Posts Tagged ‘parent’
Every street corner is more or less the same. They are the crossroads between where we are going and where we have been. The paths of others are layered across it. They are decorated in flowers, rocks, and fifty shades of concrete. There may be a light, a newspaper, or a marker-smudged sign with human hands upon it.
The signs are a barrier between those that hold them and those that fiddle with the radio in an attempt to avoid eye contact. Even the best of us find it hard to read every word, every time. It is hard to look into the face of need when we all need something.
The sign is a humble invitation to human contact between those that lack it and those that take it for granted. It is an opportunity for small moments of pity and respect, civility and kindness. A lot can happen at a red light.
We sat in the car with the windows down. It was a beautiful blue-skied day, and the breeze from the hills felt vaguely of the sea. It danced loosely across the salt of our thinly layered sweat, and it lingered soft and cool for a moment as if thinking about home. Then it carried on to woo the next in line, leaving memories and taking parts with it. A blink. A breath. A whisper.
We were leaving a store full of red shirts, value, and everything. Our bags were full and my wallet was empty. I had nothing in my pocket but a collection of plastic cards that owed more than I have and a balance that was anything but.
The breeze danced in my window, spun me around, tickled the nose of one boy, then the other, and flew out toward the man that stood there waiting. He smiled beneath a skin taught with sun and a layer of sweat much heavier than mine. His glance fell down, past the cardboard sign in his hands, to the grass beneath his feet and the child that sat quietly upon it. The breeze rolled from father to son and the smile went with it.
“Why is that boy there?” asked my youngest son from his spot in the backseat. His window was down, too, and his words were loud and carried on the wind.
The man kept his gaze to the ground and the boy looked at something important in the opposite direction. We were at a stop sign and there were no cars behind us.
My reaction in such situations, when a child’s innocence tends to jump from one side of a socially awkward bridge to the other, is usually alarm and quick words of quiet, something that surely embarrasses us both, but instead I took the man’s invitation.
To be clear, this isn’t meant to suggest that I am noble, doing the right thing, or any sort of action that merits acknowledgement beyond those involved, but rather a reminder about how much we all share and to suggest that we shouldn’t need signs that confound our attentions.
I could be that man. Any of us could. As it is I have been barely getting by for years—I went from making a very good living to making nothing, and now, thanks to a writing degree and access to the internet, I am making just enough to supplement my wife’s income so that we don’t go under. In fact, a few years ago we found ourselves having serious talks about what we feared was inevitable. We didn’t have many options, and we started to prepare for the worst. It scared the hell out of us.
The man on the street corner, the man that could have been me, was equal parts proud and humiliated as he leaned in the window that I am lucky to have, and answered:
“No, of course not. Change is very much appreciated.”
It was all I had and I gave him all of it.
“Why did you give that man money?” asked my oldest son from his spot in the backseat.
“Because he’s a daddy,” replied his brother.
The man’s eyes met mine, and one of us nodded and then the other. There was nothing left to say.
As we pulled away I watched the rear-view mirror and a fading street corner looking more or less like any other: a slab of concrete, a slice of shade, and a small, smiling boy held in the hands of a man where a sign used to be.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, —and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
- John Gillespie Magee, Jr
The sound was low and it carried lightly across the aisle. It was the echo of children laughing and the flow of one boy splashing behind the waves of his brother. The video played across the glass screen, a small window held warm in loving hands beneath tired eyes and the gentle roar of engines, peering into mirth now past and the moments left to linger.
There were no awards or milestones, no unexpected need to clinch the gut from fear of laughter ripping it apart. It was just a video of two small kids jumping into cool, clean waters, over and over, a loop of innocence still playing despite the boys now dry and jumping through the elsewhere. The woman watched it with the patience of a saint and the love of a grandmother. And when it ended she watched another video marked different only by the season.
