Stories Told

Then there was the time we were visited by Child Protective Services

I think every kid should know how to ride a bike. Kids today probably disagree, as I see few kids on bikes anymore. They must all be inside playing video games. I taught my sons nevertheless.

Neither was excited about it, but at least my older son tolerated it. My younger son resisted. After I took his training wheels off, he fought me every time we went out to practice. He told me he wouldn’t do it. He cried. He refused to get on the bike. Each time, I cajoled and wheedled until he gave in.

The divorce was final but still fresh. My stress had been off the charts and my fuse was still short. Each time I took my younger son out on his bike, I pulled together all of the patience I had.

He crashed a lot. Then I realized that he was deliberately crashing, hoping that it would shake me off, make me give up. One particular day he had crashed at least three times in five minutes and was visibly agitated. My patience had run out and I had grown angry.

I made him go again, but this time I kept my hand on the back of his seat. My plan was to steady him when he tried to crash. He shortly did just that and I grabbed the seat to keep him upright. Not only did it not work, but it made matters worse — he went right over the handlebars and landed hard on the street.

He was stunned, and he had skinned himself in a couple places. He cried a little. But after a few minutes he seemed okay.

I certainly didn’t mean to send him flying, and I felt bad about it. But I’ll admit it: much more, I was angry with him for not cooperating.

I had visions of my sons riding for the sheer joy of it, as I had when I was their age. My bicycle took me everywhere and was my constant companion. I wanted them to experience the same! I wanted them to have a great childhood, even though it was no longer in an intact family.

But after my sons learned to ride, my older son rode once in a great while and my younger son never rode again. It just wasn’t for them. If I had it all to do over again, I would have still bought them bikes and tried to teach them, but when especially the younger son started fighting me on it, I would have let it go.

If I had that day to do over again, after the second or third time my son deliberately crashed I would have sat on the curb with him and said, “Seems like today’s not the best day or this. Why don’t we call it for today. Maybe we can try again tomorrow.” It would have given us both a break, and would have let me regain my calm.

A week later, or maybe it was two, I heard from Child Protective Services. I’m pretty sure they sent me a letter. If so, I’m sure it’s in my divorce file box. It’s been twelve years; some details have faded from memory. But I remember crystal clear that there was an allegation that I had abused my son, and they wanted to come talk with me about it.

There had recently been a headline-grabbing case of a child murdered by his father (I think it was), after CPS investigated abuse claims but decided to leave the child in the home. It generated outrage all over the city, and CPS responded by hiring a horde of additional investigators and cracking down hard.

I panicked. The end of my marriage and my divorce were so brutal that I needed serious professional help to cope. My mental health had been the focus of my divorce trial. It was partly why the judge awarded me no custody, not physical, not legal. At least he granted me the usual amount of parenting time. Losing custody hurt like hell, but I was grateful not to lose my sons entirely. When CPS came to call, I was still under psychiatric care. I had visions of losing my parenting time and seeing my sons no more.

There was no way I wanted to face CPS alone, so I called my pastor, Ed. He readily agreed to be there when the investigator arrived.

I don’t know why I remember that she pulled into my driveway in an old and worn-out car, a gray sedan. I also remember that she looked too young, probably 21 or 22. Ed and I met her at the door and she asked if we could sit and talk for a few minutes. I led them to the dining table.

She got right down to business. “So I understand after talking with your ex-wife that you’re mentally ill, and that you take medications to manage your symptoms. Are you compliant with your medication?”

I didn’t have time to be stunned by the question. Ed, a big bear of a man, immediately leaned way forward and said loudly and angrily, “Pardon me! Are you a mental health professional? Do you have a medical degree? Because unless you do, you will end this line of questioning right now as you’re not qualified to ask it. You are responding to hearsay from his ex-wife.”

My anxiety spiked. I felt hot; I had probably turned red. I was thinking, “Holy crap, Ed, what are you doing? I need your support and here you are antagonizing the investigator!”

Ed had intimidated the hell out of her. Her eyes widened to the size of half dollars and she immediately changed her tactic. “Ok then. I’m here because we have a report that you pushed your son off his bicycle. Why don’t you tell me what happened that day.”

