The Cheek of God

I definitely inhaled . . .

Category: children

Second

I finally found him, sitting the fifth row of the bleachers, digging through his duffel bag for a Clementine to munch. Orange fuel, peel and all, for the big match to come.

Three previous, early-morning matches. Three pins.

One, he confesses with a grin, was a total fluke. “The kid just let go! Or his hands slipped. Whatever. He got Beefcaked!”

He smiled. We fist bumped. Hugged. Did a little head butt thing that sort of hurt. And then he swaggered off to cheer on a teammate while I fought the crowd for a seat. In less than an hour, he’d be wrestling for his weight division championship at the regional Charger Classic.

2013 marks his third and final year in middle school wrestling. His uncles and cousins were all wrestlers, some of them quite good. State finalist good. His grandfather loved the sport. Me? I wrestle with doubt, not sweaty peers in singlets. The first two years, he rode the bench for the most part, occasionally getting a JV or exhibition match. His record stood at 1 and a bushel of losses. But he kept going to practice. Kept running and sparring and enduring the ribbings by others on the squad. The practical jokes. The sparse words from coaches more interested in the kids who were winning.

This year, he decided to put his nickname on the back of his spirit wear.

Beefcake.

The timid cat he once wanted to keep safely tucked away had been unleashed as a lion.

Before his champion match yesterday, his record for the year stood at 10-7. Ten pins for the wins. I reminded him of this just moments before he took the mat. I said, “Son, look at me.” He got all intense, the way he does, and planted his forehead against mine. Nose to nose. Eyes to beautiful blue eyes.

“Win or lose, be a gentleman. Be a good sport. Be kind. And know that I will always be proud of you.”

He lost.

The kid weighed more, as Ethan wrestled up for the tournament, and he stood a few inches taller. After the first period, after winning the toss, Coach called neutral when Ethan wanted to be on top. These aren’t excuses, mind you. Just facts. As with all things in life, the facts aren’t always in our favor. How we accept them is most times the only thing we can control.

He stood on the podium with pride, accepted his silver medal, and then helped his opponent up and patted him on the back.

There are times I feel I cannot carry the burdens that are a part of being a father. I turn my back, afraid to engage, replaying the mistakes I’ve made in my mind, knowing that I’ll make many more. The chant in my head: “I can’t do this.” But as I stood there, feeling his sweat and breath on my face, my mistakes didn’t matter. I was his father and he was my son. In that moment, win or lose, we transcended the shit and frustrations of life. He would know that I loved him and cared for him with a frightening savageness. And now, as he sleeps on the couch, his medal still around his neck, his body bruised but still, I love him even more . . .

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FTW

WTF – September, 1983

I’d never worn cleats before.  Pads either.  Or those goofy pants that ride just below the knee and squeeze your junk.  But there I stood, on the practice field of Kokomo High School, about to embark on my first season of football.

I did it to impress my uncle Jerry.  He had played and been a coach for many years in various programs at both the high school and college level.  He who owned his own gym and used to max all the Nautilus machines just for a warm-up.  He’d talked me out of playing the clarinet and into trying out for the team.  Horn players didn’t have the Eye of the Tiger.

I figured maybe I could be the center.  I had good hands, like to help people out by giving them the ball, and had played center on the playground in middle school a few times, once with a bloody nose.  I’ve got this, I figured.

I lasted three days.

FTW – January, 2012.

My son took the mat for his first junior varsity match of his second year of wrestling against a kid from Indian Springs.  Behind him, a pile of losses from the past year and hours of training for a new season.  I sat down my bag of popcorn, pocketed my cellphone, cupped my hands and shouted, “Come on, Beefcake,” his nickname now a matter of record.  They shook hands, locked up and tossed each other around for a minute or two.  And then my son pulled a move out of his bag of tricks, rolled the other kid over, flattened him to the mat and stared at the ref as he waved . . . waved . . . and then blew the whistle.  Sweet victory.

I cried.

***

Ethan didn’t win again that season, but he never quit.  Not even when the other kids on the team put shit on his backpack.  Not when they ignored him and walked away when he tried to scrimmage with them before each match.  Not when they ignored him as he tried to high five them after their own victories.  I screamed inside at the cruelty and arrogance of children, but wore the face of a proud and passionate father on the outside.

