Just Like Dad

574716_10151110734279376_1861750003_nSunday is Father’s Day. Do your dad a favor – don’t go the tie route. Get him something nifty, like an electric razor or some boxer shorts. You know: show a little creativity in your choice of banal, inexpensive gifts! After all, dad will pretend to like whatever you buy him, so why put in the effort?

I’m kidding about the gift. Not so much about dad pretending to like whatever you get him.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the next few Father’s Days. My kids have finally entered the stage where I can expect some homemade gifts like ashtrays, coffee mugs, and elaborate attempts at pop-up cards. I am especially looking forward to the creative madness that my daughter will produce; Ella has the potential within her to make something heretofore unseen in the universe, and I want in on that kind of creation. And once Jonathan gets a bit older, his detail-oriented mind and science bend might actually produce some Father’s Day chemistry that turns out to be an anti-aging, performance-enhancing serum that allows me to live until I’m 190. So, yeah – I’m stoked about my potential Father’s Day gift haul.

But the greatest Father’s Day gift I’ve ever gotten has simply been to celebrate my own father each year. The joke around our house is that dad was always traveling, but my memory has him home quite a bit. I can see us in the backyard of our old house, tossing a baseball. I can see him cutting that same yard with the tiny, tired push mower that we used for years (it was only after I moved out and went to college that the man actually bought a riding lawn mower, a strange coincidence I’ve never reconciled). I close my eyes and I can picture him leaning against the fence at ballgames, or setting up a tent on a Scout trip, or paddling like a madman as we fought the Table Saw rapid on the Ocoee River.

For as much as we joke about my dad’s absence, it’s his presence that I most remember.

When I stepped away from youth pastoring, I also stepped away from seeing my dad on a weekly basis. In my entire life, there’s been a little more than five years when we didn’t go to the same church; over the past two years, we’ve worked side-by-side on most Sundays in the church’s sound booth: dad on the mixing board, me on the presentation software. Again, it wasn’t so much about what we did together as much as it was the fact we were together. I highly doubt that he would be so sentimental about the arrangement (though he’s surprised me a bit on that front lately), but for me, the warmth and joy of working with my dad on a weekly basis was something to be cherished.

As we both learned in 2011, you only have a little while to spend with your dad.

It was that weekly time together – even when we weren’t in the booth, we were still at the same church, in the same place – that I knew I would miss. There were a lot of wonderful people at the church, people that I still love dearly, but there is something special about being able to spend time with your family week in and week out; something even more special about being able to show your parents your personal growth on a consistent basis. Not that I live for my parents’ approval, but you never outgrow the hope that your parents are proud of you. Every Sunday, I knew that they were.

My kids felt the separation too. When I told the kids that we were stepping away to chase a new path, my kids were both hurt. Jonathan seemed to take it hardest; he started crying. When I asked him why, he said, “I’m crying because now we won’t get to see Nonna (my mom) and Poppy (my dad) anymore!”

He thought that the only reason we saw my parents was because we went to church together.

Once I explained that family is family, regardless of where you go to church, and that we would make special effort to see Nonna and Poppy now, instead of just taking it for granted that we would see them on Sunday, he felt better. In a strange way, so did I. Because I realized – as much as I loved seeing my dad every week – I took for granted that we would see them. It was a given. I didn’t have to work to make sure my kids had a relationship with them, it just happened because of Sunday.

That realization made me a bit sad. I don’t want my kids growing up and taking their grandparents for granted. So we’ve made extra effort (perhaps too much) to get the kids over to their grandparents’ house at least once a week. I worry about over-staying our welcome, but my parents assure me that it’s okay. That they love it.

Kind of like my grandparents used to tell my parents whenever my brother and I went for visits.

It’s weird thinking about that now. I’m now in my dad’s position and he’s assumed the role of his father. My dad had one advantage over me, in that when he was 37, I was 15. He had the youthful energy to be a good dad to a young boy; I sometimes wonder if I suck as a parent because I don’t have the same energy as I did at 27. My kids don’t seem to mind, though, and maybe I actually have an advantage not available to my dad: the perspective that comes from being older. Honestly, I don’t know.