I recounted my story as I told it above, including expressing my regret for not stopping when I started to get angry. Seeming satisfied with my answer, she then asked me questions about our day-to-day lives in the home. She also looked in my refrigerator and cabinets to make sure I had enough food, which was humiliating. And then she said she needed to speak with my sons privately.

I had sent them to their rooms when the investigator arrived, but we found them sitting within earshot in the living room. They’d heard everything, and their faces were ashen. They fixed their gazes at the floor as the investigator asked them to follow her to the back bedroom so she could talk with them.

She spent all of ten minutes with them behind that closed door. When they emerged, she said, “Mr. Grey, there are three possible outcomes of a CPS abuse investigation. We can find that there is evidence of abuse, or that there is no evidence of abuse, or that there is evidence that there was no abuse. I find that there is evidence of no abuse. You should hear nothing more from us about this matter.

“I’d also like to offer our assistance. It seems like you are working hard to be a good dad, and CPS can support you in that. We could come by from time to time and offer coaching. It’s completely voluntary.”

I was overcome with relief to be exonerated. And the truth was, I could have used someone to talk with who could give me good advice. I was doing the best I could to be a good dad to my sons, but I was building a home life all on my own while holding down full time work and still processing considerable anger from the end of my marriage. And I experienced my ex as very unkind toward me, which only made parenting harder. After all these years I can see that my ex was still processing her own considerable anger. We’d both equally destroyed our marriage; the betrayals had run deep. But all of my instincts insisted that help should not come from CPS — it would be better to keep the government out of my home. I declined.

After the investigator left, Ed said to my sons, “Come into the dining room and sit down around the table. I want to talk with you.”

Even though my own grief, pain, and anger were still strong, I had compassion for my sons. They were trying to cope with the breakup of their family, too. Even though their mom and I hardly interacted in front of them, I’m sure they were aware of the ongoing difficulty between us. It had to be so hard for them to figure out how to be in relationship with both of us. I knew they were going to their mom’s from my house and telling their mom everything that happened. I’m sure they were trying to find favor with her by telling her things she might find upsetting. I often got angry emails from her about things they told her.

I don’t remember Ed’s exact words to my sons, but here’s his message to them: Boys, I know you love your dad, and you love your mom. Your dad is trying to love you as hard as he can. You’re trying to figure out how to love your dad and love your mom now that they’re apart. But you’ve got to stop going home and telling your mom everything that happens here. It can have very bad effects. You came very close today to never seeing your dad again.

I remember my sons sitting up very straight, their faces grave, when Ed said that last sentence.

I thought Ed went too far. I wasn’t crazy about the idea that what happened in my home had to be a secret. But I didn’t know how to respond and I remained silent.

The gift of hindsight shows me now that Ed’s words changed everything for me and my sons, creating a shift for the better in our relationships. Both sons, especially my younger one, became much more receptive to me. We were able to keep building our relationships from there.

This story has been on my mind a lot lately. Maybe telling it will help me release my sad feelings about it.

Do you enjoy my stories and essays?
My book, A Place to Start, is available now!
Click here to see all the places you can get it!

Standard
Personal, Stories Told

Monopoly money: A story from my new book, A Place to Start

This story is in my book, A Place to Start

I don’t naturally see the bright side. I have to work at it.

Blogging has given me a way to work at it. As I push through challenging things in life, I write about it looking for the silver lining, the lesson learned, the happy ending.

What you tell me in the comments is that you find my stories to be encouraging. I find that to be encouraging!

Today I’m launching my book, A Place to Start. It collects the best stories and essays from this blog’s first two years. I was recovering from a divorce, trying to build a new life, working to be a good dad to my sons. I worked very hard to find the good in everything — it helped me keep my head together.

If you’d like a copy of my book, here’s how you can get it:

This story is in the book. It first appeared here on August 30, 2008.


I was feeling good about my financial situation as I headed into the summer. I was rapidly paying down debt and had built up some savings. But then August was unexpectedly expensive. I replaced my car’s transmission (and rented a car for two weeks while it was in the shop), replaced my refrigerator when it conked out, and had some medical and veterinary bills. Bam! Within a few weeks, my savings was gone and I had even gone a little more into debt.