To those behind me it may have seemed that I had far too great an interest in the montage of her lifework, but in truth the images were lost to me aside from the casual glance given when pitches of glee kicked against my eardrum or the sudden flick of her wrist drew me there. Instead, I observed her like a time machine—a white-haired apparition of what should be. She watched video after video of her grandchildren, and I watched her soak it all in to be squeezed and cherished like a sponge saving memories for those days grown dry and far from smiles.
It was as close to my mother as I will ever be, and when the woman finished her viewing I shifted mine, floating through the heavens some 30,000 feet above the ground with thoughts to think and a ticket for my baggage—a loop of love bated on my breath, alive, and always playing.
People, you know who you are, often ask me what it is like to be a work-at-home dad. Some people tend to think it is all fun and games, never considering the fact that I’m putting in a collective 60+ hours each week in actual “work” for sources that actually “pay” me. Others think that it would drive them crazy—that they would never get anything done with kids underfoot. The latter is closer to the truth, but I would be a fool to complain about it. There are worse things than kids underfoot.
That said, here is a typical day in my life (in this scenario it was Tuesday):
The conference call was at 2:30, the same time that school lets out. I stood outside the classroom talking about these and those while smiling broadly at my son like he was the only one there.
We walked to the park, his hand in mine, my phone on mute and his mouth anything but. He ran off to play with his friends and I sat in the shade of a lonely tree nodding at people that couldn’t see me and drawing stares from those that could.
Every so often we would wave at one another.
This is my multitasking—a normal day of working at home and all that comes with it. There are lunches made over a warm breakfast, notes signed for stuff I skimmed, the frustrated scramble of forgotten things, and the grooming of two children that take it personally.
The routine: First we drop my wife off at work, and then I leave the boys to a new day of public education. Home is a sip of coffee, a dog to pet, a breath to take, and then I write until the phone rings. A knock at the door. An important email. Texts. Skype. Phone. The dogs are barking. The coffee is cold. Phone. Someone tagged me on Facebook. The deadlines go straight to voicemail.
There are not enough hours to get through half of it, and then I am standing in a school restroom haunted by the smell of aimless generations, helping my son make a square shield of tissue paper upon a cold, small seat of porcelain. I am talking into a microphone hanging loosely from my shirt, the topic is trending, and my son is grunting loudly.
I’m already on mute by the time the toilet flushes.
Sometimes working at home means working in a stall with a stinky 6-year-old, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Although I could do without the smell.
But wait, there’s more! After school I take the boys home and help them with their homework while trying to put the finishing touches on whatever project of mine was due the week before, and the phone. And the phone.
Then it is back to pick up my wife, a family walk on the beach, the rinsing of sand, a healthy dinner, a bit of TV, and just like that we missed bedtime again. There are teeth to brush, stories to share, kisses goodnight, and soon everyone is asleep but me.
I work for hours in a quiet house with a silent phone. There may be whiskey where coffee used to be. Sometimes there is both.
The sun rises over morning mist and flocks of noise. I am too often there to see it.
Morning is a game they play. It is the crossroads of grumpy and hijinks, and there are shoes to be tied, teeth to be brushed, and a number of things that really should have been done the night before. It is the kind of chaos that lends itself to immediate cursing and a lifetime of fond, sweet memories. It starts too early and ends on a dime.
Sometimes there are too many metaphors to bother.
The boys are sleeping now, between mornings and the shadow of them, and the world is quiet save the sound of frogs in the stream outside. The stream was dry just days ago and the frogs were dehydrated and forgotten like so many sea-monkeys on the cusp of greatness — covered in leaves, dust, warts and all. Now the frogs are awake and alive and they want us to know it.
We know. We know.
And the boys sleep on while the world spins constant around them. There are late night projects, glasses of whiskey, promises kept and those unfulfilled. Their breath is a bass line beneath the songs of the night and my keyboard types out like a broken-down piano. Every sound is clear and haunting, every breath a melody. The notes between are soft and silent. They linger until the moon fades, then the sounds are soon to follow.
Morning is a game they play. They will win every single time.
Illustration by Arnold Lobel