Ethan is no quitter.  Not like his dad.

***

In many other ways, however, he is exactly like me.  As I was as a kid.  He’s kind and compassionate, often to his own detriment.  He’s sentimental to the point of occasional tears.  Real, honest tears.  He has a few good friends who accept him, and many other acquaintances who belittle him for their own amusement, even as he laughs it off, the willing butt of the joke.  He’s solitary at times, keeping to himself when things get overwhelming or confusing.  At other times, he’s the life of the party, even if it means starting some trouble in order to get noticed.  Not all wallflowers are tame and easily put out of mind.  His shortcoming are familiar as well.

My wife and I discuss our children often.  Our dreams for them and our frustrations with them.  Ethan is the one that puzzles me the most.  Understanding him means understanding me, the way I was and the way I am.  Confronting issues with him means dealing with me.  Instructing him, guiding him, even yelling at him, often means staring down demons I am all to familiar with.  They fuck with him just like they fucked with me.  Yet he doesn’t seem to recognize them like I do.  Hindsight being what it is, I sense the cauldron brewing and ache at the remembrances.

***

There is a battle ahead.  One that we are going to have to fight together.  And I’ve been trying to formulate a strategy.  To come up with a way to begin to tackle the one thing that we’ve both wrestled with.

Obesity.

He’s thirteen-and-a-half and, at his last doctor’s visit for his asthma, he clocked in at 173.

I’ve shared about my own battle before, and how I eventually fought back with the big stick of surgery.  This, of course, is not the road I hope he travels.  I’ve searched and scoured for books and articles, hoping for something that I think will motivate and inform without being condemning or talking above his head.

And I’ve struggled with how to even bring it up.

It’s not like it’s a secret.  He’s expressed his own earnest desires to slim down and even came up with an idea or two, but other things encroach and the steam evaporates.  I tell him how I’ve been there a thousand times and we’ll keep looking for a plan that will stick.

Today, at the library, my wife came across fifteen-year-old Tiger Greene’s book Sacking Obesity: The Team Tiger Game Plan for Kids Who Want to Lose Weight, Feel Great, and Win on and off the Playing Field.  Of course, my skepticism set in.  The kid probably had a bunch of free support from this or that organization underwriting his efforts, or wealthy parents who paid for the best doctors and the priciest foods and the latest snazzy exercise equipment.  I can’t do that.  I’m not about publicity stunts or telling others they can do with so little what you did with the help of a benevolent universe.

I’m an idiot like that.

Turns out, the kid has a heart of gold.  I’ve read most of it already.  The parts that matter anyway, where he writes honestly about his own weight and how he tried to be like that guy from Man v. Food and how weight isn’t easy to lose when those that are meant to provide for our needs fail us.

That part hurt.

Yet he never blames others.  And, at the age of twelve, he made a plan and made it work and tells kids – and their families, with the help of some expert, practical advice – that they can do it too.  He seems like the kind of kid you’d want to have over for a game of touch football and carrot sticks.  Carrot sticks that taste so freaking awesome they’ll make you forget the cheesesteak you thought you wanted.

Sure, he got some help.  But he pays it forward in a way that doesn’t belittle you because you don’t have the advantages he had.  Not really advantages.  Just people who came alongside and gave him exactly what he needed.  Ethan will get this kid.  He’ll read this and get fired up and make a plan and some changes and things will get better.  I sense that he feels it’s time, and I plan to be there when the light bulbs click on.

And yet, I guess I fear that I’ll quit on him.

Like I’ve done time and time before.  Not give up on him.  Or his dreams and plans and successes.  Even through the failures, I will never give up on him.  But I fear that I won’t always be the model that he needs.  He’ll forgive my shortcomings and sidesteps, I’m certain.  But will he lose heart?

Will he fail if I continue to fail him?

Or will this be the time, the beginning of a long string of times, when I don’t?  Choose not to?  Buck up and be what he needs?  Will I press on this time?

FTW . . .

2012-05-16 17.21.05

***

Ethan read this before I hit “Publish.”  And we had a nice, long talk.  We’ve agreed to read the book together.  Let the journey begin . . .  

the only thing he would regret leaving was the sky

Ty & Ronald

I wrote about him in my first “official” blog post back in February of 2008.