I know that everything that cost me was just a matter of chance. Cars break down, 20-year-old fridges die, dogs and people get sick. It was better to spend savings on these things than to have borrowed to pay for it all. You might even say that God took care of me, providing for me through these misfortunes. But I’ve been angry about it just the same. It really hurt to get a little bit ahead only to lose it almost all at once.

On Wednesday, the boys and I broke out the Monopoly board. My youngest is starting to understand trading and can now stick with a long game, and so our play is starting to become vigorous. We’d made some trades and we all had monopolies — my older son had the violets, my youngest son had the neighboring oranges, and I was just around the corner with the reds. When we started improving our properties, it became hard to move along that side of the board without somebody collecting.

My youngest son landed on my Kentucky Avenue. With two houses, the rent wasn’t terrible, but having spent all his cash on houses he hocked most of his property to pay me. He weathered that with good humor, but he next landed on Go To Jail and so would make another trip down Death Row. His next roll put him on Community Chest, but then he landed on Indiana Avenue, which by then had four houses and was much more expensive to visit. Cash-strapped and hocked to the hilt, he had no choice but to sell most of houses. He was ticked. And then a few tears ran down his face. And then he buried his face in my shoulder.

The irony did not escape me as I hugged him and told him it’s bound to hurt when you build things up and get a little ahead only to have bad luck take it all away.

When I woke up the next morning, I didn’t feel so bad anymore.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Essay

Hitting the parenting sweet spot

My first wife was not only a good mother to our children when they were very small, but she deeply enjoyed it. I hope I was a good father to our young children. I don’t think I was a poor one. I loved my sons, I was well involved in their care, and we had some lovely moments together. But overall, I did not enjoy their early years.

My sons at Halloween in 2000, aged 3 and 1

These were surprisingly lonely years for me. I worked days and my wife worked nights. Except for dinner we hardly saw each other. We either worked or were alone with our kids. On the weekends we each had house chores to do and it was just easier for both of us to do them alone and leave the other with the kids. I’d feed the kids lunch while she did the shopping. She’d care for them while I mowed the lawn.

I wish we had lived closer to extended family. Our closest relatives were my parents, but they lived 150 miles away. Day to day, we had no help. There was nobody to talk to, or to share the challenges with.

I wonder if my wife was lonely as well. I don’t know; we weren’t talking and connecting well as a couple. We were just pushing through our days as best we could.

Some fathers feel bonded to their babies from the start, but not me. Deep down I knew I’d do anything to protect them, and it was fun to make them smile and laugh. But it wasn’t until their personalities emerged in toddlerhood, when I could see glimpses of myself and their mother in them, that they truly entered my heart and felt like a part of me. Until then, my sons were just work.

Damion was colicky. He’d start crying midafternoon — and my goodness, was he loud. His mom and I used to joke that if the city’s storm sirens ever broke, we could just rent them Damion. When I got home from work and exited my car I could hear him screaming from our driveway, even in the dead of winter when the house was closed up. I’d put him in my arms and walk him from one end of the house to the other for hours. I have a heavy step that jostled him as I moved, which I think was been calming. I’d sing softly to him while we moved, two songs in particular, over and over. As long as I walked and sang those songs, he was calm. If I stopped, he’d scream. His colic usually passed sometime after 8 pm, by which time he’d exhausted himself (and me) and I could put him to bed. This was our routine for the first nine months of his life.

As Garrett grew, he struggled to cope with frustration. He’d try and try to achieve some goal that was just beyond him. I’ll never forget how he fixated on the sofa, which he purposed to climb. Little by little over several weeks’ time he gained the ability to reach the cushions, then the arm, and then the top of the seat back. I stayed close, but let him do it because he seemed so intent. But when he couldn’t reach the next level, he’d grow so frustrated and angry that he’d melt down. He’d cry in dark anger, turning crimson. He frightened the crap out of me a few times when he cried so hard he couldn’t draw in a breath. I had no idea what to do for Garrett.

Those were just the especially challenging aspects of our sons. Overall they were typical boys. I played with them and we watched TV. I gave them their baths and I made them lunch. I read to them a lot; they preferred Dr. Seuss: Wake every person, pig, and pup, until everyone in the world is up!

