Friday, February 10, 2012

Learning to Say Yes

“Daddy! Is he going to break the ceiling?”
“No,” I said to my older son, “He’ll probably break his foot first.”

I didn’t know what would happen, or what to do, honestly. I had tried physically restraining my younger son at other times and that was no good. And now he was out of control. Physically, emotionally. And at some level I felt he needed to let it out. Get the anger out. He had good reason to be angry. Life had gotten complicated really fast. Though it had been more than a year since Mom died, it takes a time, sometimes, to access that anger. Plus in August, when this all started, we had just moved out of our house, into a rental, and my girlfriend moved in. Our house was being renovated. School was starting. A lot was going on.

So I just sat there and watched him. As he lay in his bed, with the sloped attic roof just above him, he methodically and loudly pounded the ceiling with the heel of his foot.

“I hate you!”
“I hate you!”

It was a bad night.

Then, to my dismay, I watched him kick a hole clean through the ceiling. I really didn’t think he could. He is strong, but only six. And plaster is pretty tough, but it turned out to only be fiber board. It was thin. We were in a circa late 1950s house, in an attic turned bedroom, and that is what it was made of. And pieces of it and blown-in insulation fell on his bed and onto the floor.

My son was angry. Very angry. And would rage at times. He would make serious threats about wishing someone were dead. He’d beat up his brother, throw and break things. In general he was very difficult to be around. Constantly argumentative and contrary. It bled over into school. Fights, arguments with the teachers. All our normal tricks stopped working. Rewards for good behavior were of no value. Time-outs, losing privileges? He didn’t care. We were all walking around on eggshells waiting for the next explosion. That a six-year old could command that much respect and control from the whole family was, in hindsight, curious, at a minimum.

We started family counseling and that seemed to be helping some. I met with the schoolteacher and the guidance councilor at his elementary school. That seemed to help. Some.

But one night we were all home and I was sitting at the computer doing something, I don’t even remember. Work? Email? Facebook? Idle surfing? My son comes up to me and asks me if I wanted to play with him. Play? ‘Play’ was no longer the word with my son. In was not ‘play’ but an ordeal. He had to win or he’d throw a tantrum. If something didn’t go his way he complain we were cheating. It didn’t matter the game. Uno, checkers, ball, board games. It was hardly fun. And I was tired. I just wanted to sit there and stare at my computer. It was evening, I’d poured my scotch and I just wanted to sit there. Not be bothered. And the words were forming in my mind, “not now, I’m busy, maybe later,” when something jolted me. Another thought pushed through the fatigue and frustration and alcohol.

“John, you say ‘no’ a lot to your boys. A lot.”

And that is when I first became aware. Really aware of the distance between my boys and me. I had always prided myself as being an active and present father. I was always there for my boys. Present. Really there for them. But then flashbacks awakened my dulled synapses – ballgames when I’m checking email on my iPhone, pushing them on the swing while I run through the list of things I ought to be doing, at work, at home, moments of resentment when I wasn’t really able to enjoy being with them because I thought I should be doing something else. Just being with them turned out to be hard. I realized how much of the parenting, the close emotional parenting had been done by Amy. I was there, of course, but not really there.

And then I came back to the moment, staring at the computer. I exhaled and turned to my son, “yes, sure, let’s play something.”

Since it was dark, so we opted to play catch, inside, with a beanbag. He sat at one end of the couch and I sat in a chair across the room. And we just sat there and tossed a beanbag back and forth, back and forth, for about an hour and a half. Through that time I kept having these moments feeling I should be doing something else. Reading something, writing something, cleaning something, making a list. Something else. I realized I was perpetually distracted and how difficult to be in the present moment with my sons. My own children. It was easy to say they were truly the most important things in my life. Of course they are. What else do you say? But I was noticing the distance between saying it and living it, every moment.

And it was that day when I realized I needed to learn how to say ‘yes’ to my boys. Whenever they asked. The answer had to include ‘yes.’ Somehow, someway. I gradually became aware of the pattern for me – end of the day, getting ready for dinner, pour myself a drink, and let the warmth of the alcohol fill in the cold places. It was simple, really. And it made it easy to just slip away to somewhere. I could still function, and help with homework, and get them to bed. But I wasn’t really there. Not really. I was somewhere else.

It’s been about three months since that game of beanbag toss. I think we are doing better. We are back in our house, my girlfriend is steadily integrating herself into our family, and we into hers. Family counseling is helping. But I now see myself differently than I did before. I see a man who had become distant from his children. I wonder if I would have realized this had Amy lived. And that makes me sad. I don’t know the answer to that, nor do I think I ever will. I suspect, and it pains me, but I fear I would not have. At least not when I did. Maybe when they were older. Maybe all grown up with children of their own would I realize how little I really knew them. How emotionally distant we had grown, and how little I was really there for them. Amy would have continued to be the primary emotional connection for the boys. And I’d been there, mostly, physically, in the background. Ready to drive them somewhere while I thought of other things.

About a dozen years ago I went to a weekend seminar on Buddhism. There were teachings and meditations. One of the teachers remarked, “When I cook my rice, I cook my rice. When I eat my rice, I eat my rice. When I clean my bowl, I clean my bowl.”

I understand that differently now. And I see how hard that is. We are still stepping out into our new lives and it is a constant struggle. I still want to have that sip of scotch, or two, or three. I still feel the tug to all the things I “ought” to do. It’s still there. But there is something else there now too, competing for attention. I sure hope it wins.


  1. That is completely brilliant. Well done! :)

    It really is hard to be present in the moment.

    1. Thanks, Hira, I really appreciate the comment.

  2. John,
    I saw the movie The Descendents last night - have you seen it? The things you write about here are the same issues the dad in the movie is facing w his kids. Check it out. It is sad, but life-affirming.

    Rachel (Hardwick)

  3. Thanks, Rachel, for the movie referral. I had not heard of the movie, but just added it to our Netflix queue though they haven't published a date when it'll be available. And after reading the synopsis (widowed father, distant relationships to kids) I'm ok waiting for it to come out on DVD.

  4. Thank you for reminding me to say yes to my two teenaged daughters more often. My wife died three weeks ago and your blog is a comfort to me.

  5. I'm so sorry to learn of your wife's death. I'm glad you find comfort here. You are in my thoughts and prayers. Keep holding your children. Through them and your love, will your wife live.