Way back when the road seemed it would go on forever just as it ever had.  Sure, they’ll grow up, I told myself. 

Tomorrow.

Tomorrow will be the day before the day his mom and I move him into the dorms.  Just across town, his bedroom door less than a couple miles from where I help make the ice cream.  He will have three roommates he has never met before.  They are friends from the same hometown high school.  He shrugs it off but admits he is not thrilled with the possibility that he will be the awkward fourth wheel.  Or maybe not noticed at all.   

No meal plan so he will be pigging on Ramen noodles.  Twizzlers.  Pancakes when I can sneak over and whip some up for him.  And McDonald’s when he can get a ride. 

2012-05-19 19.15.05 They have dated since the second week of freshman year.  He knew her twin brother but had never met her.  They DDR’d into the wee hours and never looked back. 

She is my other daughter, an effervescent, hope-filled toothy grin and a welcome addition to our family for these past nearly four years.  The one that calls at one in the morning because she is a night person.  That took some getting used to.  They learned to text together.  To hold hands at twilight and just sit and listen.  She is My Little Pony to his Lord of the Rings.  Twister to his Dungeons & Dragons. 

And she is going to school in Michigan.  There is a long dotted line between here and there. 

He is taking a communications class, some literary criticism, some statistics, a couple other I cannot recall, and a philosophy class for which I pulled some strings to get him registered.  The professor is an old friend and he will make my son think.  And I know he will be impressed.

I am. 

Every day.

I have given him what I can.  It is a far cry short, materially.  But maybe that stuff will not matter so much.  Despite my inclinations, I believe he means it when he says I have given him enough. 

At least he looks snazzy . . .

2012-05-19 19.04.27

Would you do me a favor?  You continue to come here and read my stuff because you care.  I know you do.  And you’re also smart.  You’ve been there, either as a student yourself or as a parent.  Perhaps you’ve even had to shove one out of the nest yourself. 

I’d like this post to be a place where he can come again and again and receive encouragement.  To read, and feel in his heart, the love and respect of others.  So would you take a few moments and leave a comment?  Some words that have guided you, or that you’ve passed on to others heading off down a new, open road. 

Thank you . . .

From Here . . .

So, I got to talking to Neil yesterday.  Saw his name, with the little green circle beside it, so I posed a question.  Thus began a most interesting give and take, bits of wisdom strewn about like so much confetti after the big parade, and yet not really like that at all, for it all had a point, made sense, wasn’t just tossed out there to be blown about by the winds and whims of chance.

  • I’m trying to think about how I “perceive you”

I like to do that occasionally.  Just start a real-time chat with an available person.  Sometimes, it’s awkward, like with the lady who showed up as a recommended contact via Google who happens to share the same name as my daughter.  Same unique spelling of an uncommon name.  No real rhythm, just starts and stops, digital caesuras, fingers poised but not striking, perhaps a bit of mutual, cautious contemplation.  We talked briefly and then went our separate ways.  I see her name there, another green circle, and I wonder where she is.  What the room looks like.  Is she alone?  Multitasking, or just bored? 

  • i see you as a solid guy

  • maybe Midwestern in sensibility, which is probably my NY-LA stereotype

  • like you enjoy eating in manly diner rather than anything too fancy

  • have good work ethic…. that bullshit

At dinner the other night, I belittled my son.  Acknowledged the elephant in the room in a way that cut deeply.  He cried.  Maybe crocodile tears, but I doubt it; he’s too genuine for that bullshit.  I am not that dad, the one who does it right all the time.  I envy those with young children, the kind who don’t talk back or think they know it all or remember the times you made them cry and hate you for it.  Even as they love you for all the rest.  The stuff you can’t remember so well anymore. 

  • Also your name Brian Thomas…. sounds sturdy.

  • like a quarterback

He won his first wrestling match this year, a pin in the first period.  A new year, with new coaches and a few new teammates.  Last year he wrestled only a few times, when the other team had enough boys for exhibition matches.  Yet he never missed a practice.  He ran, hopped, jumped, jogged, sprinted, assumed the position, every night for a month and a half.  Me?  I recall one practice.  One of two I survived.  Thought I could be the center.  Maybe the long snapper.  Cleats and pads and a too-big mouth piece that tasted like soap.  Real boys hit hard, don’t help you up when they knock you over.  I took the pads and jersey home, dressed up, put on the helmet, and smiled as someone took a Polaroid.  I look . . . ridiculous.  I wanted him to see that picture and be proud.  I quit the next day.  My boy?  He never quit.  And he won.  My turn to cry . . .

