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Know When To Hold 'Em
The High Stakes Game of Fatherhood
By JOHN BLASE
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 John Blase
All rights reserved.
THE WORK OF YOUR HANDS
My youngest daughter, Abbey, looked at me this afternoon and asked, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" She's four. I said, "Yes" and winked at her; she winked back and returned to what she was thinking about. I have no idea what that was. But I wish I did.
What was she thinking about in that moment? What was going on behind those saddle-brown eyes with falling auburn hair in them? I've been home quite a bit lately; I have some writing deadlines and so many days have found me in the basement, in front of a keyboard, from last star to first. She's four, so she's been home as well. She's come down to check on me quite often, she doesn't stay long, just a little while.
Although I hear her coming down the stairs, she is convinced she's sneaking up on me and greets me with a "boo" and I do my best startle and she always says, "It's me, Abbey." Many days she wants to go to a "dot-com" and print off coloring pages from the My Little Pony or Curious George websites. Even at four years old she displays a persistence that I believe will carry her far in this life. So we usually sit and wait for my printer to start its heaving, eventually coughing up pictures for her to color. I've noticed on the last few visits that she has put her hand on my arm while presenting her case. I wonder what she's thinking about. I hope she's thinking that her dad is so happy when she sneaks down the stairs to startle him. That he's so relieved it's her, Abbey, whose name means "father's joy." I hope she's thinking that it's a good thing for her to put her hand on my arm and reassure her dad that his work these days in not in vain, although most days he's not sure, driving his family in a metaphorical covered wagon across uncertain terrain in search of his dreams to be a writer.
I pray she's thinking that asking me for coloring pages will help me keep some childlikeness in my afternoons that frequently border on the serious and anxious. I hope she's thinking, I'll stand close enough to Dad so he can smell my hair. He helped me wash it last night and that'll make him remember the true work of his hands these days—fathering. He's got plenty of time to be a writer, but his days of fathering are numbered. I'm four, but not for long.
And maybe that was what she was thinking about this afternoon when she asked me if I knew what she was thinking about. "I'm growing up, Daddy, fast." Today it's dot-coms and "boo" and the man with the yellow hat, but tomorrow it'll be girlfriends and boys and talking on the phone into the wee small hours of the morning and saying, "Dad, please," when I stop and smell her hair.
I have no idea what my little girl's thoughts are; many days I can't even fathom my own. But in the precision of this moment I am grateful for her hand on my arm, and for her reminder that it is not a small thing when a child loves you.
In this moment that's what I'm thinking about.
Children have the gift of startling us awake to the true work of our hands. Linger.CHAPTER 2
* * *
We knew an intimacy had bloomed between us. —Gretel Ehrlich
I came home from work today and my nine-year-old son met me at the door with a song about vaginas. Yes, I typed that correctly. I let him sing it and then asked him where he heard that word. I immediately sensed the potential for shame rising in the room, so I quickly told him he wasn't in trouble but that he and I probably oughta talk about that word. Too often we react to things with our children and fly off the handle (now that's a descriptive phrase) and there's nothing left to feel in that space but shame. But we are able to respond— response-able—and that is something altogether different, and altogether harder.
It came out that somebody named Seth taught him the song at school. When I asked him if he knew what vagina meant, he pointed to his chest. The song's lyrics were along the lines of "Boys have small vaginas and girls have big ones ..." I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer but based on that snippet I reckoned we were actually talking about breasts. I'm not overly thrilled about Seth lifting the skirt on sex for my son. However, it happens that way, like it or not. For all our efforts to be proactive in every regard, it doesn't always work out that way. And maybe sometimes it's best if it doesn't because it allows us to grow alongside our children.
When I was in second grade I didn't have a friend named Seth, but I did know a boy named Marcus. His skin was as black as mine is white. Marcus wore a commanding Afro and walked with a physicality I'm just now coming into at thirty-nine. I will never forget that day in the boy's bathroom when Marcus pulled out a picture that he had to unfold several times, a sort of reverse Russian nesting doll moment. He motioned for me to come close. What gradually unfolded was a woman whose skin was as black as mine was white but who didn't have a stitch of clothes on to save her life.
I recall some level of arousal in that moment, probably due to the fact that it was something we were doing in secret hushed-boy-bathroom tones. The sexual aspect of the image was overwhelming—I'd never seen anything like that or those before. And then the moment collapsed, some other boys came in and Marcus quickly put a wrap on the goods. We returned to the innocence of the playground, where teachers stood like heroes at the boundaries and girls were skipping rope in white Keds and red-rovered boys kept calling on wimpy guys to "come over."
I don't know what all I'll say to my son in regard to the song he learned today. But we'll stumble through as fathers and sons do. I'll tell him about Marcus and hopefully he'll tell me a little more about Seth. But we won't have our talk in the bathroom; no, I've decided we'll go outside and swing—talk about grown-up matters while doing a childlike thing. I'll try and bring some clarity to the breast/vagina difference; shouldn't be too difficult. I'll more than likely tell him that Seth is full of bologna, like little Marcus was; boys trying to be men too fast, too soon, pre-mature. Maybe my son will ask me questions. If so, I'll try and answer them. I may not be able to, though, because I may not know the answers and if that's the case, then we'll stand in that unashamed space and I'll say, "Let's figure that out together."