I do know, however, that my dad thinks I’m doing a good job. He’s never sad that too me – or if he did, I mentally deflected it because I’m not great at accepting compliments – but I know he feels that way because he always tells me how great my kids are. That’s high praise. I eat it up.

I look a bit more like my dad these days, which is funny because for the longest time I didn’t think we looked anything alike. Now, my hair is going gray (though not as gray as his) and I definitely see him staring back at me from the mirror, or in pictures. I’m taller and thinner, but the eyes are the same. I can only hope that mine give off the same kindness and good nature that his do. After years of wondering which parent I favor, my physical presence finally caught up with my personality and the answer is clear.

I’m just like my dad.

And that’s awesome.

Play With Me, Daddy

photo (22)“Play with me, daddy.”

I must hear that a couple hundred times a day. Sometimes, I’m ready to play, and it’s tickle fights, wrestling matches, Avengers figures, cars and trucks until we can’t stand it any longer. Other times, I’m not so ready to play, and I try to beg off. If you’re a parent, I’m sure you can relate.

But lately, I’ve noticed something. When Jon says “Play with me”, he’s using the word play in an entire different way. In fact, it may be an entirely different word.

I hear play and I think interaction, me and him using our imaginations to create scenarios and worlds where the toys we use and the time we share transport us together into another place. But it’s a separate togetherness: we each act independently within the game, each one doing what we imagine our characters should do. I think play, and it’s really all about collective yet distinct imaginative effort. Me and him as two.

When Jon says play, it’s less about imagination or collaborative effort. It’s more about him doing what he wants to do while I sit in the same room with him. Sometimes he’ll hand me a truck and tell me where to drive it. Other times he forgets I’m even there. The only thing he really needs is for me to remain physically present; my mind can be a thousand miles away as long as he can still use my arms as bridges and my belly as a mountain. I am another toy for him to use.

It’s ugly, but sometimes I get frustrated by this kind of play. My son has some cool toys, and the idea of just running the same four trucks over my stomach for an hour and a half makes me feel a little…I dunno, bored maybe? I want to line up action figures and trucks and Lego castles and create our own fantastic battles and worlds. I understand on a deeper level what play can really be, and I want to explore that deeper level.

My son, who’s only four, doesn’t get that yet. So he’s content to play at his level, happy to have a few small toys and a daddy who will simply sit with him for as long as he needs. He doesn’t know what he’s missing because he hasn’t learned there’s anything to miss. Developmentally, he’s right on schedule and I have to stop and remind myself that, as his father, I have to work with him where he’s at and gently expand his world a little bit at a time.

I bring all this up because it’s sort of where I’m at with God right now. For a long time, I’ve been content to play at my level, which is to do what I want to do while having the security of His presence. But God’s been gently expanding my world; He’s calling me out into places of much deeper meaning and discovery, not because I’m special, but because He has something He wants to show me. I still want to play with a couple of trucks.

He wants to help me build worlds.

Like my son, I’ve been content to just do my thing. But also like my son, I’ve learned to put my hand into my daddy’s and let Him lead me into something else. It requires trust and faith that He won’t lead me into situations where I’ll be hurt; it requires me loving Him enough to surrender to something that stretches me, pushes the envelope of what I think I can do. And when I find I’m at my limit, He lovingly picks me up into His arms and lets me rest, reassuring me that we’ve done enough for the day.

Sometimes, I worry about what other people might think of what He’s teaching me. But He doesn’t. And I trust Him.

Because He loves me.

“That My Daddy!”

Don't let the picture fool you...not all grocery store cookies are created equal.

We were heading into Kroger. I was in a hurry – I needed to buy stuff for lunch and get Jonathan home in plenty of time for his nap, then eat, then work a little more on my message for tonight – so I was admittedly not in the mood to dawdle. I wanted in, out and gone, as fast as anyone saddled with a two year-old can.

The buggy selection process was easy; for some reason, Jon opted for the standard kids’ cart, the kind with the little plastic car on the front, instead of the behemoth TV Karts that weigh more than a Fiat and handle slightly worse. We cruised into the store, past the veggies, headed for the lunch meats when Jon called out:

“Cookie, daddy.”