But for the most part, I was left with a feeling of is this all there is? I wished for greater connection and engagement with my sons, with my wife, and with the outside world.

Making cookies, still ages 1 and 3

It came as my sons grew. The older they became, the more I enjoyed them, the less my wife and I had to divide our time around child care, and the more easily we could all do things outside the house. When the boys developed basic self-sufficiency — they could dress themselves, use the bathroom alone, make a bowl of cereal — I started to experience real joy as their father. The boys and I could finally do things together, rather than me doing everything for them.

In the one-room apartment I rented while I waited for the divorce to be final, ages 6 and 8

I enjoyed fatherhood the most while my sons were in middle and high school. They were turning into their adult selves, and I was excited to watch it. I could share my interests with them, and they could share theirs with me. Damion set up his computer as a Minecraft server and we spent several lovely Saturday afternoons building things together in that virtual world. Garrett and I put together a lot of giant Lego sets. I took them on spring break trips including Washington, DC, and Route 66. Damion shared his interests in anime and in Dungeons and Dragons, and Garrett shared his surprising love of dark comedy.

But more importantly, I was able to speak into their lives and help them figure out how to finish growing up. The challenges they experienced in early childhood all baffled me, but I was primed and ready for their adolescence. I don’t know why, I just was. I still made mistakes, but overall I feel like I was made to be a father of teenagers. I wish I could go back and have just one more year of high school with them!

My first wife, in comparison, seemed happiest to be a mom during the baby and early childhood years. The story I piece together from things my sons told me is that she was far less engaged, perhaps even disengaged, while they were teens. It’s hard to know for sure because the divorce meant I wasn’t there to witness it. But my conclusion isn’t far fetched as that’s exactly what I witnessed with her child from her first marriage, who graduated high school before we divorced.

That doesn’t mean I was a poor father of my young children or my ex was a poor mother of her teens. Damion once told me that he feels like he is very lucky to have drawn us as parents; he called us both “fantastic.” It’s just that my ex was a natural with our small children, and I was a natural with our teenagers.

Damion, me, Garrett, and my mom at Garrett’s high-school graduation – ages 20 and 18

I think most parents, those who work to be engaged with their kids, experience this. There will be some years they don’t enjoy parenting, and other years where they love it and are just crushing it.

If you’re a parent of young children and you’re not enjoying it, hang on. The good years are ahead.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Personal

The freedom to live life on your own terms

My youngest son, Garrett, turned 21 yesterday. Were it not for COVID-19, I’d have taken him out last night for a drink. We were both looking forward to it.

Garrett has what they used to call Asperger’s syndrome. I’ve danced around naming it for years in stories like this one and this one, but have always shied away because it’s more his story to tell than it is mine. But I’m taking the risk today because I have a story to tell about him and me and my dad, and how there may be a common thread that runs through all of our lives.

Garrett is a junior in college and he’s on track to graduate. He seems happy. I think he has a great chance at launching into a successful adulthood, on his own terms.

That wasn’t always true. Starting in about middle school he seriously struggled with communication, organization, and school deadlines. He broke some school rules, and ended up in trouble — if the rule didn’t make logical sense to him, he would follow it only if it were convenient to do so. He was once suspended for repeatedly walking down an up staircase. (That rule did make no logical sense.) If a class didn’t interest him or if he felt the teacher was unkind, he couldn’t bring himself to participate or do the homework. He didn’t have any friends, and I think he was desperately lonely. He was easily overwhelmed. He felt a lot of stress.

I worried endlessly over Garrett. At first, my approach to him was not helpful and may have been counterproductive. I rode him hard on getting organized and getting things done. I was scared to death that he would not succeed through school. I succeeded in school, my brother succeeded in school, my other son Damion succeeded in school. I had no script for a kid who didn’t. I had no idea what to do. I needed this kid to be all right.

You all know I was divorced after a disastrous and destructive marriage. There was no co-parenting with Garrett’s mom. At her best, she simply wouldn’t engage; at her worst, she was deeply unpleasant. So I turned to my parents for support and advice. I talked to them a lot about Garrett and how best to help him.

Dad had an almost supernatural understanding of this kid. He seemed to get Garrett at the deepest levels.

