A Son’s Dream, A Father’s Fear

IMG_4643The other day my son announced his intention to launch himself into space on a one-way journey to explore the galaxy. As his father, I should be used to him making grand, above-his-age statements (he’s only 6), but hearing my first grader calmly state his dream to die in space threw me off a bit.

He was so calm when he told me his idea.

“I want to build the ‘100th Horizon’ which would be a spaceship big enough to hold me and other people, and we would fly to the end of our galaxy learning about space. We would even fly past Pluto and other ice planets.”

“But it would take you years to get to the end of our galaxy,” I countered. “Mommy and I might be dead before you would come home.”

“I know that,” he said. “Me and my friends would all probably die in space, but that’s okay. It would just put me closer to heaven, so I could see you faster after I die.”

I’ll admit–that choked me up. But it was what he said next that floored me. I asked him why he would want to fly off on a one-way journey into space. This is what he said:

“Because I want to give my life to help people. We would have better knowledge if I flew into space.”

I wasn’t prepared for that answer. My wife and I have taken great pains to instill in our children a love and compassion for others, and we’ve always gone out of our way to encourage our children’s natural interests. My daughter, Ella, loves to dance and sing, so we’ve enrolled her in dance classes and helped her audition for school musicals. Jon loves science and playing drums, so we signed him up for drum lessons and try to fuel his thirst for knowledge.

Rachel and I both grew up in cultures that encouraged dreams, but weren’t so quick to encourage acting on them. We don’t want our kids to grow up like that; we want them to dream AND act, to be intentional with how they live their lives.

In short, we’ve never squashed their dreams. Despite what you might think, this is a challenging position to maintain.

As a parent, you want what’s best for your kid, but sometimes what’s best for them absolutely kills you on the inside. Hearing Jon so fearlessly announce that his dream was to launch himself on a suicide mission for the betterment of mankind made me want to throw up. In fact, on my insides, I could feel the fear rising up. My mental list-maker went into overdrive, concocting as many reasons why he SHOULDN’T go into space as I possibly could.

But I didn’t breathe a word of that to him. The only allowance I gave my fears was to mention to Jon that if he went to the end of the galaxy, it would make me sad because I would never see him again. Given how much my son loves me, even that was probably too much, an unfair emotional manipulation perpetrated on a child by an adult.

But Jon’s response was not only perfect, it was completely Jon: I’ll just be that much closer to heaven, so I’ll see you sooner.

Even now, I want to cry typing that out. It’s such a beautiful statement: I will live my dreams, but I will always love and think of you.

As a parent, could I ask for more?

Sometimes, I worry that I will transfer my fear issues on to my kids. I see Ella hesitate when walking into a room full of people she doesn’t know, and I wonder if I caused that. I see Jon have a meltdown because he hurts himself while playing, and I wonder if I’ve somehow bred weakness into him.

But then my children say and do things that amaze me, and remind me of what my actual end goal is as a parent.

My job as their dad is to raise them to be healthy, functional adults capable of living a life of meaning and joy. That means allowing them to experience and learn things as a child that cause me great fear.

I would rather be the one who feels the ugly, paralyzing fear. I would rather live through their childhood years worrying and fretting over things than pass that anxiety on to them. I want them to emerge from my home with a sense of wonder and courage, a belief in themselves and their talents that propels them to do things much greater than anyone could imagine.

My son wants to launch himself into the uncharted ends of space on a one-way trip to broaden humanity’s understanding of the universe we call home. As a dad, the idea makes me want to curl up into a ball and cry for a couple of days. But it also makes me proud of my son, proud of the man he will one day become, regardless of whether or not he actually makes it into space.

So, as his dad, I’m going to do the only thing I can: I’m going to bust my butt to introduce him to people who can expand his knowledge. I know some folks who know some folks, so I’m going to set up some lunches where Jon can interview an astronaut or astronomer. I’m going to take him back to the Space Center in Huntsville, AL, and maybe send him to Space Camp one summer.

I’m going to do everything I can to encourage my son to be all he can be, because that’s what is best for him as a person, and what’s best for me as a dad.

And if he actually achieves his dream, it might just be what’s best for mankind, too.

