My Brave Boys

Jack, preparing to shave.He started to look nervous when we approached the boat, I thought, his concern showing in his eyes. My son Jack, who will be six in July, is very different from his fraternal brother—more aggressive, going after every ball on the soccer field, and more prone to worry. Eli is the mirror image, often letting Jack have his way, and with a look of curiosity on his face, as if he doesn’t understand why the issue of who sits where, for instance, was so important. He is also fond of saying, “I’m not afraid of anything,” and so far that has been pretty much true. The experience of raising twins has been tremendously gratifying, and coming to understand my two boys as individuals has probably been the most exciting part, though sometimes when I see some part of me in them that has not always served me well, I wish I could help them escape it somehow.

The port at Salem where the ferry to Boston pulls in is a long graying pier with a festive bar in the middle, a place where we could rest and overpay for a small and unadventurous selection of beers. We did, of course. And I enjoyed the breeze and the water coursing underneath us. As the bartender slid a can my way, however, the boys both asked to go to the very end of the pier and look out at the water.  Lisa took them, and I accepted their interest—Jack’s, in particular—as a good sign.

Several weeks earlier we took the boys deep sea fishing. We gave them Dramamine for kids and talked to them, cheerily, about how sometimes people get sick at sea and sometimes they don’t. We wanted them to be prepared but not expectant of illness, but both boys threw up, one after the other, before the boat even dropped anchor. They shook it off, had a good time, shouting exultantly when anyone on the boat caught a fish, and I saw the opportunity to get them both back on a boat, a ferry running to Boston, as a way to cement this new understanding between them and the sea. I also figured, between the two of them, Jack was more likely to worry about it. Because in this, he is like me.

When I look back at my life, it is characterized mostly by anxiety—the vast majority of it totally unnecessary. I have wasted countless hours, sleepless nights, expecting and imagining difficult conversations, confrontations and calamities that never came to pass.

I finally gained some control over this part of my psychology about 15 years ago, coming to understand that these feelings would arise in me but held no more power than I afforded them. I meditated. I realized that when anxiety occurred I could note it, find its origin, understand its pointlessness and move on with activities more productive than fear. Over time, my bouts with anxiety grew less frequent, and any fear I felt held less power than before. Then my children were born and… something happened.

I’ve found myself waking, wired, feeling I have something to do even though I need more sleep. I am generally fearful of how life might go wrong. I catch myself, in the middle of the day, just eating lunch or scanning my to do list, taking in shallow, fast breaths, as if I am in a low level fight or slight response.

Am I simply more tired? Do I, in them, have more at stake in the world and need to relearn my ability to deal with my own emotions?

There is something in this last bit. The stakes are so high now. The boys mean so much to me and need so much from me. I just don’t want to let them down, and none of this worry does them a bit of good, yet still I feel it—in buckets and torrents and storms.

Eli, unafraidI would like to give my boys a different constitution. Eli is like me in a lot of ways—resentful of intrusions into his daydreaming and his creativity, but without the fear. Jack, though, has my mom’s lopsided smile and angular face—beautiful and quick to crease at even the concern that there might be some cause for concern. And of course, this next sentence isn’t science, but I believe it: She passed this anxiousness on to me, and I to him. And so I sat there, nursing my beer and glancing out at Jack and wondering how he’d do, and hoping to do right by him.

He seemed fine enough when he got back to the bar and boarded the boat looking only a little tentative. The ride from Salem to Boston is a little less than an hour and the sea between the two cities is loaded with sail boats. Eli took it all in exultantly.

“That looks like a pirate ship!” he exclaimed when we passed a boat with its sails billowing.

There were numerous islands with big, expensive looking homes on them, causing us all to wonder aloud who built them, and why, and what might life be like, in sight of Salem, yet isolated there on the rocks and surrounded by water. But Jack, he had trouble entertaining these thoughts. He got a troubled look on his face right away, as soon as we left the no wake zone and picked up speed.

“I feel like I might throw up,” he said.

Jack’s belly, I knew, was full of brunch: sausage, bacon, muffins and milk. We’d sat in a small, four-person booth in the shade, me and Eli to one side, Jack and Lisa on the other. I imagined his morning meal spilling across the table and sloshing onto us all, the four of us landing in Boston with a mission to find new clothes.

I lit off, secured a sick bag from one of the crewman and brought it back to the table, to wait. Jack’s face was twisted up by now, with a mixture I felt of sickness and fear. We had him look at the land on the horizon line and focus on his breathing.  But he breathed too fast, like he was going to hyper-ventilate, and I had the sense memory of doing the same thing myself when I was a kid. He wasn’t dealing with sea-sickness, so much as fear of sea-sickness.

Lisa, noticed the same thing, I think, because she asked the very same question that arose in my mind: “Are you afraid of being on the boat, or of throwing up?” she asked him.

“Throwing up,” he said. He was bent over the table, and I felt like he was on the brink, like he could either pull through or give in and let go of breakfast.

“There is no reason to be afraid of throwing up,” I said. “It’s no fun, but you know how daddy always tells you when there might be some danger? I always tell you when you need to be careful?”

He nodded.

“Well, I’m sorry you feel sick, but I am not worried right now at all,” I told him. “So you know you do not need to be afraid at all.”

Then I told him that, “Pretty soon we’ll get near the Boston harbor and slow down in another no wake zone. That’ll be easier, like it was when the boat first started.”

He seemed to brighten immediately and a couple of minutes later the Boston skyline came into view.

“Does that mean we’re almost in Boston?” he asked.

“Yes,” we told him.

The worry lines were gone.

He straightened in his seat.

When we got nearer still massive jets passed right overhead and the buildings seemed to climb higher in the sky. “My stomach is feeling a little better, and we’re getting closer to Boston where we are going to slow down!”

I knew then he’d be ok, the sick bag transformed into an empty souvenir. But I also know this represents no final triumph—for Jack or for me. I hope to teach him, to teach him without his even realizing it, how to focus on what is and not on his worries of what could be. And I know that will require me to figure these things out for myself, to regain the calm I’d found but in this new context, as a father.

That night, when we were getting ready for bed, the four of us, in our hotel room, I told him, “I am proud of you,” glad for him, for a moment, that he is too young yet to understand the depth of the journey we’re on.