  • you definitely do have a philosophical bent

  • a thinker

  • cheek of god

Shoulder surfing instead of sleeping, he saw about Iris.  “Done,” he said.  The next day, she woke up, and I wanted so badly to tell him, to let him know that . . . what?  His prayer worked?  That prayer can indeed change things?  I still am not so sure prayer changes things, but I know for a fact that prayer can change the person.  His heart is so large, and he took a moment to care about Iris.  To consider her, and to wish and hope for her something that wasn’t pain or uncertainty or fear.  His prayer changed him.  He smiled when I told him.  Acted like it was no big deal but smiled nonetheless.  I could hear it over the phone.  His prayer is changing me.

  • so much of this is all capturing the mind of the other

  • that’s a book I want to read.

From here?  Things are unclear.  And by things, I mean the specifics of things.  Or perhaps the particulars of things.  The arc is an ancient one, lived out in a way peculiar and mine alone.  Hitch a ride, but hang on tight . . .

One Thing or: My Son Turns Eighteen Today and All I Got Him Was This Stupid Blog Post

onething

I really don’t think life is about the I-could-have-beens. Life is only about the I-tried-to-do. I don’t mind the failure but I can’t imagine that I’d forgive myself if I didn’t try.

~ Nikki Giovanni

I’ve been thinking about this post for several days.  In fact, I could probably say with some accuracy that I’ve been thinking about this day for most of my life. 

Your life anyway. 

You turn eighteen today.  Eighteen years. 

It can also be said with some accuracy that I have no clue what to say.  For a better writer, a post like this would be a snap.  They would come up with the most eloquent things to say, and they would say them well. 

I just can’t get past the fact that you’re my beautiful boy.  Mom and I waited for you like we’ve waited for nothing else.  The day you got your license?  The day you told us about that special girl?  The day you lost your first tooth or learned to ride a bike?  All big days, for sure, but nothing compares to the day you were born.  That snowy day in Fargo, surrounded by what seemed like every nurse, doctor, and immediate family member on the planet, and yet the way it was just you there in the end, when they left or went out to eat or shovel their way out, and I held you and couldn’t say anything at all. 

Nothing.

You overwhelm me. 

This morning, as I did on that day, I watched you sleep.  All that hair.  And those features that so remind me of your mother every time I look at you.  Moments at your bedside, just watching you sleep, are the best moments of my life.

I realize just this morning that this fact might creep you out.  Sorry.

Winking smile

A better writer would have planned this post in advance and taken time to write it.  Wouldn’t have been in a hurry, or this disorganized.  But I have to leave for work in twenty minutes.  Once you figure in how I still have to clean it up, add some tags, hit publish, post it on your Facebook page, give your mother a sleepy kiss, and then actually get in the car and go, I am a bit pressed for time.  So I will leave you with these few and simple words of advice, as my gift to you . . .

1) Stop plucking your unibrow.  I have one.  And if people don’t like it, fuck ‘em.

2) When you roll the dice, keep them on the table.

3) Talk more.  You say the most interesting things.

4) Be flexible.  Tomorrow won’t look exactly like today.

5) Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

6) While I’m quoting Bono, I’ll also add, “Choose your enemies carefully . . . they’re gonna last with you longer than your friends.”  

7) Don’t quote rock stars all the time.  You’ll sound pretentious and unoriginal.

8) For the love of God and Garl Glittergold, never stop laughing at yourself. 

9) Gnomes rule.

And finally . . .

I know it’s hard to believe, but that’s really all I’ve got.  All these years of me pontificating and meddling in your life, and on this day, I give you “one thing.” 

You’ve been a part of my one thing for eighteen years.  A red-headed, t-ball playing, adventure-seeking, thrill-a-minute part of life that, as your great-grandmother always said, I wouldn’t take a farm in Texas for. 

One day, maybe I’ll write something smashingly awesome for you.  On your wedding day.  Or just before I die.  But today, know that I love you.  Every thing about you, I love.  But mostly, for who you are. 

My son . . .

[Flickr photo is by mangpages and is protected]

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