Monster Fighters

ImageSo I’m sitting here this morning, listening to Jon and Ella play. Over and over Ella keeps emphasizing to Jon that the figures they are playing with are “monster fighters – they fight monsters so normal people don’t have to.” Anytime that declaration is made, it is quickly followed by a series of “Hi-yah! Bam! Smack! P-sht! Wee-boom!” sounds that illustrate just how thoroughly the monster fighters are kicking monster butt.

And I’m thinking: “I wish I had a monster fighter.”

I mean seriously – who wouldn’t want to have their own private monster fighter. Especially for the monsters that most of us face: doubt, depression, fear, uncertainty, and other creatures from the adult nightmare lagoon. How many of us wouldn’t love to call on someone else to handle the finances when they get tight, or the office when it gets too stressful? Or someone who could appear and deal with the baggage of our past in fell swoop? That would be awesome.

And even as I write this, Jon calls his monster fighter “Daddy” and Ella calls hers “Mommy.” There’s another monster fighter named “David” too, but I’m kind of hung up on Mommy and Daddy being the leads.

Because there are days when I don’t feel like fighting anyone’s monsters. There are days when I wonder if I have requisite power to fight my own. And yet that’s part of how my children see me: as their protector. Now, they have no delusions that I’m some sort of super dad (Jon asked me the other day if I could lift a weight. A weight. Sad.), but they do know that daddy’s the one to run to when you don’t understand something.

Ella does this all the time; if she can’t wrap her mind around an injustice in the world, or a question about theology or God, she comes to me and we begin one of our hourly games of “The Third Degree” – where she mercilessly hammers away at me with questions until I either answer her to her satisfaction or I finally go insane and scream, “I don’t know! I just don’t know!” To me, it can seem like an annoyance (and really, timing is generally the issue), but for her it’s a form of monster fighting: the world seems big and mean and scary, and she wants to know that there is a way to make sense of it all, find peace in the midst of the scariness.

So I help her fight her monsters.

As a father, that’s a pretty cool thing to realize. I’m not big and brawny and “manly-man” so the notion that my daughter still finds value in me – in a big old nerdy nerd – is even better than a Father’s Day card. In fact, instead of cards yesterday, I got a day full of hugs, thank yous, and “You’re the best dad, ever!”s. I also got approximately 100,000,000 questions between Ella and Jon, but those just laid the groundwork for the hugs, thank yous, and best-dad-evers.

It was a glorious day.

Who are the monster fighters in your life? To whom do you turn when the situation gets scary and you need consolation? We may not have our own private Indiana Jones or Superman at the ready to battle the evil we encounter, but we probably have more resources than we know.

So who’s helping you fight today?

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.

Where’s the Volume Control?

This isn’t going to be anything meaningful, just a brief observation and perhaps a shout out to all the other parents of small boys out there. Lately, I’ve noticed that my son has exactly two volume settings: “Low” and “Ear-shattering”.

He seems to prefer “Ear-shattering”. A lot.

He’s not an obnoxious kid by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, compared to some kids his age, he’s quite withdrawn. But he has these moments throughout the day when he just absolutely loses all sense of place and gets VERY, VERY LOUD. EVERYTHING IS SCREAMED. OR YELLED. OR SPOKEN AT A VERY HIGH DECIBEL.

It’s a bit disconcerting.

I’ve been assured that other boys are this way, and in my limited experience with other people’s four year-old boys, I would have to agree. But it’s different when you live with one. It’s different when the one you live with can concuss the air like a nuclear detonation or the opening riffs of a Metallica concert. Up close, it’s uncomfortable.

So, I’m curious: any other parents of boys who noticed a similar phenomenon with your kid? Or is mine truly one of a kind?

Just curious.

When Anything Was Possible

photo (21)This morning, because he was climbing the walls, I put my son in my car and took him for a drive. We ran an errand for work first, then headed down Highway 78, eastbound. We passed through Loganville, Between, Monroe…and as the mile markers swept by, Jon asked me where we were going.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think I’m going to take you to where I went to college.”

“You’re gonna take me to your college?” he repeated.

“Yeah. The University of Georgia.”

“The Yoo-be-nursery of…how do you say it?”

I smiled. “The University of Georgia.”

“Oh. You’re gonna take me there?” he asked, looking at me in the rearview mirror.


“Okay. Can we get ice cream?”