Garrett and Dad

That doesn’t mean that Dad always knew what I should do for Garrett. His advice was sometimes obviously and painfully wrong. Dad believed that if you just were able to reason with people, say the right thing, get them to see the light, that their behavior would suddenly change for the better.

I know better, because he tried to raise me that way. I endured hours of him trying to convince me of his view. I hated it. I wanted our relationship to be characterized more by happy shared experiences. But moreover, I deeply wanted to figure out my life for myself. I could listen to Dad’s perspective and advice as long as it was okay to adopt what made sense to me and leave what didn’t. I did adopt some of his way, the part that made sense to me. I did leave the rest — and that was hard for Dad to accept.

But when I talked to Dad about Garrett he was always able to help me find a calm place. His advice sometimes helped.

When I called, Dad always answered the phone. “Hey Dad, it’s Jimbo,” I’d always say. He always replied, “Jimbo! Let me get your mom.” But if I needed to talk about Garrett, I’d say, “wait, no, I need to talk to just you.”

It was obvious that this pleased Dad. Dad really, really, really wanted to be a source of wisdom and advice to his two sons. When it came to Garrett, he could be. I’d talk to him about what I was experiencing, and Dad had an uncanny way of giving a rationale, an explanation, or a perspective that fit.

I called Dad over and over and over.

And then one day after Garrett had started high school, I wrung my hands to Dad over Garrett one more time. One last time. Because then Dad said something that probably changed Garrett’s life: “Son, you can’t save them all.”

It hit me like a brick. I had been trying to save Garrett through helping him find success in life as I defined it. My dad tried to do that to me and I hated it, resisted it hard, even occasionally rebelled against it. I was determined to find my own way. I was smart, and I was capable, and even though in many ways I was like my dad, in many key ways I was not like him. His way would not be a perfect pattern for my life. I needed to find my own pattern.

So did Garrett. I finally saw it.

I immediately radically changed my relationship with my son. It had largely been characterized by me riding his ass about getting his homework done, about staying organized, about achieving.

I put all of that away. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just enjoyed my time with my son. I made my home and our time together into a quiet and safe space. No matter what was going on in his life, he could come to my house and find peace and, if he wanted it, connection.

I backed off and let him fail or succeed on his own merits.

Garrett and I began to connect on a level we had not before. He started letting me in through sharing his interests. We built a lot of Lego sets alongside each other. We played Minecraft (on computers in separate rooms) and he taught me how to build all sorts of things in that virtual world. He introduced me to Rick and Morty and other strange and funny cartoons.

As he became a junior in high school he suddenly started earning decent grades. He had been a C-D student, but out of the blue was a solid B student.

We talked about it. “You really seem to be getting it at school now. Do you know what changed in you?”

“Two words,” he said. “Stereotype threat.”

I didn’t know what that was, so I asked. “Well, we learned about it my psychology class. Basically, it means that I was seen as the screwup in the family and so I naturally tended to meet those expectations. But then Damion went off to college at the beginning of the year and it changed things around the house. I don’t know how to describe it. But I realized somehow that I could be what I wanted to be. I wanted to be someone who did well in high school.”

I knew just what he meant about Damion leaving. He had been the family’s dominant personality, and we didn’t see it until he was gone. If nobody else was talking, Damion was happy to. We did things together that were Damion’s idea or aligned to his interests. Damion’s absence gave Garrett room to be himself and to express himself.

Me getting off Garrett’s back and Damion going away to college gave Garrett the space to figure himself out.

It was a triumph for Garrett, and Dad played an important role. I wonder if Dad was also not neurotypical, and that’s why he understood Garrett so well. I’m no diagnostician, but I do see some patterns in Dad’s behavior that align. He was undiagnosed, of course. During Dad’s World War II childhood, Hans Asperger had only recently written the first papers describing the condition that would later bear his name. Asperger’s work was largely ignored until the 1980s. Even then, for a decade or more after that, autism was seldom diagnosed unless it was profound.

For that matter, I see some neurodivergent patterns in my thinking and behavior, too. I’ve written before about what a geek I was growing up, how poor my social skills were. I have some mild sensory issues — noise can be problematic for me, and I cut tags out of my shirts because they can feel like needles poking into my skin. I was even a precocious reader, figuring out words largely on my own as early as age 3. I’ve read that’s sometimes a marker for high-functioning autism.

