The picture of the shoes above is evidence of an experience I had a few weeks ago. It was one of those experiences that brings you to the limit of your own sanity. Actually, I am surprised at how short the path can be from here (the normal, sane and rational world) to that crazy place where only a parent can go.
I’m learning how to be a good dad. And, as time goes on, I actually think I’m getting better at it. I haven’t taken my three-year-olds on any more four-wheeling adventures, and that’s got to be a sign of improvement. Right?
But, some days, I am strikingly aware of just how much further along the road of “being a good dad” I have yet to travel. Consider, for example, my most recent experience with our youngest son, Erick. He’s just thirteen months old. But, even at his young age, he and I have been having a sort of – father and son duel. Its been going on for the last several months. I’m not kidding. Now, I’m sure you might be asking, “How is it possible, for a rational adult to be in a duel with a one-year old?” And, in the place I am now (normal, sane, rational) it sounds a little ridiculous to me, too. But, when I find myself at my wits end, having what I will simply call a “parent moment” with one of my kids, particularly with my son Erick, as silly as it sounds, it really is a duel.
The thing is, Erick doesn’t really like his daddy yet. I’m not really all that panicked about it, because I figure its kind of normal given that that large majority of his life, up to this point, has been spent at the side of his mother. At this point, he just barely tolerates me as some sort of inconvenient stranger who periodically intrudes into his otherwise peaceful life. Let me see if I can explain.
If his mom is holding Erick, he’s usually happy, smiling and quietly interested in the goings on around him. The goings on can even include me, because if I’m nearby its like I’m just another part of the world he’s exploring with his penetrating glance. From a distance, I get smiles from Erick, and I’m even convinced he can already say “da da.” So, that’s all pretty normal right? Well, as soon as I pick him up, and hold him in my arms, a very disconcerting oddness beings. It usually doesn’t take more than about fifteen seconds before he starts to squirm, then whine and in maybe thirty seconds, its progresses to a full on cry. Soon, if I don’t immediately put him down, the cry becomes a heavy bawling, interrupted only by his sporadic breathing and frantic turning this way and that. I really think that in the middle of this monstrous fit, inside he’s very rationally trying to see if his mother hears him and is on her way to the rescue him from the monster known as “da da.” Anyway, if he doesn’t get his way quickly, in a matter of just a few minutes, he is straight out screaming at the top of his lungs, as if sending some sort of universal distress signal to anyone within ear shot, communicating that he’s afraid for his life and that I might just be the cause of the end of his world – and theirs.
Seriously, no matter what I’ve tried, it’s not uncommon from him to be in my arms (previously happy, smiling and peaceful) and in less than sixty seconds he’s screaming uncontrollably at increasing levels of both volume and intensity. Its during this kind of, “I’m absolutely convinced I’m gonna die, so someone please come save me” tirade that I find myself rapidly transported to that parental “crazy place” I mentioned earlier. I mean, at first it didn’t bother me too much. I pride myself on thinking that I possess at least reasonable intelligence. But, my IQ seems no match for this boy. And, as embarrassing as it sounds when I write these words, it really drives me crazy. At such moments, it is as if reason escapes my brain and I start having this conversation inside my head. In these conversations I’m talking like Bill Cosby. “Look here boy, I brought you into this world and I’ll take you out!” Now, of course, I’ve never really said that out loud. On a side note, even that statement is irrational, given that Erick is adopted, so I didn’t technically bring him into this world. Anyway.
Now, when I say “crazy,” and “irrational,” I know it’s a bit risky sharing at this level of candor, given all the rabid socialists and government bureaucrats out in the world secretly plotting to disrupt the life of The Free Capitalist. Obviously, I’m trying to be dramatic for rhetorical effect. (That’s for you, Mr. or Mrs. regulator). But, truthfully, when I say crazy, I don’t mean violent crazy, I mean like “no connection to the sane world, crazy.” Have you ever wondered if your infant or toddler child possesses the magical or mystical ability to sense deep inner defect in your soul, and that the reason he is crying and acts like he hates you is because he can sense that you might really be an alien – or something? Okay, maybe its just me.
Look, I rationally know that there are a number of completely plausible explanations for his behavior (that don’t necessarily involve me being some kind secret inner Barney the Dinosaur hater, or anything – did I just admit that?). But, somehow it is my experience with this one little boy that uniquely sends me (Mr. Rational) slipping helplessly down that one-way track to the crazy place. Even as I write this, I’m not convinced I’m quite capturing the essence of what has been going on between me and my boy. The thing is, there are times when I am almost convinced that he’s actually waging some kind of personal war with me, intentionally creating these attention getting protests just to drive me crazy and embarrass me in public, giving him some sort of strange satisfaction like only a rebellious teenager could understand. He looks so cute, you wouldn’t imagine anything sinister going on in his mind, but he’s a rebellious little guy, I’m serious.
