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.

The Dad Files: Beautiful Dreamer

The other evening I walked upstairs to find one of my sons, Eli, playing quietly on the carpet in his bedroom. He glanced at me, blue eyes regarding me coolly, then turned back to his toys. Eli builds, habitually, utilizing Legos, blankets, stuffed animals, stickers, loose paper, tape, clothes and Magna-Tiles in single structures and vast multi-media tableaus. He once built a “Halloween party,” in which he incorporated a toy silver pot, a broom, three cardboard boxes and a grilled tomato. As an addition to the party, he built an adjacent “baby squirrel nest” using an easel, a box of raisins and his favorite blanket.

Sometimes, when the projects are big and incorporate large pieces of furniture, he asks us to leave it up overnight because he wants to see it again, and work on it some more, in the morning. The request triggers a slight tremor in his voice, conveying his hope we will say yes, his fear we will say no and his overwhelming desire to see what he created survive. We say yes, always, and my heart breaks a little because I do not know for certain what is happening in his young and developing mind but I know it is beautiful and I love him so fiercely that I fear for myself—fear I will simply gut anyone who ever stands between him and his dreams.

The other night, he kept his building project very simple. He arrayed a big panel of large Magna-Tiles—semi-transparent, colored magnetic squares—on the floor in front of him. He rearranged them in varying patterns and looked utterly content, just seeing which order pleased him most.

Strangely, this was a problem of sorts. I love Eli’s solitary excursions, and as a writer I relate to them. But my wife Lisa and me recently decided that we needed to recommit to spending more dedicated time focusing on each of our boys. We both work full-time jobs, and settling into play or interact with the boys on a daily basis, without distraction, requires serious commitment. The boys had reminded us, indirectly—by virtue of increased defiance, delay tactics that turned brushing their teeth into a 10-minute drama, and shrieking in tones consistent with having their entrails pulled out—that we had been slacking. For a little while, we actually felt upset with them, till we got a little sleep and remembered the problem was us.

We get that sometimes kids just need to test their boundaries. But habitual misbehavior is a kind of political statement: As citizens of the tiny township of Volk, they were trying to tell us that they were disillusioned with our leadership, and upon reflection we had to agree. They wanted and needed more attention. And so I had come upstairs to give Eli some of the alone time with dad he seemed to be craving. “Do you want to play with daddy?” I asked, “Or keep doing what you’re doing?”

“Just stay with me,” he said.

So I did, curling up behind him on the floor and watching while he played. I wasn’t sure, initially, if this would count as quality time. Shouldn’t we be wrestling or something? Then he inched back toward me a little. Maybe it was my imagination, but I believed I could feel him taking pleasure in my being there.

Of course, we—mom and dad—feel like dopes. We’re aware of the research on how much kids need undivided attention from mom and dad—blocks of time in which we are not simultaneously cooking, cleaning, working, or use our cell phones. But our summer was so busy, particularly around vacations, that we slipped and became too task-oriented. A bad week like that, of washing the dishes before sitting down with my kids, had become a month in which I hadn’t spent much time purely focused on them at all.

All of this was on my mind as I sat on the carpet. I watched Eli build—he was particularly engrossed with determining if he should intersperse the orange and yellow tiles or separate them—and found myself reaching out, absent-mindedly, to touch him. I casually tousled his hair. I lightly scratched his arms as he played. I reached over, rested my hand on his shoulder, and gave an occasional squeeze.

“Sorry,” I said. “I can’t help but want to snuggle you a little.”

“I don’t mind that,” he said, without looking at me.

We spent about 15 minutes like this—him playing, me watching and offering small gestures of affection—in almost complete silence. Looking back on the previous couple of weeks, I felt like I’d been away for a while, only to return home find him waiting for me.

That night, he donned the backpack he just received in preparation for kindergarten right over his pajama top. Then he climbed into bed and dropped right off to sleep. He looked so peaceful when I kissed him before leaving that I lingered over him for a moment, believing I saw both the beautiful face—and the satisfied mind—of a boy who had just built a fabulous new creation and taught his daddy a lesson, too.