Notes On Fatherhood

Tummy Ache Revisited   As I should have expected – in fact should have inked into my calendar ahead of time, my wife and I both contracted the stomach bug brought into our home by our unwitting son. He just bounced into the house, all smiles, meaningless news from school, and bacteria. We all know that a child’s body is a traveling carnival of maladies. And a school is the United Way of infection. They air drop it in to our tiny peaceful villages and we run to it, cheering. And 48 hours after his endless rivers of puke, flowed our own, his mom and me.

For us both, it began at 2 a.m., and lasted all night, just as I had lamented it did with our boy. And the next day, we moaned and complained and shoved our misery outward in every direction, just as I complained he had done. Two days earlier I was rubbing my son’s back and telling him it would be okay. It would pass. There was nothing to worry about. His problem was little. It was solvable – one of the great triumphs of parenting a young child is that virtually all of his problems are solvable.

But now I was swimming in the misery which I had all but dismissed in him so recently. And it was real, and terrible. Of course I knew it would pass, it would be okay. My concerns were not long-term. But I was still feeling my guts rung out like dirty dishtowel. And intense illness can become its own sweat lodge of alpha state thinking. The experience did bring to light for me a simple and what should already have been obvious truth – that my son’s problems, no matter how small or incidental they may be, are real. Real to him, and so, real. For what is reality but that which we think it is?

But less esoteric than this thought of reality was the experience itself. The discomfort was extreme, the exhaustion absolute. I have a longer gaze than my son, and so I can see ahead to 3 days from now. This bacteria which my body must eject so violently would be gone in 24 hours or so. I know this, so my calm doesn’t slip like my son’s does. But even aside from the science of it, in my son’s mind, now equals forever, so being told that his misery will pass tomorrow is like telling him he should start saving toward a secure retirement. That’s fine but it’s a ways off. But this big-picture thinking I have earned with years did get me thinking about my perception of other aspects of my son’s life.

He often climbs in the car after school and announces with total certainty that he had just experienced his worst day ever. Now, a child’s words and thoughts are generally hyperbolic, so these statements tend to roll off. Of course I care. Of course I want to know, to sooth, to solve. And his hyperbole has as much to do with his limited communication skills as it does with his limited perspective. That’s why kids live moment to moment. They don’t know how to think long-term because they have not experienced what long-term is.

Some stupid kid with some stupid older brother who knows everything said something stupid and it has upset my son because he doesn’t realize it’s stupid. That’s five ‘stupids’ in one sentence to describe the unfortunate hypothetical 5th grader whose argument I write so that it will fail in the face of mine. The truth is I don’t give a rip what some idiot 5th grader thinks about the rules of kickball or the color of backpacks. But Idiot 5th Grader has given me a gift. He has opened a door to a conversation, an opportunity for my son to question and for me to answer. Thank you, Idiot 5th Grader. Now stop telling my son he’s wearing the wrong color of sneakers or I will find you and destroy you.

And no, my perspective was not suddenly lost in the last few sentences. I’m sure Idiot 5th Grader has his fine qualities. I’m sure he participates in all mandatory school charity work. I’m sure my son will in 2 year be Idiot 5th Grader. I realize all too well that I was once Idiot 5th Grader, and in some ways, still am. Therefore I do not judge him except in the most obvious ways that he clearly deserves.

There’s nothing like a little bit of time on this earth to earn you some perspective. Time, a low-grade fever and a nice little bout of gut-twisting puke.

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