Saturday, April 18, 2020

Learning About Love and Loss

In the past few years, there have been several things that fueled the balanced development of my son’s emotions.  We do our best to encourage disciplined thought, but not detachment from the joys and pain that come with living.  I suppose as parents we don’t really know how we’re doing until our kids have matured and we see how they deal with various situations in life.  In Paul’s case, there have been events that highlight to me how he’s developing a strong emotional balance, and a kind heart.  First a real-world event, then I’ll share his reaction to scenes from two movies.

Until we bought the two Corgis we currently own, every dog Steph and I have had in the years we’ve been married have been rescues.  Jazz was an odd mutt with a strong personality.  She was never mean to Paul, but she never really liked him.  We’re not completely sure why, because she was also legitimately protective of him if she felt someone or something was a threat.  Overall, she preferred for him to just leave her alone.  We rescued Jazz from a vet, where she was abandoned along with several other puppies from the same litter.  As Paul got older, it troubled him that Jazz didn’t really care for his company.  He did his best not to irritate her, and was fantastic at accepting it was best that he just pet her when she’d tolerate it.  She had no patience at all when he’d try to snuggle her.  As she got older, she got grumpier.  Late in life she contracted cancer and finally the time came that we needed to end her suffering.  We set the appointment with the vet, leaving time to allow Paul to say goodbye to her at home.  While we gave him the option to come along, it didn’t surprise us he preferred not to.  The time came for him to say goodbye, and our hearts were warmed that she let him sit down on the floor with her, give her very warm, big and gentle hugs—he all but held her in his arms—and then he spoke quietly and calmly to her.  His words broke our hearts.  Tears quietly ran down his cheeks and after several kisses and hugs, he whispered:  “Dream of me, and walk with me in your dreams.”  Steph and I were wrecked at his poise and maturity, and the love he continued to show a dog that didn’t really love him.  He sent her off well, and we couldn’t have been prouder of him.

In 2012 we took Paul to see the movie “Rise of the Guardians”.  We’re not sure, but we think he still believed in most of the magical “guardians” that surround childhood—Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, etc.  This movie was about the spirit behind these stories, and put a cool perspective on what kids can learn from them, by gently reenforcing that what they represent continues on with those who believe.  Meanwhile, those who quit believing may very well also lose an appreciation for what the actual point was—caring, giving, etc.  At the time Paul saw the movie, he was having periodic nightmares.  As kids do, he would wake up afraid, then need to seek out Stephanie and I to quiet his nerves and remind him the nightmares aren’t real.  A big part of the storyline of the movie revolved around the rational and confident defeat of nightmares.  This spoke loudly to Paul and convinced him he needed to continue to believe in the positive aspects of these characters, and to purpose not to fear the bad dreams that come from uncertainty and an active imagination.

At the end of the move, we asked him what he thought.  Paul said, “Some tears were shed because now I know they (the Guardians) will always be in my heart.”  There were a few tears during the movie, and he was right on the edge of tears when he said that. The message of the movie had a real impact on him and I think it surprised him how empowered he felt to know he is in control.  It was all him. He told us a little later they were happy tears because he knew that as long as he believes, the Guardians will always be in his heart. 

Then just recently we let Paul watch the western Tombstone with us.  He quickly got into the characters, the point of the story, and the action (of course).  Late in the movie, Doc Holliday is at the end of his life.  Laying in the sanitarium in Colorado, he’s dying, and the scene comes when he orders Wyatt Earp to go away.  Wyatt respects his friend’s wishes and as Doc lays there alone, the camera angle lets you look from the end of the bed, past his feet to his face.  Doc quietly says “I’ll be damned; this is funny.”  What isn’t explicitly stated is that he’s lost feeling in his feet as a sign of his imminent death.  While it’s clear to any adult watching that he dies, they don’t really emphasize this.  Paul knew what happened, and was weeping for this antihero, as he appreciated the gravity of the scene.  He also grasped this was the end of the relationship of respect and deep friendship between these two men—the same as the loss of a family member as the story is told.

