Before you cross the street, take my hand; life is just what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans…
John Lennon, Beautiful Boy
Jacob banged into my chest and I held my ground. I crowded his right shoulder and jimmied my hand into his rib cage for leverage. If I let him go right he would overpower me. He pounded the basketball into the concrete and grinned at me, cocky. He wasn’t going left either.
Suddenly my son was rising above me. For a moment, I still tugged at his T-shirt. I leaped, reaching to block his view of the distant basket, but he took little notice. Someone laughed as the ball left his fingertips. I’m not sure if it was him or me.
The ball splashing into the bottom of the net confirmed Jacob’s taunt. “That shot was wet!”
I remember Jacob, a toddler, furiously slapping a basketball with two hands into our wood deck, trying to do the things he’d seen me do. For hours, my little 4-year-old would wrangle with a ball half as big as him, his bottom lip protruding with determination. I would gently pull away one of his hands and show him how to dribble not with the hardness of a palm but with the softness of his fingers. He bounced it twice with glee before the ball careened away down the stairs into the grass. Scurrying after it, he retrieved the ball and was back begging a repeat lesson.
But now, in the split second between flick of wrist and snap of net, my son was drilling home that the game was all his. All-Conference, All-City, All Jacob!
I attended Jacob’s high school graduation, a time to celebrate the education he had received. Of course teachers, parents, other adults in the lives of the graduates were thanked for their part. There were testimonies to lessons learned.
However, I was struck by how many lessons my son had taught me. There is a temptation as a parent to take credit for a child’s accomplishments. At such at time as graduation, we are even congratulated for them. But Jacob is no extension of me. It would be narcissistic not to draw a hard line between Jacob’s considerable feats and my bench-warming butt. It would be every bit as self-centered to believe that my son reflects badly on me when he falters.
I must confess that almost daily I am haunted by a desire to reach out and steal away all the worries, real and imagined, that my son must face. I wish for the power of reassurance I possessed when he was a small boy, when the strength of my words was all it took to make the world right, when I could wrap my arms around him and protect him from almost anything that mattered.
Instead, today, perhaps my greatest feat of strength is holding back, observing as Jacob finds his own way. Watching a child navigate toward adulthood, through the same jungles of the mind one has already traversed, requires heroic patience. My son has made thoughtful choices and a few boneheaded ones that looked very familiar. He has taken right turns after wrong. He is savvy enough to learn from mistakes, his own and those of others, especially those of his old man. He has stood his ground and asked for help. He has been brash and powerful, and, I’m proud to say, gentle and kind. He has listened to preaching and teaching (ignored quite a bit, too) and endured a lot of unsolicited advice from me. In the end, though, the good choices are all his own. No one else gets to take credit for those — not his parents, not his teachers, not his church. Those people were simply there to help guide him and show him what he already possessed. Anyone who has been a kid, charted a new course in life, or fallen in love knows this to be true.
After graduation my son freewheeled away to party with friends. I was left to swirl around in a haze of reflection, self-doubt, and hope. Graduation really is wasted on the graduates. It was after a restless night. At about 3 in the morning, you might say I opened my “gifts” from Jacob.
Forgiveness. Parents are supposed to have a bottomless well of this for their children, but it is really they who are divinely gifted. I had driven out of a hospital parking garage with a terrified mind, an endless supply of good intentions and no instruction manual on how to care for my first-born. So began one big experiment in parenting 101. The mistakes, small and huge, are too many to count. I lost my temper too many times. I berated my son, shamed him, tore him down, neglected him. My pride too often kept me from apologizing. This is not an invitation to take advantage of them, but children will keep coming back for more. They have an endless supply of forgiveness. They want so badly for their parents to do better. If you are a parent who has alienated your child, that is on you. But you should go back, be rigorously honest, humble yourself and try again because you always have one more chance. This is what my son has taught me.
Family. My son came home one day, agitated. Something had happened at school. It took some cajoling, but I finally got him to tell me. A teacher, to prompt a classroom discussion, had asked his students how many televisions they had in their homes. Twelve, seven, four, came the answers. When my son said “one,” his classmates had laughed. “What do you do, sit around it at night and have family time?” a classmate chided. “Yes, yes we do,” my son responded. Jacob had written a paper once on how much he enjoyed ending each evening with our non-traditional family. He, his siblings, their Uncle Ryan who lived with us and I would sit around watching basketball on our one TV, eating junk food, telling stories and generally calling each other dumbasses and other affectionate names. Religion, sex, sports, drugs and alcohol, history, science, good jokes, really bad jokes — nothing was off limits for discussion. This was tradition for Jacob, a routine that lifted the weight of the world off his shoulders and let him know that his cares weren’t his to bear alone. Jacob went to bed perfectly content with one television and reminded me not to be so concerned that I couldn’t afford two.
Acceptance. This lesson in our family could just as easily be called grace under fire. Some would say Jacob lost his entire freshman soccer season to a knee injury, but they would be wrong. He never missed a practice or a game and turned this “lost” season into a philosophical study of leadership, joy, and commitment. The maturity, gratitude and emotional fortitude he gained in that season served my son well in the face of struggles to come that would reach far beyond the soccer field. Sidelined, Jacob watched closely and learned from coaches and team leaders. He learned to appreciate the gift of hard work when grace and athleticism were taken from him unexpectedly, and he came to understand that heaven could be found in a single moment on a soccer field instead of in some distant afterlife.
Often, humor bubbled to the surface in difficult situations. I remember during a tense soccer game in Kansas City, a belligerent parent began directing homosexual slurs at one of Jacob’s teammates. When the ball went out of bounds near the hostile parent, Jacob waved the teammate aside and took the throw-in. Passing close by the parent, Jacob grinned broadly. The dad called him a “faggot!” Jacob responded, “I bet you didn’t make any teams when you were a kid,” and hurled the ball downfield. The dad sputtered “Fuck you!” as Jacob trotted away.
In the midst of the difficult divorce between his mom and me, Jacob would often turn to humor. After he and his sister Annie moved in with me, it was often Jacob who chided me about a messy house when company was coming over. Indeed, it was an act of great acceptance that my two children, orderly and neat, were able to live with their slob of a father.
When someone close to my children criticized his sister for being concerned only about money, Jacob nudged me with a laugh and said, “No offense Dad, but if Annie and I were concerned with money, we wouldn’t be living with you.”
When I worried that I could not provide for them, it was Jacob and Annie who were always the first to simplify, to accept less. They never asked for more, always assuring me that enough was enough.
Overwhelmed by worries, nothing can startle you back to earth like your teenage son barking, “I don’t know why you’re so concerned with that. It’s not happening today, is it?”
My son taught me that hearts are doomed to break. Unfortunately, we must trust completely before we can be betrayed. I have broken the hearts of my children. I looked into their eyes and watched as I crushed their faith in me. There should probably be a special place in hell for doing such a thing. True, there are moments each morning when my heart breaks at the memory of what I have done. But you see, if you have read my words, you know that my son’s heart, the hearts of my children, are beyond my powers for heartbreak. My son has taught me that hearts heal. Despite my worst efforts, he forgives, he accepts, he roots for me to redeem myself.
He rises above me.
Photo by Cecilia Hernandez