The great thing about my alma mater is that it’s less than an hour’s drive, yet feels like going to another planet. As we turned onto Milledge Avenue, Jon immediately started asking questions. “Why are there so many houses? Why do people have couches in the yard? Why do they have bulldogs on everything?” It was non-stop.

I turned into the Butts-Mehre Building parking lot, thinking that I’d take him to the sports museum inside and show him the glory, glory of old Georgia. We walked in and in quick order took pictures with the 1980 National Championship trophy, Herschel Walker’s Heisman Trophy, and a very nice lady who knew where the restrooms were (that was Jon’s idea). But all of that lasted less than a minute; suddenly, Jon wanted to know where the scientists were.

“I want to see the scientists, like me.” (Special thanks to my brother- and sister-in-law Terrell and Julie White for sending Jon a Big Bag of Science Experiments for his birthday. My kitchen floors will never be the same.)

So we left the Butts-Mehre, went down by Foley Field (Jon had zero interest in the baseball diamond), turned by Stegeman Coliseum (he wasn’t interested in that either) and zipped over towards the Biology, Chemistry and Food Sciences buildings. He begged me to find a place to park so he could “see the scientists make stuff up”, but I couldn’t find a spot, and wasn’t sure we could get into some of the labs anyway.

“That’s sad,” said Jon. “Don’t people want to see scientists?”

I’ve yet to tell him what Bear Bryant said on that issue: “80,000 people never showed up to watch a chemistry test.”

We turned left on East Campus Avenue and drove behind Sanford Stadium. I turned left again on Baldwin Street and showed him Park Hall. “That’s where daddy spent most of his last two years of college.”

“That looks boring,” he replied.

We turned right onto Milledge once more, and then made a right onto Broad Street. I parked downtown near the Arches and we took a stroll across North Campus. We looked at squirrels, trees, the Chapel Bell, the Law Library Atrium, and the inside of the main library. I walked him back down to Sanford Stadium and made the mistake of telling him that’s where all the dead Ugas are buried. After that, he wanted to talk about nothing else.

It was a nice trip, despite the fact that the campus looks almost nothing like I remember it. Fifteen years after I left, the university has become what former president Charles Knapp had dreamed: a top-flight center of education. I marveled at how young the students are compared to when I was in school; how many of them still think they’re invincible enough to smoke; how many of them seem far more determined than I was when I roamed the same grounds.

As we walked back to the car, I took Jon to Park Hall, where the English and Classics departments are headquartered. I snapped a picture in front of my old haunt, and recalled when a professor stopped me on the front steps and told me that, with a bit of revision, some of my pieces would be press-ready. And then the professor offered to send them to his friend at The New Yorker – and could almost guarantee they’d see print.

I stood there and watched that memory play out one more time: I shook his hand and told him thank you, but no. I wasn’t prepared to face rejection. He asked me to reconsider; told me that of all the students in my “Writing for Publication” class, I was the only one to demonstrate real potential.

I told him no a second time. Then I walked away.

It’s been fifteen years, and I still remember that. In college, so the saying goes, anything is possible. You’re not who you were, not yet who you’ll be. You’re a bundle of potential and passion and purposeless energy. You’re waiting to be aimed somewhere and to see how far you’ll go.

At least, that’s the way some people were. I wasn’t. I’m 37 now, and am just finally reaching my “anything is possible” phase. It took me this long to realize the things about myself that are good and worthy and deserving of people’s attention. Today, I wouldn’t hesitate to take that professor’s hand and say, “Let’s sit down and make those revisions now. Why wait?” I would whole-heartedly accept his offer and be so excited about even the possibility that I might get read, much less published.

But I am that person today because I wasn’t that person then. I am a husband and father and writer today because I couldn’t see myself as any of that then.

Sometimes, we take the path we think we’re supposed to take because we have a hard time imagining ourselves take any other path. We choose what we know because we’re afraid of what we don’t. And sometimes, we discover that we end up where we started; we come back to the path we turned away, prepared to take it and see what happens.

That’s what I felt today, standing on a campus that isn’t the same as it was fifteen years ago. But then again, neither was the man standing there. Today, with my son in tow, I went back in time and realized I hadn’t missed my moment; I’d just been preparing for it.

Carpe diem, right?

Anything is possible. Even today.