressed, I’d have to admit that I’d rather be sleeping through the night.  But never not tell me.  I’m not mad, Sweetie.  And I don’t want you sleeping on the floor.  We just have to figure out a way to get you to get up when you have to go.  I want you to get all your sleep, too.” 

Offering her as much reassurance as I could muster at 2 a.m., I tucked her back in over top layers of towels and blankets, went to the bathroom myself, and collapsed back in my bed.  And in the morning, I complained to my wife, again, about how I needed more sleep.  Nothing new there.
I was annoyed, of course, but that was one of those real parenting moments; and I couldn’t blow it.  Not the getting up and changing the covers and getting her back to sleep, that’s not what I needed her to see.  It was my attitude—that when my daughter needed me, and wanted me, she should never hesitate to come to me.  In case something really big happens, she needs to know she can race right to me and I’ll be there for her, just as she did as a kindergartener wetting the bed.   

The assurance I wanted give my daughter is partially the assurance Paul is addressing in his letter to the Galatians.  In Galatians 6:9, Paul writes, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”  What we can “reap” most in that “due season” is trust, the kind of trust that must be established at the beginning and then bolstered and buttressed over a lifetime, so that our children can at least know that there is always one safe, constant to turn to in their lives.  It’s the trust I am trying to instill in my daughter and son.  It’s the trust I always had in my father.  The trust he built for me.                

Somewhere in my early 20’s, I went through a phase where I kept locking my keys in the car.  I was driving a third-hand, red, battered, Pontiac Ventura.   This was in the days before remote controlled locks.  I actually had to push the down the locking stem on the door manually, with my bare hands.  And if my keys were still in the ignition, there was no friendly voice or pleasant gong to remind me before shutting the door and sealing the keys inside.   At the height of my negligence, I locked my keys in my car four times in two weeks.  And I’d have to call my dad to bring me another key.  To my great surprise, he never got mad, or he never showed it.  I remember that when he was sort of exasperated he’d drop his head and give a deep sigh.  And so when I would call him up from wherever I was, the library, the supermarket, the movies and say, “Dad, I’ve done it again.”  SIGH.  I could hear his head dropping over the phone.  “Where are you?”  And fifteen minutes later, he’d pull up, unwind the window an inch, stick the key out of the top of the window, and pull away.  He knew I didn’t mean to do it.  And I do recall that there was mention of some sort of magnetic box under the car with a spare key.  But that was after the last time I had a car key conundrum. 

Two friends and I went to see Paul Simon in Central Park.  Had a great time.  But before the show, I lost my car keys.  And we didn’t have enough money between us at that point to get a room or pay a lock smith or anything, and NY was not being charitable or welcoming to our little huddled mass at all that night.  Finally, it’s two a.m.  Exhausted, I make the call:  “Dad, you’re not going to believe this.”  BIG SIGH.  “Where are you?” he asks.  “I’m parked at the garage we always park at when we come to NY.”  “Stay there,” he said and then hung up.  He called my sister, picked her up to keep him company, and at 11:00 the next morning the two of them appeared in the distance on the sidewalk, walking down from 6th avenue, my father dragging his one foot a little more than usual.  Our trio shouted out and hugged him, as if seeing Dad was the happiest sight of our lives.  Perhaps it was—just an hour earlier we had seen a cabbie robbed of his cab right in front of us.  Dad handed us the keys.  With no more fanfare, we got in our cars and drove home.

I love retelling this tale, as I have done countlessly over the past 20 years, not because of the extreme details of rescue, but because of how impressed I am that my father had rescued me, yet again, without lecturing me, without berating me.  He knew I didn’t want lose my keys.  He knew that I would have exhausted every option before I called him.  But he also knew that when I called him, I knew he would get me home.  That when I put my problem in his hands, I would find peace, the relief of rescue.  That’s what I trusted. 

Still, part of what my father reaped, and is still reaping, is the legacy of his example that I try to continue, like on those nights when I am deep in a dream, and cold, little hand yanks me out of a pleasant slumber to change wet sheets.  And I do it, without too much grumbling, and with a little understanding, and kiss to the forehead.

