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Fatherhood Is For Moments Like This

Monday, 23 September 2013



Be My Monster - Sleeper Agent (mp3)

The scream flooded through the mesh screen into our living room. We heard our son's terror before we knew its origin. In those moments, a parent cannot help but feel that primal protective surge.

Our five-year-old whirling dervish of a boy, which is to say a "normal" Kindergartener, had been alone on our deck, forced to the timeless family consequence of sitting at the table, after everyone else has left, until he ate "enough" of his dinner, which is to say more than three frappin' bites.

We milled around inside, cleaning dishes and preparing for the TV to welcome professional football into our evening's plans while he sat imprisoned by his food but living in the boundless universe of childhood imagination where distraction is not an option but a necessity, a place even adults with photographic memory have long lost without the use of hallucinogens. My son is -- and I'm not doting here, rather merely observing -- constantly in imaginary fight or flight. His daydreams, fueled admittedly by occasional forays into the LEGO versions of Batman or Star Wars, involve light sabers and mortal enemies but also teamwork and kickass modes of transportation.

His emotions fly at the same lightspeed as his Lego spaceships. The slightest injury, suffered in the comfort of home and hearth, can inspire such shrieks as to shatter windows and leave Lou Diamond Phillips' Young Guns overacting in the dust. The corniest Daddy joke, the kind for which not even Ed McMahon could guffaw, can leave my son in stitches, crumpled to the floor in genuine amusement. It's funny even after the 25th repetition.

When a third child screams in terror, the first few milliseconds possess us with an instinctive need to protect, defend, rescue, because that is our first and foremost calling as parents. But then we remember he is a third child, that he is five, that he -- no, that we -- can be prone to overreaction.

In response to his terror-shriek, I got down on one knee, hands gently taking him by the shoulders (because that's what all great parenting books say!), and asked him to calm down. Are you hurt? Nuh-uh. Are you scared? Yuh-huh. Of what?

"A monster! (sniff breath sniff snort breath) A monster attacked me!" Out there? On the deck? Yuh-huh. Like, just now, right out there? Yuh-huh.

I took him into my arms and walked toward the doors, and he screamed in bloody panic, as if I were about to thrust him back into the television set with Carol Anne. I paused and asked him to breathe for me.

Do you think I would hurt you? Nuh-uh. Do you think I can protect you? (pause) Yuh-huh. Will you go out with me and protect me too? (longer pause) Please? Can we go out together? (pause) Yuh-huh.

Sniffling, he clung to my neck, and we stepped into the open air. He shrieked a bit and pointed to the corner of our deck, where a cicada clung to our wall. I told him what it was called. I said it didn't bite. It can't hurt us.

As if on cue, and drawn by our skepticism, the monster flew at us. Well, it flew in our direction and slammed into the doorway and then bounced off and flew into my shoulder, where it buzzed and flapped. In a rare moment of self-control, and realizing the parenting lesson at stake, I bit halfway through my cheek and kept my calm.

See, son? We're fine.

Then the cicada flew off me and directly into a corner spiderweb. It was barely even caught, but it just stopped. I'm pretty sure it was dying, basically flying drunk and ready to give up, and I told my son all of this. I tapped it with my finger, and it easily broke free and flew away. The lesson required rescuing the monster to prove the point, even if only to let it die somewhere else in mere minutes.

This event did not create a fearless child, nor is it a moment of fatherly bravery. It was a slowpitch softball in the strike zone, and I hit it. As parents, we don't get many of these easy winners, when we can teach a lesson, calm an irrational and primal fear, simultaneously instruct and soothe. It's taken me three children to appreciate how rarely we are given these opportunities.

Then he asked if he could keep one as a pet. And I said no. And he started crying again.

My work here is done. For today...

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