To make it as an adult I’ve had to learn a lot of skills to fit in and get by. I started with social skills. I realized at about age 25 that I was missing out on experiences I wanted to have because I was so reticent. It was too hard to say hello to people I passed in the hallway at work, so I looked at my shoes everywhere I walked. But I wanted those new experiences, and so I worked to connect with others. I started with just saying hello to my co-workers. Later I added their name if I knew it. From there, I identified other behaviors I wanted to learn. I studied people and started to recognize social patterns. I practiced sets of responses to those patterns so I could participate with them. Now that I’m in my early 50s I pass for someone with good social skills. But even now there are still moments when I can’t recognize what’s going on socially and don’t know what to do.

I have built good executive function — that is, I handle the day-to-day stuff of life with flexibility and self-control. Many neurodivergent people struggle with this. But I learned as a teenager how important it is for me to have strong routines. They keep me from forgetting important things and let me feel in control in my life. If I abandon even one of them for more than a couple days I feel considerable stress and run out of energy long before the day is over.

One of my current routines is to spend an hour or more each morning writing and processing photos. It somehow sets my mind right for the day. If I skip it for more than a day or two, I start to come unraveled. I also have built several strong habits and follow a number of strict rules to keep myself organized. For example, my car keys are either in my pocket, on top of my dresser, or in the car’s ignition — period, or I will lose them. And thank God for Google Calendar, which reminds me when to pay the mortgage and when to change the furnace filter. It takes a lot of work to keep all of this up, but it’s far easier than the life chaos that follows when I don’t.

I’ve also had to learn how to cope with overwhelm. Too much input still blows me away. In my early 20s a good therapist taught me how to identify and label my emotions. Sometimes just knowing I’m overwhelmed is enough for me to get a handle on myself. In my late 30s another therapist helped me learn to soothe myself and tolerate distress. I also taught myself to meditate, which lets me use my breath to find calm.

All of this may or may not make me neurodivergent. I’ve thought about seeking a diagnosis, but I’m not sure it would let me access any therapies or treatments that would help me more. I am who I am, I’m reasonably happy, and I’m reasonably successful in the way I define success.

Was my dad? I don’t know. I fear not, especially late in his life. But Garrett looks to be on track for it. I’m grateful. He has his own journey ahead to figure out his life. If his journey is anything like mine, it will be a grand adventure.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Personal, Stories Told

It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke

First published Sept. 20, 2013. I have a complicated relationship with the futon in my family room. My wife and I bought it while we were still married. The day we brought it home, I regretted the bright blue mattress cover that we chose. Later, as my marriage splintered apart, I spent a year exiled to it at night. I couldn’t resent the situation, for it would acknowledge that our marriage was over. I resented the futon instead, and then it was the one major piece of furniture I got in the divorce, the only thing I owned on which I could sit. I made myself feel glad to have it. Then bouts of mournful insomnia expelled me from my new bed back to the futon, as there I could always eventually find sleep. Now I start my nights on the futon, but wake later and stagger off to bed. More than a dozen years in, I’m no longer happy with its style, springs are starting to poke out on the sides of the mattress, and I still hate its cover. But I fall asleep on it so reliably that I’m reluctant to replace it. A new couch might not carry that nocturnal magic.

Futon1

My relationship with my futon is not as complex as the relationships with those I love, of course. I’m thinking specifically of my youngest son, a teenager. He broke the futon the other day.

My boy lives fully in the moment. He makes no plan and weighs no consequences. Once at motion, he tends to stay there; Newton would be proud. If you spent a day with him you might call him absentminded, but that would be an injustice. He becomes consumed by his activity and the world falls away. His inner world is his best friend. He lives there.

In that state, he has damaged or broken many things. I used to think he was careless or, worse, deliberate, and so I meted out consequences of loud and harsh words, limitations of his freedom, or both. But slowly, thankfully, I’ve come to see the truth: the boy means no harm. He is surprised when he damages or breaks something.

Even though these things are just things, they do belong to somebody, usually me. They have an important purpose or some sentimental or emotional value, and I feel the loss.