I was not in the mood for cookies. For one thing, I’ve hated cookies ever since I overdosed on a plate of Snickerdoodles back in 2002. They make me sick. Stomach-churning, vomit-inducing, gut-wrenchingly sick. So I do my best to avoid them…which is impossible because my children, like all tiny human beings, are fueled by the consumption of sugar and carbohydrates and thus cookies are a dietary necessity.

But secondly, grocery store cookies, the kind you get for free, are a mixed bag, especially when you have children who seem to be allergic to air. They’re either really, really good cookies – the kind with a mountain of frosting, or are so warm that they practically drip off your fingers – or the kind of cookies Hitler served when he wanted to be cruel to prisoners: chalky, bitter discs that have chips of teeth instead of chips of chocolate.

In short, it’s not always worth it to stand in line for one. Especially when the store is packed, you’re in a hurry, and in your heart you just know that today feels like a sucky cookie day.

So I told Jon no. “No cookies, JonJon – we don’t have time.” And we breezed on by the bakery.

I was able to get my shopping done in record time (no thanks to the lady in the lime tank top whose only goal seemed to be reaching for as many top-shelved items as she could in order to show off her impressive growth of underarm hair) and as I was making my way up to the checkout lines, I heard something.

It was faint, almost a whisper, and it sounded ethereal, like how you might imagine angels would actually sing. Soft, sweet, and just loud enough for himself to hear, my son was singing as he “drove” the cart towards the front.

Now, this is nothing new. Jon and Ella both sing, only Ella sings a lot more often and a lot louder than her brother. Jon usually only likes to sing the blessing at dinner, and even then he usually only manages to get out Gaa arr Fad-dur before he blushes and hides his face. Or stuffs a chicken nugget in his mouth.

So I was fascinated by the innocence of his public performance. He clearly wasn’t trying to call attention to himself – he was just singing a song that only he could appreciate. It was him in his own little world, unfiltered and free from outside influenced. And it was a beautiful moment.

But it got better.

He was singing, “I wif Daddy. I wif Daddy. We p-ay. We driving. My Daddy.”

Not once did he look back at me. Never so much as moved his head. He didn’t know I was listening and couldn’t have cared if I did. My son was enjoying a moment with me, and only me, because he could.

I drove back to the bakery, and instead of waiting for a potentially crappy cookie, I grabbed a box full of freshly baked sugar cookies, popped the top and offered him one. He looked at me with wide eyes and asked, “I have one?”

“Yes,” I said. “You may have one. I love you, son.”

His little hand carefully pulled a cookie from the plastic box and raised it to his mouth, where he took just a tiny little bite, as if I might somehow change my mind about the cookie thing. Then, when he knew I wasn’t going to take the cookie back, Jon opened his mouth and tried to stuff the whole dang thing inside. I told him to slow down and he did; but he still polished off that cookie in just under seven seconds.

As cute as all that is, it’s what he did next that melted my heart and made me glad to just have the moment with him. He looked at the lady standing nearby, smiled, pointed at me and said, “That my Daddy! That my Daddy!” while clapping with delight. The woman looked at me and smiled, then smiled down at Jon. He laughed, sending cookie crumbs flying.

After sending his sister off to school last week, I realized that my time with Jon is limited. He starts pre-K next week, so that will be two days a week when he’s off on his own in a new world, the tentative first steps towards independence. I almost missed out on a special moment with him today because I became too consumed with moving on to the next thing, the next appointment, the next programmed hour. I have to remember to slow down and enjoy him while I can.

If the last few weeks with Ella and my grandfather have shown me anything, it’s that time is the greatest expression of love we have.

So Tiny, So Strong

One of the many ways we passed the time before surgery...

Ella’s surgery went surprisingly well today. She was in and out of the operating room in under 20 minutes, and while she did sleep in post-op for about an hour and a half, she exhibited no real signs of pain. She’s eaten like a horse, however, and we should have seen it coming. All morning long the child kept asking, “Now, when am I going to get breakfast again?”

