I don’t want to be the angry parent, shouting at our kids to behave, attempting to out-loud them to get them to comply.
Too often, I am that parent, and I regret it.
This is what brings me to my morning meditations and my attempts to be present with both the chaos and the calm that comes with raising three young children and a puppy.
To see our oldest son, Riley, cower while I shout is neither rewarding nor effective.
Once, when the youngest two were already crying, the puppy was chewing on a matchbox car, and Riley wouldn’t pick up the toys before dinner, I screamed to be heard and taken seriously.
Riley shouted back, put his hands on his hips and stomped his foot.
We all feel the need to be heard.
But after the worst of the shouting, I can’t qualify the exchange as successful for either one of us. So later when I was putting Riley to bed, I confided that I made a mistake.
“I’m sorry for shouting at you, I wish I hadn’t done that. You know I love you so much.”
He put his warm hands on my cheeks and with his face close to mine, he was painfully earnest.
“I still love you, papa.”
“I will always love you, kiddo.”
“I love you and I like you.”
Riley, at 4, teaches me lessons in being present, every day.
On a calmer morning, while I was dressing Riley for the day, he pointed to the pictures on his Led Zeppelin t-shirt, a souvenir from a work trip to Cleveland.
“Papa, who are these people?”
“This is Robert Plant, and he sings for the band. He is still alive. And this is Jimmy Page, he plays guitar, and he is still alive. This is John Bonham, he played drums for the band, but he isn’t alive anymore.”
In my defense, I sometimes forget that Riley is only 4. As a parent, it’s like forgetting that you’d left clothes in the washer overnight.
“He isn’t alive?”
And so it began.
These kids, they find the thing that will make you least comfortable in an otherwise anodyne conversation and glom onto it. The questions won’t stop here.
“What happened to him?”
I realized my error and course-corrected to avoid telling the truth…any answer was better than ‘alcohol-induced asphyxiation’, right?
“He wasn’t wearing his seatbelt.”
And that’s how you share a life lesson with a 4-year-old.
He hugs me and tells me to always wear my seat belt.
The love in this gesture, the open-armed, unabashed vulnerability of this moment, it can only exist because moments of chaos happen too.
Over the course of the next week, when the dog had fallen asleep in her bed, when nap-time had taken everyone but him, Riley asked me about death.
I’m not a maudlin character and I don’t have an unhealthy obsession with death. I certainly didn’t intend to introduce the concept to our 4-year-old. My answer was simply:
“It’s when you aren’t anymore.”
And then I shifted the subject to cleaning up the toys before dinner.
A week later, I overheard Riley talking to my mom, and he was wearing the shirt again and pointing to Bonham and telling her that we must always wear our seatbelts.
Days later, he was in his car seat while I drove the two of us to my sister’s house to celebrate a cousin’s 16th birthday, some rock song played on the radio, and he begged, as he does, for Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.” I skipped to his song, and immediately filled my head with my “to do” list, commitments and plans for the week.
“Papa, I need to be forever.”
But my mind was busy ticking off the number of post-party chores, like bathing the kids, emptying the dishwasher, feeding the dog and on and on.
“I need to be forever.”
“What do you mean?”
…and the toys we didn’t finish putting together post-Christmas, the sitter situation for Friday, our refrigerator’s current vegetable status…
“I need to live forever so that I can always tell you that I love you.”
Nothing much mattered now but this present moment.
I pulled into my sister’s driveway and outside of the car I crouched down and combed Riley’s hair with my hand and I watched his face, his eyes. Neither of us said anything, we didn’t need to.
Then we hugged and his fingers tickled the hair on the back of my head, gently patting it. He knows how to give a good hug. I wondered if I could hold this moment forever, these small arms, this warm little body, the tickling fingers wandering the back of my head.
The chaos invites the calm, it makes the calm worth it, gives it value it wouldn’t otherwise have.
When his arms opened up I fell out of them and knew that we couldn’t have anything forever, but we should keep what we could from the storm for at least a little while.