In the end, we’re so proud of the balance Paul is developing across all things in his life.  As all parents do, we constantly assess where he is with all facets of life, and balance between sheltering him and overexposing him to things.  We seek to find and stay on that line where we’re doing our best to develop him into a young man of reason, who isn’t afraid of his emotions, but isn’t driven by them alone.  These little instances, in this case related to love and loss, give us little hints we might be succeeding.

It’s great to be a dad!

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Campouts! (Sort of...)

"Secret" campouts!

Until very recently, they were a thing, and my son loved having them.   The only reason they’ve stopped is because he’s outgrown his interest in them.  What are these, you might ask?  They’re totally easy and fun dad and lad events, and for us, they were my son’s creation.

All this began when he was toddler.  He was sick and I ended up sleeping in his room next to his crib on the floor whenever he was sick enough to warrant an extra set of eyes or ears nearby.  Honestly, I have to admit more often, I was a nervous dad and wanted to be close to him as he slept, in case he needed something.  I’d have felt horrible if he was in some sort of real distress and I didn’t know it.  But the original idea was his—a fun way for him to have company while I got to monitor him.  As time passed (and I settled down as a new parent), the need to be right with him when he was sick diminished.  But across those early years, he became aware that there were times when he was sick that he’d wake up and find me sleeping in his room nearby.  That’s when the fun began.  He started asking for me to come sleep in his room just because he wanted the company—not because he was sick.  A quick tangent here:  other than by very rare exception (less than you can count on one hand), he has never been allowed to sleep in our bed with us.  We’ve always wanted him to know he has his own bed, and to feel comfortable in it.  So this wasn’t replacing anything like that.

This little arrangement turned into a game we began playing.  He’d tell me to tell Steph that I had “computer work to do”, then I’d bring my pillow and sleeping bag into his room and we’d hang out while he fell asleep.  Funny thing was, we went for several years where I’m pretty sure he really thought Steph had no idea that we were having a “secret campout”.  We enjoyed letting him think this way.  It made the whole thing more exciting: more dramatic.  More years passed, and he figured out there was really nothing secret about the whole thing, but we continued to play the game.

Here’s what it’s become, and what we do.  It would be bedtime and we’d tuck him in.  Most recently, then he would text me and asked for a secret campout (or an SCO).  When it’s bedtime for me, I’ll head back to his room and gently wake him up to let him know I’m there.  Sometimes he’ll want to talk about any number of things, but talk or not, he’d always end up sound asleep again within a very short amount of time.  These little SCOs became a wonderful way to continue fostering that special bond between the two of us:  moments of trust, comfort and fun.

Maybe more significant in the long run are the “regular campouts” we have.  These aren’t actual outdoor campouts either though.  (Some day I hope we get to share those too.  He’s a bit reluctant to be that close to nature, although I see his curiosity and sense of adventure starting to overshadow his uncertainty.)  Instead, we gather up a couple sleeping bags and pillows, make some popcorn, grab some sodas, and head back to the playroom for some solid dad-n-lad time.  We play video games and usually end up watching something of mutual interest on Netflix or Amazon.  We tell jokes and make all the sounds and grunts that boys make when we know we’re not going to get “that look” from mom.  And these also became the times when he felt he can talk to me about anything because he knows the time is protected.

When we do this, the playroom becomes the best fort ever, or a spaceship, or a secret base—any place he wants it to be where we’re alone together.  Now he’s moved through the pre-teen years, and as an early teenager, the secret campouts have all but ended.  He’s older and busier, and has interests that hold his attention in the evening other than time with me.  But he still talks about our SCOs, and for the most part, we’ve replaced them with occasional dad and lad outings for lunch or dinner.  As he continues to grow and mature, my hope is our dedicated times together continue through other activities.  What I’ll always work to protect is what really has been behind our SCOs for so many years:  dedicated time for the two of us deepen our relationship as father and son.  Both Stephanie and I have done our best to let him know he’s always allowed to talk to us about anything, individually or together, and that those conversations are safe.  For these years so far, and for the years to come, we’ll do what we can to reinforce and encourage that kind of open communication for those times when it’s needed.

It’s great to be a dad!