My Problem as a Parent

A couple of weeks ago daughter Elena and I lunched on Reubens while grandson Cole chipmunked curly fries.

“Cole,” she said, “swallow your food before you take another bite.”

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Sorry, buddy, but the answer is still “no.”

“My biggest problem as a parent,” I said, “was that I couldn’t watch you suffer.” I had complimented Elena a moment earlier on her heart of flint when Cole pitches fits over major and minor upsets. A distinctive strength is needed to stand clear and let a child, or any loved one for that matter, endure inevitable pain. Elena has got the moxie and nodded in agreement that I don’t.

I never have. There are good reasons, family dysfunction, blah blah blah. But as I stare down the barrel of fifty-four—one highlight of my birthday will be the delivery of new blades for my Panasonic wet/dry electric razor—rummaging through the dynamics of home over two score years ago isn’t on my agenda.

Still, I’ve been doing naval gazing in excess lately, mainly because I’m pulling up vocational roots, leaving the church family I’ve served for fourteen years, and assuming a part-time call starting November 1st. You name the emotion, I’ve got it going. My late father’s favorite song, “Feelings” by Morris Albert, plays in my head. “Feelings, whoa whoa whoa feelings.” Rats!

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Oh, Abiding Hope, I’ll miss you.

Sadness has the upper hand at the moment. During prayer this morning, a sob seemed to be building. When that baby cuts loose, all the handkerchiefs in my drawer won’t handle the tears and snot. Fatigue also has me by the collar. Having a projectile crying jag stuck in your throat is draining.

The point is, I’m raw, looking inward, giving thanks for peeks of goodness, lamenting valleys of deficit—which brings me back to watching loved ones suffer. My favorite quote from Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha touches my feelings:

Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared [the path of suffering]? Perhaps your little son, because you would like to see him spared sorrow and pain and disillusionment? But if you were to die ten times for him, you would not alter his destiny in the slightest.

Same goes for daughters, wives, friends, et. al. While swimming in the river of ambiguity is comfortable, agony plunges me under. I haven’t given up hope of knowing peace in currents of distress, but each passing birthday ups the odds against me.

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Joy visits in the form of lipstick flowers at the house wife Kathy and I are getting ready to sell.

In case you think I’m beating myself up, don’t worry. I just want to be truthful and authentic. No posturing, no rationalization. If I’m full of crap about myself, it won’t be intentional.

And in case you think John’s October days are nothing but whoa whoa whoa, don’t worry. Joy visits frequently, reminding me that my gifts keep pace with shortcomings.

Case study: It’s 7:54 p.m. in the Coleman house, and son Micah (23) and I have been talking about, well, feelings. The conversation consumed forty-five minutes, half of which consisted of his account of anger behind the wheel.

My boy was following a fogey from Wyoming, probably a poor soul for whom Erie may as well have been the D.C. beltway. Micah was pissed. Trying to get from one worksite to another, he could see only his nemesis’ gray hair.

“Breathe in anger,” Micah said. “Breathe out compassion.”

I was quiet. Where the hell did he get this?

He went on: “I was thinking that when you’re old, you’re probably not in a hurry. Maybe you’re alone and don’t really want to get home.”

I closed my eyes.

“You know, like, if I’ve been home all day and I think of getting a Gatorade, I’ll just say, ‘I’m going to go get a Gatorade.’ So I go, and I don’t give a shit about getting back.”

“Yes,” I thought, “this is what I’ve been trying to teaching you.” But I kept my mouth shut.

Turns out my son has been taking in some Thich Nhat Hanh talks on YouTube. Days ago he mentioned the name to one of his doctors, who replied, “How long have you been seeing him?”

Micah joked that the famous Buddhist monk isn’t covered by our insurance and is out of his price range anyway. He was trying to sit with his emotions, he explained, not run away from them, not deny them.

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You’ve learned. Micah. Now teach your father.

All these years! All the rages during which I despaired at my son’s future. Addiction. Arrest. Felony. Moving on. And somewhere in the crevasse, at the bottom of the bottomless ice that froze away twilight after twilight of my peace, he heard a word or two. Now he is looking down his fragile old man’s path. Maybe sanity will be there, maybe truth.

I’ll take every lump my weaknesses have earned, but a gentle soul is also due its compensation. Micah got the Zen business from me. My foolish enabling put Kathy, Elena, and Micah through hell, but my refusal to close compassion’s door made this evening possible.

The jerks who get in my boy’s way have their own stories, just like he does. He swears at them one day and expects that the next day somebody else will curse him. But before his sputters swell into rants, he breathes in and out. Compassion floats in his messy car along with the coconut vapor from his electronic cigarette. Maybe the driver in front of him is choking on grief or so lonely that any errand beats an apartment’s dim silence. At last he understands.

Birthday presents this year will be incidental blessings. I’ve already received extravagant gifts. My daughter is a stronger, wiser parent than her father. My son is falling in love with the world.

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16 thoughts on “My Problem as a Parent

  1. This post brought tears to my eyes. Whatever we bring to our children, what they make of it is ofttimes amazing. I always try to remind myself that the root of discipline is teaching and that’s my job, to teach and to give my child the skills to cope with life’s ups and downs. But it is also our job to be loving and forgiving and to give them sanctuary when needed. It sounds a little like your profession as well. Lovely post, John.

    • Thanks, Michelle. With as busy as your blogging life is these days, I’m grateful you took the time to reach out. “The root of discipline is teaching”: wonderful. I may have that tattooed somewhere conspicuous. Peace, John

  2. I love to read your stuff John. Hope your transition to a part time call brings forth more and more blessings to you and yours.

  3. Cole is so cute, even if he is pitching a fit! I pray that your move to part-time will turn out to be a great blessing. I was 58 when circumstances moved me from full time to part time, and it has turned out to be an amazing adventure. I was very sad and frightened when it happened, and although we don’t have as much money as we did, it’s been a good thing overall. Prayers for you and yours as you make this journey of change. Cheers, Deb

    • Thanks for your prayers, Deb. Cole is going to have some company. Elena is a few months along now, so we’ll see how the Cole-ster welcomes another star to the show. Hey, I want to tell you how grateful I am that you continue to read and support even when I fall behind. I know we’re not in the quid pro quo business, but, well, anyway, thanks a lot. Peace, John

    • Particularly with this post, if somebody gets a little something from my joys and difficulties, I’ll be grateful. I also want to throw in there how grateful I am that you read and support me. It means a lot. Peace, John

  4. Thank you. Always. Thank you. Peace and joy to you and Kathy on your new call. And thank you for letting me know I am not the only parent struggling. So glad the light is being seen! I can only picture your two as little cherubs from the 90’s! 🙂

    • You’re welcome, Karen. And thanks for the good wishes. I have most of us parents struggle more than we let on. Peace, John

    • Happy trails to you as well. Enjoy reading your blog, but having weird hiccups in “liking” blog posts lately. Some tech issue. So please know I’m reading and liking. Peace, John

    • Right there with you. Breathe . . . and don’t overthink life so much. The latter is something I keep working on. Peace, John

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