We came back in the Misty Mountains last night, chilled to the bone as the sky sagged down on us like a drenched wash rag. The four of us huddled together in this hovel guarded against the cold, the girls boppin’ in their room to Malcom McClaren’s “Buffalo Girls” while the boy went down hard, unhappy, lacking a lollipop for refusing to touch his spaghetti. He snuggled under an electric blanket and his cries ended about ten seconds later. It was good to be home.
Without waving the white hankie of the why’s and wherefores, I took another day with my kids, called off of work. Although I had one down with a stomach bug and the other two camped out for marathon Disney, our 2nd of September socked in with a too-early autumnal gloom, we made much of our one more day, a day more than had been planned. We cuddled and made grilled cheese sandwiches, drank hot coco, picked which characters we would be from the DVD we were watching and acted out our own plot lines (most of which involved me as the villain, chasing heroes around the living room until they were caught and tickled and given merciless belly blows). The sad sick one arose to sip Seven-up and eat soda crackers a few times but most of her day was spent sleeping off her misery. She missed out on the unpopular spaghetti.
Coming back to Manitou was a function of sheer necessity; already a day late on getting the mixmania! matches mailed out, I was also without my “things”, you know, you can lounge around at the finest resort in the world but eventually, without the availability of your “things” you get fidgety and all the mimosas and massages lose their magic. I was not the only one missing the comfort of the mundane; the kids were also clamoring for what passes as normalcy in our little shack in the mountains. A night in our own beds, with out “things” close at hand, was a good segue to take us to the ritual of goodbye as I drove them to their moms and started my work week.
At least the segue was good for me. After I dropped my kids off from the mountains, I drove to see “My Kids” in the mountains. When I left My Kids Wednesday night, it occurred to me that they were becoming My Kids and as terrible as my wages are for working at the facility that employs me, it was becoming impossible for me to think of leaving My Kids. Promises are made and now I’m obligated to fulfill my oath, to prove my fealty.
One of my kids had no snacks last week and I had to refuse him the generosity of a brother cabin-mate who had snacks and wished to share. It is against the rules for My Kids to share their snacks and as unfair as that sounds, I enforce the rules – the love I give to My Kids includes providing them with a structure that they have not had in their lives. However, as consolation for following the letter of the law, I promised him that something would be in his snack box the next night.
It wasn’t much – it was my last 5 bucks. Some cookies and pudding cups and a energy bars, a few packages of ramen noodles, what I could scrounge from my surplus at home and as much as I could get for my pocket of change from the sales bin at Safeway. As I said, it wasn’t much and I was a little ashamed that it was all I could bring to him.
What I’d forgotten was the lesson my own kids have taught me, that it’s not what I give but just that I give. My Kid hugged me as he thanked me, “I’m not used to someone actually doing for me what they say they’re going to do,” he said, quietly, almost imperceptibly, “I’m not used to anyone actually caring.”
“You’re welcome,” I replied, almost silent, hugging him back and then turning quickly as he left, afraid I would collapse into a sobbing, shuddering heap of grief. Breathing deep, I collected myself, shook of the sting of the previous moment so I could turn to watch the rest of My Kids, “Watch your language. No horseplay. You need to get in the shower, now.” Enforcing the rules, paying attention, providing guidance - being a dad. The more I work with My Kids the more I realize that I am not so much a therapist or counselor but I’m actually being paid to yes, be a father. That’s what threw me. I hadn’t actually forgotten the lesson my own children taught me but I wasn’t aware until that hug and those few words that my love and concern (and my commitment to discipline) applied as much to My Kids as it does to my kids. Maybe even more, now that I think about it. Because my kids have always known that, all that I give them where tragically, My Kids are coming to know that for the first time in their lives.
It’s not what I give but just that I give. Even if it’s nothing material but only my attention, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant the achievement, it amounts to more than anything I could ever measure.
“Daddy look, I can hold myself up with one arm,” balancing on the wicker chest, a leg tucked up and under.
Turning from the computer screen, whatever it is I’m reading not a tenth as important as this little moment I tell him, “You’re the strongest 3-year old boy I know”.
“And I can pick up heavy chairs… and I can pick up this heavy book,” lifting the unabridged Complete Edgar Allan Poe from my bookshelf.
“There are some scary stories in that book,” I warn him, “Are you sure you want to lift a big heavy book full of scary stories?”
“Did you read dem?”
“Yes, I’ve read them all.”
He looks at the book, ponders what must be inside, and carefully places the book back on the shelf. “One day I’ll read them all, too. When I’m big and strong like you. And I won’t be afraid then because I’ll be brave like you.”
It’s puzzling to me how this simple equation escaped the tiny minds of the parents of My Kid: that it’s not what you give but just that you give. What you get in return is just as immeasurable and so much more immense. Because you matter, matter in a way that will remain long after all the diamonds in the world have turned to dust.
Back in Manitou amongst our “things” it became evident that it was not what we had but what we shared. If we’d returned to a burnt-out shell of a home, we would have lost all our “things” but nothing can take away the thing that matters the most. When I drove up the pass to be with My Kids again, I realized that I brought that thing with me. Not something measured in pudding cups but in the value of a promise kept, the value of recognizing the strength required to pick up a thick, scary book. That thing that keeps us warm and safe on a cold, damp night.