My son matters more than these things, and so I absorb those losses. But it’s also my job to help shape the child. Trying to help him to be more self-aware was a losing game that frustrated both of us, so I gave it up. Perhaps time and life will bring this growth naturally. Meanwhile, I intend to teach him to repair the things he’s damaged, both physical objects and relationships. All of us sometimes damage our relationships through our quirks and limitations. All of us need to know how to make amends.

He was standing at the TV deep inside a video game when, in a moment of exuberance, he leapt backward and landed on the futon. I am sure he’s done this many times. But he was much smaller and lighter before a major growth spurt this summer, and the poor futon could no longer bear him. The main beam supporting the mattress split wide, and the futon collapsed.

I called my dad, who made custom furniture for a living for many years, and described the damage. “Easy,” he said. “Get some wood glue and some long wood screws. Glue the board together along the break and then drive the screws in every inch or two. It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke.”

I assembled the materials and the tools and called my son. I showed him what to do and had him do it. As he worked, I spoke gently about repairing damaged relationships. He is my son, and I love him, and he will always receive grace from me. He should accept no less from those who are in his life. But when he causes damage, he needs to try his best to fix it, if he can. I hope my words connected with him.

Futon2

The repair is ugly, as we couldn’t quite get the halves of the board to line up on one side of the break. My son didn’t have enough strength to drive the screws all the way into the hard wood, so he started them and I finished them. As we put the frame back together, I could feel our relationship coming back together, too. I hope he felt the same way. After we finished the repair we turned the futon back over and sat down on it. It supported us as before the break, and I could see the satisfaction of accomplishment in him. Here’s hoping this creates a connection in him that he can mend things broken, including relationships. That he should. That it’s satisfying to do it.

“It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke.” Was Dad really talking about my relationship with my son?

Do you enjoy my stories and essays?
My book, A Place to Start, is available now!
Click here to see all the places you can get it!

Standard
Personal

Connecting with your children as people

I’m not a gamer. I grow frustrated trying to keep up in any game more complicated than Monopoly. And while I was a teen at the dawn of the video-game era, I played pinball instead.

Damion

My life feels full and complete without games. But my son Damion is a serious gamer who finds deep and legitimate meaning and satisfaction in gaming both online and in person with others.

A feature of my relationship with Damion since he was old enough to speak has been him telling me of his gaming exploits at length, and me having no idea what he is talking about.

I was happy to listen, though, because I loved hearing the joy in his voice.

When he was four, he spent hours trying to teach me Yu-Gi-Oh, an adventure card game. It was too complicated for me and I couldn’t get it. I eventually gave up.

My lack of ability to connect with him through gaming sharply limits our ability to connect as whole people. I wonder how much disappointment he feels. I’m still disappointed I couldn’t manage it with my dad. But I can see that there are just limits. The apple may not fall far from the tree, but we are still different people. There will always be parts of each of us the other will never truly know.

I tried a few times to connect with my dad through his interests. Dad wanted for years to teach me to sharpen knives, something he took pride in. I let him try a few times, but he was so unpleasant when I didn’t pick it up perfectly from the start that we never got past the opening lesson. I thought for a while we might connect over hitting balls together at the driving range, something he enjoyed. But even there he felt the need to teach me to be perfect at it, which robbed it of all its fun and pushed me away.

Damion and Pentax KM

Then last fall Damion tried the same thing, asking me if I’d lend him an old camera and show him how to use it. Aw hell yes! I showed him how to spool film into my Pentax KM, taught him how to match the needle to set exposure, and gave him a couple composition tips.

Then I backed off and let him explore on his own. That was hard. Just like my dad, I wanted to hover, and guide, and teach. I resisted with all my might because I didn’t want to suck all the fun out of it for Damion and squander this golden opportunity.

Damion enjoyed the experience and asked to keep a camera. So I gave him two, a Pentax K1000 like his mom used to own and a Pentax ME because I love mine and shoot it most often. When we see each other now we often go for photo walks together.

I feel like I’m atoning for my father’s sins by doing this better with my sons. It’s helping me let go of my bitter disappointment that my dad and I could never manage it.

Standard