20 October, 2008

Thin Ice

His inline skates made a quick and rhythmic thump-thump, like the beating of a nervous heart, as they passed over the seams in the sidewalk. My son Calvin and I were going to a nearby park. The brisk morning air smelled strongly of lilac and recently mowed grass. The field near us was alive with the buzzing of bees eager to be the first on their block to taste the freshly blossomed flowers. It was an early morning in April, a time for new beginnings.
I had recently returned from a twelve-month tour in Korea, in which I was not able to take my family. Because of the shortage of personnel, I had not been able to take leave during my tour. My children had changed in my absence. Katja had only been two months old when I deployed, but Calvin had been almost six, old enough to know when something was missing. I do not know whether or not a tree makes a sound if no one is there to hear it, but I do know that kids grow up whether or not we pay attention.
Calvin’s short blond hair stirred in the breeze, the rebellious cowlick continuing to stand straight up, as if his hair was shaking a defiant fist at the wind. I put my hand to the crown of my head, where my hair was cut short and stubbly, like a three-day-old beard. I knew that if I were to let my hair grow out, I would have a cowlick in the exact same place. Calvin had also inherited my lanky frame, and the elbow and knee pads I insisted on hung on him like knots in a rope. His brow was furrowed in concentration as he applied himself to learning how to use the skates I had bought him. I wondered if his determination were another gift that I had given him, and whether he had paid too much for it.
Calvin turned and skated back towards me, flashing me a big smile, full of buckteeth and joy. I smiled back, trying to convey the love and pride that I felt through a smile I had never really learned how to use. Calvin was a happy kid, from what I could see. His mother had done well while I was gone, and he appeared to have gotten on fine without me. I was trying to get to know him again, and I did not think that coming across as an authoritarian would have helped any, so I was quite thankful to find he was still well behaved. I knew of other troops who had come home to find their children had been disciplined with twelve months of ‘wait-til-your-father-get’s-home.’ I was grateful not to have been an instant bad-guy in my son’s eyes, since I was already unsure of my footing in our relationship.
He looped around again, and I could hear him coming up behind me, making the sound of his favorite Pok√®mon character, Pikachu. He seemed to do that when he was happy and content, like a cat purring. I do not even know if he knew that he was doing it, but his blue eyes were bright and playful, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world for him to express himself with a hearty, “peee KAAA chuuu.” He tried to slow down when he came up alongside me, and started to lose his balance, but as I reached out a hand to steady him, he reached out for the fence, steadying himself without any help from me. I do not think he noticed my hands go unceremoniously back to my side. When we got to the park, he skated on ahead, leaving me behind.
I sat on a park bench, and pulled a rumpled pack of cigarettes out of my shirt. I lit a cigarette. As I watched Calvin skate around the outskirts of the playground, my thoughts drifted with the smoke.
I thought of what I knew about being a father. I could have listed the amount of good examples I had had on one thumb and still have a digit left to hitch a ride with, but I always figured that even if you didn’t see how to do something, you could always say that you saw how not to do it. No experience was wasted, if you looked at it right. When I was a kid, the phrase that aggravated me most was, “Because I said so.” It is a phrase I try hard never to use. I used to break the rules all the time because “I said so” was just not a compelling reason. I had come to believe that the phrase, “Because I said so” was the equivalent of “That is the way we have always done it.” Both of them seemed to mean that whoever was saying them had never taken the time to examine their reasons for doing it. Neither of them meant that it was the right thing to do or the best way to do it. All either of them meant was that no one had taken the time to examine the reasons behind the actions. Calvin had always seemed able to grasp the reasons for the rules if I took the time to explain it to him. It seemed that if he understood the reasons, he chose to do the right thing. It forced me to have well thought out rules, but I didn’t see a downside to that. Some things are just too important to do without careful consideration.
“Dad, why did you start smoking again?”
Calvin’s words brought me out of my reverie. He plunked himself down on the bench and threw an arm up over the edge, unconsciously emulating me. I had quit smoking before I went to Korea. The knowledge that he remembered made me wonder how many other events his intelligent eyes quietly recorded. He had a habit of cutting right to the point. He also had a knack of asking the questions that were hardest for me to answer. I had to stop and think about it, and I took a drag of the cigarette as I thought, ignorant of the irony. He sat there with a little tilt to his head, waiting for my answer. I had talked to him about smoking before, when I had quit, aware of the poor example I had been setting, and I had a feeling that his bullshit radar was on full alert. I could not very well ignore the reasons that I had given him for why smoking was bad, and I was too proud to be a hypocrite. I knew there was no good reason I could give him.
We talked about weakness that day and I tried to explain how it was that I had gotten to a point where I no longer worried about doing something that was going to hurt me. I tried to explain how sometimes one momentary lapse of reason can have far reaching consequences, and for that reason it was important to think about our actions before we acted.
Without missing a beat, he asked, “So why don’t you quit again, now that you have thought about it?”
I tried to explain about habits, and addiction, and cravings, but those excuses rang hollow in my ears, because I knew the truth. Calvin deserved the truth more than anyone I knew.
“Well,” I said, “I guess it comes down to the simple fact that I have been too stupid and lazy to do the right thing.”
I was taken aback at my answer. I do not think I had ever before uttered such a blunt condemnation of my character. I had not previously considered the hard fact of my willful error, but as much as it pained me to confess, it was the truth. I knew then that if I did not like the way it sounded, I had to change myself. It is not truth that hurts, it is just that what the truth shines on generally doesn’t like the light. Calvin, though, did not appear shocked at my casual admission of weakness. He seemed satisfied that now I knew the right thing to do, and he went back to skating.

This is a reprint of an essay I did in a creative writing class

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