Friday, April 20, 2012

River and Pond

We accept stuff all the time; we just sit back and take a "that's the way it is" attitude.

Gradgrind and Bounderby
I hate that. I also hate the fact that in order to break away from that "that's the way it is" situation, we wind up having to be less like salmon swimming upstream than like goldfish trying to swim up into a full-blasting fire hose.

But "that's the way it is" doesn't mean "the way it is" is okay. It might be insurmountable, but that doesn't make it right.

For instance, we all have to work. "That's the way it is." We all get subjected to grueling days of hard work and job-related stress. Lunch just ain't free. That's all there is to it.

But there is something really wrong about this.

Last night, my eight-year-old son was having a hard time with his allergies. He's got them pretty bad. He was coughing and sneezing in bed. He also doesn't like when his brother, in the bunk below him, falls asleep first. It makes him feel lonely . . .

. . . but yesterday, in school, I had to bear the usual amount of springtime stress: I'm making next year's schedule; it's time to select the valedictorian and salutatorian; it is time to put out a list of students who are academically ineligible for sports participation; it's time to notify parents whose kids are probably going to go to summer school. For each of these activities, stressful as they are within themselves, I will also suffer the usual attacks from people who think I have done something wrong or that I have done something with an evil agenda or who think I am an incompetent fool. This is the time of the year, as my wife put it a few weeks ago, that I start to "wither." I'm tired and I am up to the eyeballs with stress.

But, "that's the way it is." You have to pay the bills.

After a day in a series of days like this, I was faced with a sad, sneezing son. At nine forty-five, PM. I heard him crying upstairs. I got angry. I got angry because I was already stressed and I didn't need this at nine-forty five when I was supposed to be able to relax for the day. I went angrily upstairs.

"Sleeping Child" by Bernardo Strozzi
I asked him what he was crying about. He told me. I told him he was being ridiculous. He would fall asleep if he would just stop worrying about it. He would stop coughing when the allergy medicine kicked in. The spooky light on his ceiling was there every night from the lights on the deck behind our house, so he should stop whining about it. I would be coming up to bed soon, so, even if he was awake, he wouldn't be "alone" up there for long. He needed to stop being absurd.

I left his room and went back downstairs. His sniffling faded with each step I took away from his room.

I tried to sit and watch TV for a minute and, then, I started feeling guilty. And angry. Not at my son, this time, but at "the way it is." How can it be right that the things I "have to do" should be able to make me impatient with my little boy who is feeling anxious and alone? How can that be right?

It's not right, but "that's the way it is." To hell with the way it is.

I kissed my wife goodnight and went upstairs, a half-hour before my bedtime. I leaned my chin on the edge of his upper bunk. "Hi, Dad. I still can't sleep," he said, sniffling softly between syllables.

To hell with the way it is, I thought.

I rubbed his back and smoothed the little white T-shirt. "I'm going to bed right now, Pal," I told him. "I'll be in the room right next to you, so you won't be alone up here."

"Dad, do you fall asleep fast or slow?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, what if you fall asleep before I do?"

I wasn't angry anymore. There were not any schedules or angry parents or angry teachers in my world anymore. The rushing river was a pond. The fire hose was silent. "I won't," I said. "I will stay awake until I know you are asleep."


"I promise."

A deep, sob-haunted breath. "Okay."

After a half hour of reading in my room, I checked on him. He was breathing easily and sleeping a child's sleep.

I went to bed. You have to get your rest for the next day's hard swim.


  1. It has been some time since I've written a response here, for a variety of reasons; this post, however, requires me to respond. Simply put, this observation, as colored by the personal story of you and your son, reflects almost all of my beliefs about work and how work affects and even alters the intended timbre of life.

    I loved this post more than I can reasonably express. I appreciate your gift for manifesting thoughts and emotions into words.

    ~ Matt

  2. Thanks, Matt. I'm glad to hear from you again and I'm even more glad this post hit home with you. Chalk it up to optimism: consider it a message that the things one considers in one's twenties he can still consider when he is in his forties. I'm still determined to live life for the right things. Never give up.