So it should come as no surprise that when the doctor gave her the medical “all clear” to eat whatever she felt like once she got home, Ella took note – and then took to eating. Herewith, a complete list of her afternoon ingestion, beginning from her time in the post-op room:

– 2 popsicles (orange and pink)

– Jell-O (strawberry)

– Skittles (the entire rainbow)

– pot roast (with gravy)

– potatoes (with gravy)

– carrots

– lima beans

– corn

– half a can of chicken noodle soup (her brother ate the other half)

– a roll

– 2 milkshakes (a homemade chocolate and a Zaxby’s vanilla)

Joey Chestnut wishes he had her game. Kid’s intake was immense.

All of this to say, my little girl isn’t so little as I imagine her to be. She faced today’s entire ordeal with a smile on her face, and only once did she even seem the slightest bit afraid. We watched Tangled, colored, shot baskets (on a kid-sized goal), played with an Etch-a-Sketch (“Cool! Just like in Toy Story!”), and in general just passed the time before surgery with confidence and ease. It helped me, as a matter of fact, to be involved with her, and I think she knew that.

There are those moments when you realize that the kid you see is a mirage; that you look at your child through a refracted lens, the light bending in such a way to show you a small baby or a cute little toddler just learning to navigate the big bad world and utterly dependent upon you to guide and hold them, to be their foundation. I still see Ella as the curious two year-old who loves to smear chocolate on her face, or as the suddenly verbose three year-old who can’t wait to tell me the latest word she’s learned.

I’m not hallucinating, mind you – I see her physically changing into a school-aged kid just like everyone else, but when she smiles a certain way, or turns her head just so, I still see that little baby I so loved and longed for, the one that showed me the world wasn’t unnecessarily cruel and heartless. I still see the tiny infant who would sigh in my arms as I rocked and sang to her every night before laying her into her crib and staring at her, first to make sure she was still breathing, then just to marvel at her existence. She’s all legs now, but when she runs on her toes I still remember the first steps she took, her little body bouncing uncertainly into the wide open spaces of our living room, her face lit up with the wonder of her own self.

I saw past my mirage today and saw the reality of my daughter: a tough, intelligent, creative girl who will have no problem with school or the bus or anything else that life throws at her. I saw her spirit, her strength, and not for the last time I marveled at the wonder of someone so essentially beautiful and pure and good being given to me as a trust.

This entire day has come and gone without my shedding a single tear, until now. To suddenly just see my daughter for who she is – who she will become – is a gift that demands tears. And I willingly give them as payment.

My Ella, so tiny, so strong, is a big girl now. Part of my heart, that sub-basement level that will always see her as nothing more than the blond bundle of joy that healed me when she drew first breath, is breaking.

The rest is stronger because she is, too.

But What Will I Do When He’s Gone?

Photo "sunset" used under the Creative Commons License of Flickr.

My brother wrote a blog today about my grandfather, entitled, When the Journey’s Over. Inspired by Pop’s rather precipitous decline, it fanned into flame something that’s been lingering since Saturday. Then, when I talked to my wife on the phone this evening, she said something that turned that flame into a forest fire.

“You know,” she said, “I think your grandfather will live until you get home.”

That’s been on the back of my mind all week while I’ve been out of town. I saw my grandfather before I left on this trip, at a family cookout on Saturday at MawMaw and Pop’s house. They have turned the front room into Pop’s new bedroom, and he spends every minute of his day huddled beneath blankets of varying sizes, sleeping most of those minutes and looking closer to whatever lies beyond this world than this world itself. I was not prepared for this sight when it greeted me, and I had to work hard to keep my emotions in check before my family. I wanted to run to Pop’s side, fling my arms around his neck, and just weep. Instead, I ushered my kids into the TV room and tried to find something to keep me busy.

It was only later, after my father and his siblings had changed and fed Pop, that I ventured into his new room to talk. His eyes, vacuous and rheumy, had trouble focusing on me, and he couldn’t follow my words. While I was talking to him, his eyes simply closed and like that – he was off to sleep. Losing him like that, even to a catnap that would end as quickly as it began, made me think: what will I do when he’s gone? I couldn’t think of an answer, so I did what all men do: I found something else to think about. The rest of the evening passed without so much as a sad thought.