A few days later after lost-keys-in-Gotham saga, I found my keys actually in my car, dangling from the base of the turn signal.  The steering column was very wide and hid it well.   I figured I dropped them near my car and some nice New Yorker opened my car and slid them down on my turn signal lever so I would find them.  About a year later, I told my dad what had happened.  All he did was drop his head and sigh. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Anticipation: Lessons from My Father’s Playbook

When my daughter, Grace, was one year old, I recall someone asking me, “So, how do you like parenthood?”  I said, “To be honest, I don’t really feel like a parent.  All I really do is help my wife to keep this little creature alive.”  And as time passed, I found that a good deal of my parenting was mostly anticipating…Anticipating where my daughter, and now too with my son, is about to hit their head and place my hand between their skull and the floor, the counter, the chair, and so on.   I have to know their limits, how many chocolate kisses they can eat before an ensuing tummy ache.  And now that my daughter can ride a bike, I badger her with warnings about stopping before driveways and not racing out of my sight, and anything else I can predict as she rapidly pulls ahead of me down the sidewalk.  And I have to anticipate how to comfort them when I say, “No,” and it makes them cry.  I must admit, I never feel as though I remember everything. 
       Many parents say that there is no playbook for parenting, perhaps relying on only being guided by this instinct to protect and survive.  But if we really look for it, there is a “playbook.”  God has given us the plays to learn and model.  That’s what a good parent does: loves, cares, teaches, and models. 
       My own father was a good parent; I don’t feel I could have done better.  And now as a parent myself, I can better see how he was often modeling what God had given him, which was passed onto me. 
       Paul tells us in Corinthians, “God is faithful, and He will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with your testing He will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it."   Now over time that promise has become abbreviated to what my father used to tell me…often…which was, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, and,” he added,  “neither do I.”    
       An example of that is a story I like to tell from time to time: I remember that when I was a boy, I had the opportunity to go to a week-long sports camp one summer, at Towson State.  We lived in Harford County at the time.  Our family only had one car, and my parents shared it for work.  So in order for my being able to attend this camp, I would have to take the bus each day from Bel Air to Towson and then back.  After long discussions as to whether I could handle it or not, my father allowed that I could go.  Having grown up taking busses in the city, my father delighted, I think, in the knowing that I would learn this most useful of skills, using public transportation. 
       A couple of days before the camp begun, my father and I made a practice run on the bus.  Coming and going, I had to make a transfer at Bel Air Road and Northern Parkway.  As my dad was a big landmark guy, he pointed out three landmarks at the bus stop so I wouldn’t miss my transfer, especially when coming home.  First, there was a little carry-out that sold steamed crabs, so look for the sign with the crab on it.  Second, there was a drug store with a big blue bell for a sign…look for the big blue bell.  And when coming home, it would be easier because the bus dead-ends on Bel Air Road.  Look for the dead end.  Can’t miss.  I got it.
       On the first day of camp, I made it to the college without a snag.  However, coming home the bus was traveling up Northern Parkway.  Exhausted from the drills of the day, I could only remember one landmark, that crab sign.  At the crab sign, I got off the bus.  I looked up and noticed that there was no big blue bell.  And a moment later, I suddenly remembered perhaps the most important landmark, Northern Parkway dead-ends.  I was on Harford Road, coincidentally standing under another crab sign.  As my bus increased its speed, continuing up Northern Parkway, panic set in.  My transfer was the only bus heading home, and there were only a few minutes between transfers.  I started sprinting, the distance between Harford Road and Bel Air Road growing seemingly longer as I ran.
       Coming over the last precipice of the road, my stop in sight, I still must have had a quarter-mile or so to go.  And as my eyes focused down onto Bel Air Road, there was my transfer bus, too far to catch.  I had missed it.  With my hands on my knees, I bent over, sucking in hot air.  In the days before cell phones, there was no way to contact my dad, and I knew he’d be pretty mad when he got all the way home to have to drive all the way to pick up his idiot son. 
       I stood to watch my bus pull away.  As the bus maneuvered back into traffic, it revealed a figure pacing back and forth, under a big crab.  It was my dad, who had obviously anticipated what lay ahead.  In spite of rush hour traffic, in spite of the distance, and in spite of his actual deafness, I’m sure he could hear my relieved yell: “Daaaaad!”
       When I reached him, panting and cheering, celebrating his dad-ness, he only asked, “Do you know where your mistake was?”  After I answered yes, he said, “Good, because I won’t be waiting here tomorrow.”
       I must admit that I didn’t believe him.  And for good reason.  Since my father’s passing, my sister and I sometimes compare notes and find that so many times when we were exercising our independence for the first time, our father was with us, but in the shadows, at the movies, at the mall, in the skating rink, and so on, watching from the wings…but not waiting to judge, just there to catch us if we fell.
       In Deuteronomy, it is written that “It is the Lord who goes before [us]. He will be with [us]; He will not fail [us] [n]or forsake [us].”
       One of the ways the Lord has gone before me is the example my father has set.  And one of the ways God is with me is the lessons I learned from my father, visions and words that appear in my head when I am in dire need of parenting advice, which I now try to use to model and guide my  children.
       And you know what?  It’s hard!  I mean, it is really hard!   Which I know is no great revelation to any parent.  But, I am comforted.  I am comforted that there is a playbook.  I am comforted that someone has gone before me, and is with me still…in the shadows…watching from the wings…anticipating.