Ah, come on! Is this some sort of joke? I’m tired most of the time. I’m working night and day to make ends meet. I’m neglecting most of the activities that used to define what I would refer to as “me.”
What was it that was choking me by the throat? You’re a family man, shrieked sternly in my head.
I had been a father going on ten years…and it wasn’t getting any easier. In fact, the constant state of responsibility and sacrifice had left me joking with my similarly struggling friends that having children was one of the slickest tricks god could play on his unsuspecting and naïve subjects. Who in their right mind would make a conscious and heedful decision to live in eternal servitude…and for no reward other than to listen to whining, whelping and wailing—and then wanting…needs, needs, needs?
The good part was that I had discovered what at the time I surmised was a universal principle. Everyone I talked with that was experiencing being a dad agreed with my humorous perspective: “This is tough,” was the prevailing opinion. “I love my kids to…death? Am I going to die doing this?”
The sharing of the trials of being a parent helped: the laughter in particular eased some of the tension. I would have been the first person to insist that I wouldn’t trade my role as dad for an after-game sweaty undershirt of Peyton Manning; and wouldn’t have been lying. But deep inside I had doubts. Would I do it over, knowing what I did after taking the leap? I would have. I’m human. I’ve been programmed to stand in line to perform my service to humanity, to perpetuate the species.
That piece of insight still didn’t stop me from searching my mind to find a real life justification for the immense compromise I was making. In the end it wasn’t in my little brain where I’d found the answer. Instead, it was my son—only five years old at the time—who responded to my query, taught his dad a wonderful lesson.
In fact, so powerful was the moment of revelation that I decided to write an entire book about what we learn from our children. I thought I would title it: Lessons From Our Children: Bedtime Stories For Moms and Dads—I never completed it, but my thought was that the stories would be worth a bundle to every young parent.
Well, I did get as far as the first chapter before other obligations stepped in the way of a final product…I might just make it my next book. During the brief period, so long ago, when I did put some effort into writing the piece, my daughter, Sarah, pitched in: she earned credit for the pictures embedded below. So, with trumpets blaring, and no further ado, on with…I’m Number One! It’s the first and only chapter—so far.
Well, the day my making a full peace with my role as a parent occurred, the day my son bestowed his wisdom on me, I was not in a grand mood. It was just one of those dark, gloomy days. We all have them from time to time.
They’re the type where that one thing you could never imagine going wrong does.
Being from Los Angeles, I’m used to traffic but…a fire closed down the entire freeway and I was delayed getting to my office by two hours. There was no way to get off or turn around. I had lots of time to fantasize…was I seeing things?
By the time I pulled into the parking lot at my office, I was frazzled. I took a minute to sneak a peek at myself in the side window, do a self-test, just to see if by chance it wasn’t really me. What I saw was scary. The glass reflected like a mirror. Staring back was another weird looking guy about my age.
He was sneering at me—that’s how I saw it. I screamed. I wanted to run away…but that thought was drowned out by a bugle call waking me to service.
Making matters worse, my therapy sessions that day were dragging. Then as the day wore on, I noticed my stomach ached and my head was dizzy—was I getting a flu? But then out of the fog of what I knew was my distemper a fantasy was born. It labeled itself a wish. I wanted to go home and hide out in the dark. All I was yearning was to steal a few minutes for…me. That desire was rehearsed over and over, right up to me leaving work and then pulling into the driveway of my home. I actually snuck in by the back door, took a deep breath, flung my jacket on the couch, and leaned back. In my mind I begged to an inattentive family audience: “Please, nobody come in screaming about some silly problem.”
I think my hair was standing straight up, electrified from the tension I was trying to discharge.
I had hardly completed the inaudible plea for a little self-composure time when the first entrant, my son, descended on me—it was a crash landing. He obviously had been enacting his own fantasy. He was wearing overalls and looked like a construction worker. In his right hand was a play hammer.
I felt my body transform as I saw him swing it gleefully. I noticed I was losing mobility in my limbs as they tightened like lead. My head thrust upward so fast I felt it shooting for the ceiling.
A nail! Was it my imagination or was he hammering me into the couch? My own son!
“I’m doing a ‘ME’ book at school.” He was pretty enthusiastic, but do you want to know what I was thinking? Can you come back in an hour because if I have to hear another voice, I’m going to…
I didn’t say it. Instead, I sat lifelessly while he straddled me with his restless squirming and wriggling legs. His head was bobbing like a puppet explaining to me about his project. “One section of the book is about someone who is special to me.” He smiled the joy of a thousand Buddy movies. “Do you know who it is, dad?” Speeding forward, he gave me no chance to answer. “It’s you. I’m writing about you!!!”
And if that wasn’t enough, he rattled off why I received the honor. “I’m going to tell about how you play with me in my bed, when you ask how old I am and then you flip me over and then pretend to get mad because I can’t stand on my feet and how you took me to see the heavyweight championship fight with grandpa and Uncle Don and…“
I might have felt down and out at that moment but my son had broken through my mood. That very instant I’m describing is when it hit me. I was a hero to my son.
He cared less about how I was going to be making house payments; meeting car, tuition, insurance, utility, office rent and god knows how many other expenses; they were as meaningful to him as forgetting to brush his teeth.
In his exhilarated and thrilled state, he was telling me something terrifically important; so obvious, so simplistic, so inspiring, yet so easily forgotten. I was the most important person in my son’s life. MY pressures, mundane worries or perceived successes could never stop him from revering me. I was the center of his vast and unlimited universe.
I instinctively recognized that this was The Holy Grail of parenting, the “thing” that makes it all worthwhile. My god, I exclaimed silently. It’s true. It’s better than a burger with crispy fries and a vanilla shake. I knew I’d never forget the lesson, but still I understood it was so important that I wanted to do something to guarantee I wouldn’t. What did I do? I wrote a note: YOU’RE NUMBER ONE!
I had it broadcasted on national television every hour. (That’s 3 % from 100; equals 97% True.)
Just in case, I also placed it carefully in the corner of my dresser drawer where I put my wallet each evening. When I opened it the next day, there it was, a pleasing reminder that no matter how I acted, what I felt, or what I thought, to my children I was tremendously important.
I started paying more attention to when they came to ask me a question, when they went out of their way to sit next to me in a restaurant, glance over and smile during a dance class or express concern if I didn’t seem happy. It might have been my imagination but being attentive to my esteemed title—Dad—seemed to increase the number of instances they were expressing their appreciation of me.
Might the whole experience have been something I imagined? Might it have been another divine trick, to offset the con of getting hoodwinked into the parenting thing in the first place? Nah. Ever since I’ve known in my heart that being a father is the best of the best. If there was anything of a godly ruse played, it was with good intent. I had to grow up, learned to delight in the preciousness of unconditional love, understood that tiny worlds are the sweetest.
Besides, why fight it? There’s no escaping this parenting thing once you start.