Lest the reader think this is all my imagination, just a few weeks ago Erick and I were going through our father-son ritual (like I’ve described above) in the church foyer, when one of our good friends, who happens to be female, came strolling by. She must have discerned the desperate, “I really think this kid hates me,” look on my face, because she offered to hold him for a minute. As I quickly passed him over to her, I was thinking to myself, “Lady, I’m glad for your help, but really, you have no idea what you’re in for, because unless this kid gets his mommy in about t-minus two minutes and counting, he will mysteriously rob you of your sanity, your dignity and your willingness to remember that you are indeed an adult on planet earth.” Now that I think about that, I’m sure its some kind of magic spell.
Well anyway, do you know what happened next? Seriously, as soon as his trembling hands – when he gets really dramatic he twists his hands at his wrists with outstretched arms, in some kind of waving fashion, back and forth, back and forth – wow I just realized, this is like his magic little Harry Potter gesture. He’ a wizard.
Okay, sorry about the distractions, as I was saying, as soon as his trembling little hands made first contact with her, he immediately relaxed, straightened up his back, stopped screaming, and turned around to look at me (completely uninvited and unprovoked I might add) and deliberately grinned from ear to ear. Yeah. So. I’m not sure how to put into words the exact expression I would be making right now if we were talking in person. But, suffice it to say she walked away with the happiest kid in the world and I stood there thinking to myself, “Maybe I have some sort of weird-I’m your Dad and we’re gonna go toe to toe someday-energy and this little boy is already trying to get the upper hand in that yet to be formally initiated battle of wills.
Okay, I’ll admit once again that from where I stand now, this all sounds a bit ridiculous. But, when I’m in that crazy place, its all very believable.
So, now, back to the shoes and the secret brotherhood.
It wasn’t more than a hand full of Sundays back, when my wife and I, with our three very cute kids, headed out for church. We were all dressed very nicely-or smartly if you prefer-and we arrived probably thirty minutes early to the meeting. That is a very satisfying victory all by itself, but once again I digress. Everything was going well, the kids were all happy and we were both actually pretty relaxed as we sat there enjoying the calm, peaceful atmosphere listening to the church organists’ prelude music.
But, this particular Sunday, church was going to be a bit different for us. It was a day where Mommy was going to be signing in the choir. How exciting, right?
The cool thing was, she was able to sit with the four of us in the congregation (with me and the kids-just in case you’re not paying attention) until about half way through the program, at which point the plan was that an announcement would be made from the pulpit that the choir would now come forward and perform a special musical number. So, the point is, I wasn’t really that nervous about the situation. I thought to myself, “I can certainly handle all three kids on my own, for at least the length of one hymn, even if it’s a really long hymn, because, I mean-come one, I am their dad after all.” But, as has become the rather usual pattern when I’m wearing my “dad hat,” I sort of miscalculated the challenge.
It was about five minutes before my wife would be heading to the front of the chapel and out of the blue our oldest daughter, who had just recently mastered the whole, “I’m a big girl now, don’t need diapers and can easily tell when I need to go” thing. Sometimes she doesn’t give us a whole lot of warning, but she’s pretty darn good at being serious when its time.
Well, there we were, this nice, normal, and (very importantly) calm and happy family sitting in church, just like everyone else. Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this whole story if it wasn’t obvious that our peaceful Sunday was about to take a serious, Sabbath altering, twist.
Since I don’t feel all that great about taking my daughter into the men’s bathroom, in situations like this I usually try to see if mommy can just do it, leaving me to take care of the two boys. Even though Erick freaks out when he’s alone with me, it doesn’t take mommy and Bethany that long to take care of things, and I figured they could make it back before Erick had fully bewitched me.
But today? Nope, as reasonable as that may sound, it wasn’t meant to be. As I sat there in church, that innocent Sunday morning, I couldn’t have anticipated the initiation I was about to experience.
Mommy and Bethany headed out, and Erick watched desperately and yearningly as his mother abandoned him-to me. When she was out of sight he began, in what was an even quicker than I expected manner, to wage a public protest. I mean seriously, when he does his thing, it’s as if he were a paid lobbyist for the IWW trying to convince the whole world that his dad, the Free Capitalist, was single-handedly exploiting all innocent infants in some diabolical plot to destroy the world.
