Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Chain

Yesterday I was off, so I had the chance to drive my boys to school. On the way in, my ten year old mentioned a problem he was having. I won't plaster it on the Internet, because I respect the little guy's privacy as much as anyone else's, but we talked a little and he seemed okay -- he even changed the subject on his own.

When I got home, my wife informed me he had been talking about it to her, earlier. She told me he had been visibly upset. It was a bigger problem than I had thought. Had I blown the chance to help him on his way in?

I was on familiar ground -- in that place of knowing my boy has to fight some of his own battles, but wanting to save him from pain.

To use an American football metaphor, I don't feel the urge to carry the ball for him, like a lot of parents do; I just  want to be his blocker -- to knock away opponents so he can score touchdowns. But sometimes, even that is too much. He needs to build his own character. He needs to take some hits.

That's easy to say.

So, I found myself in the unaccustomed weekday-morning surroundings of my own home. All I could think about was my son. I paced. I leaned my forehead on window panes a looked out on the quiet neighborhood. An old man walked by with his tiny grandson in a wagon, both of them puffing white clouds of breath into the cold air.

Was my boy in the problem situation yet? How was he handling it?

I pictured him playing happily in the safety and comfort of our living room, in pyjamas and white-socked feet, under a roof where everyone loves him and everyone is kind to him and everyone respects his intelligence and his sense of humor and his creative mind. I thought of him as a baby, sleeping on my chest and then remembered him giggling ecstatic toddler giggles as we knocked down a block-tower we had built. I saw him sleeping, his face empty of worry and the anxieties he is so prone to.

But now he has to take his own hits. Very easy to say.

I wandered around for a little like a handyman zombie and did a few things that needed doing. Before long I found myself in the garage. I forgot why I had walked in when I saw his bike.

The chain had come off, again. This keeps happening.

I flipped the bike over, choking back emotion, jaw clenched tight, trying to imagine what he was doing in school at that moment. I had to get the chain to stick this time. He shouldn't have to have a bike whose chain keeps falling off, not as long as I can do something about it.

The problem is, I'm not exactly the greatest mechanic.

I loosened the back tire and pulled it back so that the chain was taut. I clenched the tire with white knuckles on one hand and tightened the bolts with a ratchet in the other. I had to make it stay there -- had to tighten the bolts as much as possible, because I didn't want the chain falling off when he was away from home. But I knew that too much torque would strip the nut, and then the chain would never stay on, so I stopped and wondered for awhile if I should give it one more turn. I decided against it.

If the chain fell off, it was my fault and no one else's.

When I was finished, I looked at the bike resting on its kickstand. I looked at it for a long time. Then, jaw still clenched tightly, I turned off the light in the garage. I'd done my best. I think I did, anyway.

"I did my best." That's easy to say; harder to believe.


  1. The fact that you care enough to second guess what you're doing for your son and taking the time to really consider what you can do to properly help him through this life lesson speaks volumes.

    Whether or not the chain stays on doesn't matter, because you've taught the boy how to walk on his own if it doesn't.

  2. Your son is a lucky boy! And I agree with Sara...he has been given all the skills to make it in the cruel world. At some point, we have to let go, just a little, and watch from the window. Personally, I'd much rather keep my crew in a protective bubble, but we know we just can't do that forever. Your son has an amazing family he can run to when he needs help! And he WILL!

    1. Thanks very much, Carmen. He does open up to us, which is really important.

  3. And THAT is partly why I could never handle having kids, folks. Aye aye aye. He'll be OK. And you will too. ;)

    1. People should think hard before they go into being parents. I'd still do it, because if the pain can be great, the joy can be three-times as powerful. But, people should think, because everything is exponentially more emotional than one expects...

  4. You may have more times like this but, believe it or not, (and this is based on my similar experience, although I've never attempted bicycle maintenance), he will, eventually, be absolutely fine. And you will look back, amazed, because for a very long time, that didn't seem even a remote possibility.

    1. That quite reassuring, Z. I used to wander around a lot, thinking, when I was a teenager. I'm sure I looked suicidal to my parents. (They've since told me of their worries at the time.)I suppose parental love amplifies perception. I hope so.