Then again maybe he'll be satisfied with a succinct biology lesson and say, "OK, Now can we swing some more?" And if that's the case I'll breathe a little easier because vaginas and breasts and the electrifying mystery of sex will wait, not forever, but for just a little longer while I stand behind my son and push him higher and higher. Then I'm sure he'll say, "I got it, Dad." And I'll back up and watch him reach for the sky as geese honk overhead and the chain bounces beneath his weight.
Maybe as he swings I'll hum a little tune myself, a collection of notes I'll assemble from the moment, a song of the boy on the edge of his quest, swinging back to me for strength and clarity about powerful things then swinging away from me into the world of boys like Seth eager to be men, and girls who skip rope in white Keds.
As I envision that moment in my head I like my placement; I am behind him. I don't want to get in the way of his story playing itself out because it's his story, not mine. But I want to be there, close by, close enough to respond and for him to hear me singing "swing away, swing away."
Reactions tend to shut our children down. But a response keeps the story going, and that's what we all really want.CHAPTER 3
Courage is the ability to cultivate a relationship with the unknown.
Do you know what's unknown in our lives? Everything. And this unknown piece is compounded by several powers of ten when it comes to raising kids, mainly because you've got all these unknowns in your own life and then all of a sudden you have one or more other lives filling up with their own unknowns. It can just about drown you some days.
I don't know very many parents who like Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. They find it too dark and depressing and weird. But it's a favorite of mine. It's not that I like unfortunate happenings necessarily; it's that I believe the story is a lot closer to the reality in which we find ourselves. Sometimes the check doesn't arrive or the acceptance letter gets lost or you lose your job or your savings or your home or your parents. Was there a chance those things could've happened? Sure, but you just never thought they actually would come to pass.
I find it odd that the words chance and faith are rarely heard in the same breath. I find this especially odd in religious circles as the definition of faith is "the essence of things unseen"—in other words, there's a lotta unknown here. Most days you can't see what's going on to save your life, but hey, take a chance, step on out there in, well, faith. We can blather on all we want about knowing "the rest of the story" and go through life a bunch of smiling Paul Harveys when just below the surface we're terrified.
The subtitle to this book is "The High Stakes Game of Fatherhood." That about says it. It's high stakes, all of it, and there are days when the milk and honey flow and there are days when the disappointment is an unsolvable riddle. The Bible verse from my youth said to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12 NIV). Now you can take that and become a Chicken-Little-the-sky-is-falling parent or you could become a gambler of sorts, a father or a mother, aunt or grandfather, who keeps coming back to the table, day in, day out, not knowing what's going to happen but courageous enough to keep playing the game. And realizing at some point that the goal is not so much winning the game as learning to play well, even enjoying the risk.
Now some might call this being shrewd, a smooth operator. I call it being a person of courage, someone working out his or her life with a roll-of-the-dice faith. And always hoping for the best, always.
Being a parent is the epitome of the unknown. Be-friending the unknown won't make it all better, but it can make for quite the game.CHAPTER 4
No matter how far the low tide goes out, ... the high tide always comes in again as high as ever. —Frederick Buechner
I checked on our girls last night before I went to bed. They had finally fallen asleep after several water runs, a quick check to see who got booted off Dancing with the Stars, and some last minute giggling. My check on them is routine: turn off their radio, make sure they're covered up, and switch off the night-light.
Our youngest, Abbey, had crawled over in the bed with Sarah (they have twin beds bumped up against each other) and I was going to pull her back over in her bed. But something stopped me. When I bent down to lift Abbey over, I noticed the girls' arms were intertwined. I followed the arms to the hands and finally to the fingers. My two little girls, my fathers-be-good-to-your-daughters daughters were asleep holding hands with their fingers interlaced. I backed up and just looked at them. I stepped across the hall and whispered to my wife: "Come see this." And there we stood, arm in arm, awed at the wonder of it all.
We spent some time last night watching a little (a little, mind you) of the coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting. I asked the kids if their teachers had said anything about it at school and they said no. I didn't expect a day-long symposium on the event, but I did feel like the teachers owed the kids at least a nod to this tragedy. We didn't force the kids to sit still and watch the evening news; they came and went as they pleased. But we did answer any questions they had and made some comments at points in the report. We cringed at images of lives cut short by a "cold" shooter and were disappointed at a reporter's insatiable quest for the answer to "how did you feel?"
Our son watched intently, but the girls maintained an ebb and flow, playing in their rooms for a while then returning to the den for a few minutes, then back to Play-Doh and dolls. I do wonder if the girls saw and heard more than I realized. In the splendor of their innocence, maybe they could stand just a little and then had to return to the safety of play.