Of course, I’m doing no such thing. I’m just sitting there, minding my own business, doing all the things desperate dads do when they sense a coming eruption. I’m smiling, I’m talking in the highest falsetto I can manage, and this Sunday, I even tried enlisting the cooperation of my willing two-year-old son Marty, as a “distraction factor.” But, none of it worked.
Even writing this I can feel and see the situation – as if its happening again. Tension building. Within a minute or two, Erick is so worked up that there is some sort of tear soaked saliva draining constantly off his lower lip and chin. His nose is pumping out more problems, in what seems to me a bewildering, physics defying trick of nature. Now, he is starting to push away at my chest with some strange finger-gripping motion, like a falcon trying to sink his talons deep into his enemy, just before flying off. Nothing I’m doing is calming him down, no – not one bit. Marty gives up and for some unexplainable reason, maybe instinct, decides its best to sit down squarely, shoulders back and head straight, arms politely folded, staring at the speaker at the pulpit, almost convincing me that he really is listening to what is being said.
Its about now that I can tell that my trip to the crazy place is rushing ever so close, and is already starting to have its effects. Because, I say to myself, “There is no way my two-year old is going to out smart me in this situation, I’m better than this.” Oh, the futile thoughts of unprepared dads. It finally gets to the point where I have to assent – for my sake, for Erick’s sake, and for the congregation’s sake. Erick wins his political protest. With his head tucked to the side of my face-where between cries I start to worry that perhaps he’s smiling and winking to the people behind us-I decide its best if we just get up and move out into the hallway.
I have two motives. First, I really don’t like the attention. Second, I can’t imagine that this whole family circus routine is making it very easy for those around us to enjoy the service. If it wasn’t for these two concerns, and the fact that I’m trying to do all of this while protecting my newly dry-cleaned suite and one of my favorite silk ties, I’d probably have already forgotten that it was Sunday, since all of those peaceful, reverent feelings have long since escaped in the first few innings of mine and Erick’s epic World Series level rivalry.
So, I stand up, to head out. I look down and Marty seems to have no clue that I’m about to have a small nervous breakdown. Evidently, he also has no idea how desperately I was hopping that he’d just sort of “get it” and start heading to the door. So, I kindly-with all the fatherly affection I can still muster, palm his head with my left hand, turn it deliberately to the isle, and gently move him in that direction – with my right knee pushing very convincingly at his side.
Did I mention that Erick had gotten pretty loud by now? Oh, and did I also mention that we were sitting about two rows back from the very front of the chapel? So by this point in our little sideshow, most in attendance are paying more attention to us than anything else going on at the pulpit – at least that’s how it seemed in my mind. Oh, and one more detail. Right before Michelle and Bethany headed out, Michelle had just finished feeding Erick a six ounce bottle of whatever it is that kids drink at that age that magically turns into bones and hair and finger nails and stuff.
So, I’m sure you can probably put the pieces together. I really think this kid knows how to vomit at will. I also think he is skilled at precision timing. No, really. If he could have waited like thirty more seconds, what was about to happen could have been our little secret. But, alas – I’ll admit, there were no secrets when he won our battle this day.
Right as we got to the edge of the pew – can a Mormon call church benches pews, or is that word reserved for Catholics? Well, anyway, right as we got to the isle and I could actually see the chapel door, feeling certain that we could reach the exit before anything got any worse, Erick started making very violent stomach motions accompanied by those ever so recognizable “Ol’ Faithful is about to erupt-RIGHT NOW!” sounds. For some reason, I misinterpreted the message and decided to hold Erick out away from my shoulder, just a bit. Marty was now headed in the right direction- he escaped all evidence of being involved and I actually had back the use of both of my hands and arms. So, as we started down the isle, I was essentially looking Erick right in the eye. That’s how boys and their Dads are supposed to do it, right?
Six ounces of still warm baby formula shot out, high-pressure like, hitting me right in the center of my face. Turning ever so slightly, it continued to pour down my shoulder, my chest, my silk tie, my pants and miraculously into both shoes. Yes, I said into.
I never have liked the smell of baby formula.
Stunned, I stood there, now with my own chin dripping with gross, gooey baby stuff. I was trying to take inventory of the situation. Now, I’m not sure if this is actually true, but it seems, as I look back through my memories, everything in the church sort of came to a silent standstill. I don’t remember much else about the details, but I do remember nonverbally acknowledging my defeat, bowing my head, and with Erick once again tucked back up against my neck, and Marty now, even unprompted, leading the way-we headed for the door and out into the hallway. I squished as I walked.