But when we left Saturday, after I had kissed him on his forehead, I turned to MawMaw.

“I don’t care what time it is,” I said, fighting tears, “if something happens, call. I’ll be home.”

I meant it, too. Even though I’m leading a group of students on a mission trip here in Brunswick, Georgia, and I am responsible for keeping the mission work on schedule and keeping the kids on the forefront of my mind, everyday as I sweat through the heat, humidity and other, ever-present challenges of leadership, I find myself thinking/praying, “Please, if the phone rings, don’t let it be my dad.”

Because I know it won’t be MawMaw that calls to tell me Pop is dead. It will be my father.

It wouldn’t be anyone else.

In fact, I got to thinking about my dad having to make that call. Having to stare at his father’s body, overcome with emotion, his heart disintegrating in his chest, even as he forces his fingers to dial a number that’s usually reserved for phone calls of a far less serious nature. I thought about how his heart will be racing, and how his throat will close on him in the seconds that that God-awful ringing noise bounces across the phone line, and how, when I finally answer, the best my dad will likely be able to muster will be a choked and sobbing, “He’s gone, Jason. He’s gone.”

I know this because that’s exactly how I made that phone call to my dad seven years ago. Only it was over Ruthanne. I remember, standing there in that tiny hospital room, my soul melting out through the soles of my feet, that I couldn’t believe I had to make that call. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to begin. How would he respond? My father, so stoic and quiet in almost every aspect of life, would he handle this news like everything else? Or would he burst into tears? Or maybe let out a guttural moan of exquisite pain?

I remember feeling a sense of shame, as though my daughter’s death was somehow my fault. I worried, irrationally, that my father might tear off a pound of flesh and blame me for the death of his first grandchild. I worried that my dad might die from a heart attack brought on by pure shock, and I would have to deal with two deaths. Mostly, I just couldn’t comprehend what I was having to call and tell him.

I, so good with words in so many ways, was truly at a loss. And when the ringing finally stopped, and my dad said his groggy hello, the only thing that I could think to do was forget everything else and seek solace in the strongest, bravest person I know.

“She’s gone, Daddy! She’s gone!”

It was a garbled cry, the plea of a confused son looking to his father to make everything better. Dad misunderstood me and thought I was talking about Rachel, and before he could even ask I corrected him.

“No! It’s not her! It’s Ruthanne! She’s dead, Daddy! She’s dead!”

He didn’t cry. He didn’t moan. And he certainly didn’t tear off a pound of flesh. Instead, in a voice as gentle as a slight breeze, he said, “Oh son – I’m sorry.”

It will be my turn to say those words soon. Sooner than I’m ready to admit, I’m afraid, my father’s voice will come to me and I will hear in it the anguish and pain and fear that I felt that night so long ago. Unlike my father, I will cry. I will moan. I will weep at the simultaneous loss of a good and lovely man and the ending of that good and lovely man’s suffering. And I will do all of this in a matter of seconds; then I will compose myself, and I will speak the only words of comfort that I’ve ever known to work in a situation like this:

“Oh dad – I’m sorry.”

I dread that call, not just for the sorrow of my grandfather’s death or my own father’s pain, but for the reality that will immediately follow it: this phone call will be repeated, this communication between father and son, only I will assume my dad’s role, and, I imagine, Jonathan, my son, will assume mine.

And my dad will assume Pop’s.

It’s a horrifying thought: what will I do when he’s gone?

But this is the way of all fathers and sons. Just as dad will lose Pop, I will lose him, and one day, hopefully after many, many happy memories, Jonathan will lose me. I will close my eyes and pass from his life, and he will feel the sting in his eyes that I’m feeling right now.

And when that first tear falls from his face, and makes a splashing contact with his new father-less world, I pray that the years of love and laughter and memories I believe we’ll create together will sustain him and give him the courage we all need to face death. I pray that he’ll find strength in his faith. I pray that he’ll be as strong then as my dad will be whenever the time comes to make that call.

But mostly I pray that his son will be able to put his arm around my son, and say, in the tradition of our family, those beautiful yet simple words of comfort:

“Oh dad – I’m sorry.”

That’s not too much for a father to ask, is it?