Maybe. I don't know for sure. All I know is that it sure felt like the final thing they did before surrendering to sleep last night was to lock arms and hold hands, fingers and all, to scrunch up next to each other, as close as possible, and hang on. They were entering the night, where things are dark and shadowy and alma maters can become lessons of grief in the twinkling of an eye.
I'm certain the next few days will hold what we refer to as "processing the tragedy." I'm sure experts will tell us what we're feeling is normal, although the word normal seems so out of place. Seeing my girls last night challenged me to be aware of the emotional carrying capacity in my children; how much can they bear without it stunting them in some way? That's no doubt something you do on a case-by-case basis while also taking into account the personality differences between your children. It's difficult work, but they're worth it. As we try and figure it out I'd like to offer this suggestion, per my girls: stay close, lock arms, and hold hands, fingers and all.
Become a student of your children; try and learn their emotional carrying capacity, as well as your own.
God had a son he loved.
I have a son I love.
God watched the sorrow and the nails.
I would not wish it but I believe I could bear it too;
I understand the pride of pain.
But God never had a daughter. If so
he could not have borne her passion.
I say this for I have two daughters.
I confess there are days
I love them more than
I love God, or at least more
than I love truth.
So yes, in weakness I love them.
But I am the father of girls.
LISTENING AND SILENCE
* * *
When the righteous cry out, the LORD listens; he delivers them from all their troubles.
Our youngest daughter began vomiting Monday morning around 8 o'clock. At 8 P.M., she was still vomiting, unable to keep anything down. We debated between taking her to the ER and trying to ride out the night, hoping it would stop. We prayed and opted to wait and see if things got better. We went to bed and nothing stopped; in fact, it seemed to grow worse. Probably twice an hour, every hour, my four-year-old little girl would begin to cough up evil itself; we'd sit her up, and her body would heave in painful contractions until the episode would fade.
We had been praying for her all day long and had amped up our efforts when night fell. I'm not sure where you fall on the prayer spectrum, if at all. My wife and I were raised in a tradition of prayer and we have chosen to continue it. We do this not because we have to (out of duty) but because we have to (life is hard and we are weak). So we pray, but ours are not elaborate table-cloth prayers, they never have been. In this specific situation they were usually along the lines of "God, c'mon, make the vomiting stop" or "Give it to me, pass it over to my stomach and my throat and my lungs. She's too little." We prayed phrases like these at least twice an hour, every hour, all night long.
And nothing changed. No deliverance, no nothing.
We took her to the hospital the next morning and sure enough, she was severely dehydrated and required an overnight stay and several bags of IV fluid. I confess I was not on speaking terms with God that morning. I further confess I don't believe such behavior on my part throws God into some tizzy. If it did I would cease to pray; the last thing I need is a deity easily unsettled.
My wife stayed with Abbey that first day and I came the next for my shift. I sat in what the hospital calls a "chair" and read while Abbey slept and a clear tube refilled her tanks. I was reading Frederick Buechner wax on about listening to your life, and how if you want to hear God speaking you should listen to your life and what's going on and what you're feeling or thinking or doing. I thought, "OK, Fred. Fine. Here we go."
I listened to the life I had lived the past forty-eight hours. I listened and watched while the tears of a mother ran down her cheeks like fast rain. I listened and heard the quiet of my youngest daughter who normally has no use for anything related to silence. I listened and felt the one eye open/one eye shut mode of sleeping that we had participated in all night long. I listened and saw a brother and sister hold back their sister's long auburn hair as her body heaved.
And in all that listening, I started hearing voices in my head:
Well, maybe you weren't praying hard enough?
Hard enough? You're kidding, right? We knocked on heaven's door until our knuckles bled.
Well, maybe there's junk in your own life clogging the lines and you need to take care of that first?
What, so God won't move unless the lines are clear? If that were the prerequisite, nothing would ever happen.
Well, maybe it was a test. God won't put more on you than you can handle, you know.
Excerpted from Know When To Hold 'Em by JOHN BLASE. Copyright © 2013 John Blase. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. The Work of your Hands,
2. Response-able Fathering,
3. Chancey Faith,
4. Stay Close,
5. Listening and Silence,
6. Making Space for Sad,
7. Time Out #1,
8. Making the Cut,
9. What a Boy Needs,
10. The Needs of the Many,
11. A Different Road,
13. The Father Dream,
14. My Father's Gift,
15. The Vow,
16. But Sometimes,
17. Fully Naked, Almost Ashamed,
18. Lucky Ones,
19. Today Is Today,
20. Everything to Heart,
21. Replacement Costs,
23. Lost and Found,
24. Again and Again,
25. Time Out #2,
27. Madonna and Child,
28. Yesterday's Time,
29. New Year's Eve,
30. A Real Boy,
31. A Good Man,
32. Five Things,
33. Time Out #3,
34. I Love You,
35. Softly and Tenderly,
37. Great Responsibility,
38. What I Want You to Know,
39. The Old Ones,
40. Don't Forget Us,
41. Your Life,
42. Upon My Oldest Daughter's Confirmation,
43. Days that Built Me,
44. A Father's Prayer,
45. Saturday Evenings,