As a paused momentarily to look back, disgustingly, we had also left a faint but definite trail that unmistakably told the story of the battle which had just taken place. And, true to form, with his victory sure in hand, Erick had stopped his most serious protesting, and I don’t even think he was still crying. Now, there I was, standing in the very center of the foyer, trying to use the brain in my head (which for some reason had stopped working), and I couldn’t quite figure out exactly what I should do. Thankfully, just in time, here came mommy and Bethany, walking ever so happily up the hallway, turning into the chapel. This of course, was until they saw us.
I think even Bethany could tell that a fierce battle had just been waged, and that from the looks of things, baby brother Erick had won. Without saying much, but shaking her head slowly, and with a look on her face that only started the sentence, “Uh…what…?” Mommy quickly rescued the boy from my grasp and Marty, probably sensing it was safer, took up a position beside Bethany and behind Michelle’s left leg. My shoes were still squishing by the time we got home. So much for church, and choir, and peace.
No one said much in the car, on our drive home. Once we arrived, I washed up, especially my regurgitated-formula soaked goatee. I also changed clothes and said farewell to my silk tie, in consequence of the full scale drenching that made material recovery essentially impossible. I put on a new suit, one that had not recently been pressed, a shirt that I normally wouldn’t have worn to church and an old pair of shoes that I had actually forgotten were in my closet. Mommy kindly packed me a super large zip-lock bag full of essential cleaning supplies, and I once again left home, headed back to the scene of the battle.
I don’t know if it’s just me or if all guys feel this way, but returning to the exact physical location of a previous defeat (baseball, football, after being turned down after asking a girl out on a date, etc) just does something to you. Whatever it is, its not great.
When I arrived at the meetinghouse, the service was just ending. Without making eye contact with anyone, I quickly slipped past the exiting crowd and made my way to the front of the chapel. I didn’t need the trail, but it was still visible. I went straight to work cleaning, scrubbing, and soaking up all evidence of what had taken place. Somehow I was hoping to go unnoticed in my effort. You see, I don’t like leaving my own messes for others to clean up (that is another story) but even more importantly I was starting to get my rational mind back and was thinking to myself that if I did a really good job cleaning up the mess, maybe not that many people would find out about the morning’s drama.
As I was just about finished scrubbing the most seriously affected area I looked up and noticed another father sitting maybe five or six rows back. He appeared to be taking his time, calmly packing up the whirlwind pattern of toys and other affects evidently left behind by his own children in a battle they too had waged that day. But, his kids were nowhere in sight. He had a mysterious smile on his face, and I could tell he had something he was planning on saying to me. I really wasn’t looking forward to the conversation.
I replaced the now swollen contents of my zip-lock bag and headed out. I had done my duty. Exiting the chapel, however, meant that I had to walk right past this guy. So, full of anxiety and a little embarrassment, I preemptively remarked, “So, I’m not sure how many people saw all this, but I think its all cleaned up now.” With a chuckle and the same smile still on his face, shaking his head he replied. “Well, we saw it, we all saw it. And it was quite a thing to witness.”
“We,” I thought to myself. “Who is we?” Then, it hit me. And, this was the first time I had realized anything like it. At that very moment, it became obvious to me. I had just passed through what must have been assuredly been some sacred initiation ritual for dads. I could feel it. Clueing me in to my newfound position in the ranks of fatherhood, looking back up at me, the same guy nonchalantly confessed,
“Thanks man, you really took one for the team today.”
It was like I was now a part of something, something much bigger than myself. I don’t think I’m really supposed to talk about it, but its safe to say that I now belong to a very special, but secret brotherhood – a sort of father’s fraternity, that I had up until this point in my time as a dad, not yet qualified to even know existed.
Nothing else was spoken between us that day. But, I walked out of the chapel a different kind of dad. I don’t know if it’s my new fraternity, or my willingness to admit such a sound defeat at the hands of a one-year-old, but Erick and I are actually doing pretty now. Today, for example, I think he sat in my lap for exactly five minutes during church. In Sunday School, mommy even left us alone together – if that makes any sense – for maybe another five minutes, and believe it or not, I think we both had a pretty good time. In all seriousness, I love my kids, and I especially love my youngest boy. I also think the “dad hat” is starting to fit a little better.
In the mean time, I still have those shoes in my closet, and I know I should wash them and clean them off, but in some strange way, they seem like a trophy to me. They’re some kind of sign I think, part of the secret initiation ritual, and the team that I so unwittingly “took one” for, that memorable Sunday, not long ago. I’m sure the “Crazy Place” chronicles might still have a few chapters left to be written, but I hope that the trophies of the future don’t squish. I’ve really had my fill of that.