Last week I hooked up with one of my old college roommates near Des Moines. A few years back he left a high-powered New York City law firm to take another high-powered attorney position at the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C. So, we were going to have a high-powered breakfast meeting at a Perkins restaurant in Iowa. As we walked to the entrance, Scott couldn’t resist stopping to peer into the murky window of the Wall Street Journal newspaper dispenser outside the restaurant to “sneak a peak at the numbers.” As I kidded him about being married to his work, he reminded me that it was just like a hobby; he loves his work, and he loves the numbers and machinations that come with the world of finance. I recalled that this was certainly the case with Scott, for he had something akin to a photographic memory in college, and it hadn’t eroded any since. In fact, later that day when we played golf, one of the guys in our foursome made some scoring errors, so Scott walked him through each hole and the strokes for each guy. In the meantime, I was still struggling to calculate my double-bogey on the 18th.
Inside the restaurant we parked ourselves in a booth for breakfast, which slowly merged into lunchtime three and a half hours later because our conversation had taken on the same characteristics of those we used to have back on our “college clock,” beginning after midnight and brushing up against dawn. I’m pretty sure the Perkins folks weren’t too thrilled with us occupying their choice seating after we’d been given our bill hours earlier, but we had important matters to address, and they had little to do with Scott’s world of high finance. The reason I was visiting was because Scott had come home to Iowa for his mother’s funeral. She had died of surgical complications during attempts to improve her failing heart. And as I listened to my friend’s voice crack over the phone when I called to offer my condolences, I knew that I should take this opportunity to be with him. So, there we sat at Perkins. From across the table, I realized that he was a child again, grappling with the loss of a parent, the same way I did when I was his 19-year-old roommate in college.
Yet while he was experiencing a natural regression immersed in childlike longings for his mother, he also had to function as a father. He was dealing with the new barrage of daily questions from his 5-year-old son, like where grandma was and whether they would ever see her again. Scott’s faith told him that there was a heaven and that they would see her again in some form, but it was tough to explain that to a kid whose real interest was in the possibility that she might be available to take him to the playground the following day. As we contemplated such difficult spiritual matters, Scott kidded me about my Catholic upbringing. We chuckled about all of the complexities inherent in such man-made institutions as we imagined trying to explain the trinity, the duality of Christ as God and man, the violence of the crucifixion, or even the transubstantiation aspects of the Eucharist to a youngster. We were left reeling at how much “peeling of the onion” is required in such endeavors.
Our conversation eventually returned to the mundane, spanning topics from 401k plans to school vouchers to the prospects for our old dormitory head resident who’s now doing stand-up comedy. Later we met another good college friend at a local carnival and sneaked off to the beer tent, away from spouses and children, to have some laughs recalling youthful college dormitory tomfoolery. It was a good chat about good times. Almost like kids at college. About as simple. The thought occurred to me that all three of us had lost a parent, yet here we were, parents ourselves, stealing away to recapture a little of what was fun about being young.
Now, as I reflect on what Scott’s son was dealing with, as well as our own youthful longings, I think I’m beginning to realize that we’re all children, some older than others, and that childhood has the loss as much as the levity. Our innocence flakes away like old paint from experiences like a death in the family or hearing a dirty word for the first time or what my teacher-friend Dan calls that moment “when dandelions become weeds.” But holding on to childhood’s grief and glory does provide a certain comfort, so we clench it as tightly as we can.
In another attempt to hold on tightly, I’ll share these few memorable moments, these snapshots of youth, brought to you by my kids….
A while back at dinner my daughter, Hannah, was speaking when her brother began to interrupt her. My wife told Luke to wait a moment until his sister was done, and then he could say his piece. So, Hannah began again and, as she did, Luke began to quietly count, “one, one-thousand, two, one-thousand….” As Hannah finished, Luke reached nine-one-thousand, then leapt into the air, circled the table while pumping his clenched fists in some sort of celebration, and yelled, “Yes! Yes!” When we finally got him parked back in his seat and asked what was going on, he exclaimed, “I just figured out how long a moment is; it’s nine seconds.”
When Hannah was a bit younger, I was engaged in one of my futile attempts to entertain her. This time I was impersonating an opera singer, but I was sounding more like Adam Sandler than Luciano Pavarotti. As I belted out my final crescendo with one hand extended palm upward to the heavens, Hannah waited for the eagerly anticipated silence. She then squinted one eye, wrinkled her nose, and announced to me in a tone typically reserved for a phone solicitation during dinner, “You make me nervous!”
I make milkshakes for the kids as one of our regular rituals. Recently, as I filled their cups in the kitchen, I realized that Hannah was getting a much smaller shake than Luke. It occurred to me to stop right there, get the same sized cups and dole out even amounts (something Luke would have surely demanded if he were on the short end). But I decided to run a quick experiment to see if Hannah would notice. As I served them, she couldn’t have cared less about who had a bigger milkshake. They were topped with colorful candy sprinkles that made “swirly rainbow colors” when she stirred them, and that’s all that mattered. While I’m sure she’ll learn about the haves and the have-nots before too long, I’m glad Luke decided not to teach her that lesson on our milkshake night.
When Luke was a toddler, we’d put on little parades around the house, something I dubbed “Helmets and Horns.” We’d don sauce pans or shower caps on our heads, dig through the dress-up box for apparel, and blow tunes through vacuum cleaner extensions or paper towel tubes. We’d goose-step throughout the house to entertain ourselves. Unfortunately, I must have thought this would be entertaining for our guests during one social gathering (You know the kind, where parents of young children invite people over to sit around and watch their children, with the hope that the guests will find them as lovable as the parents do). So, Luke had convinced me to do a bit of “Helmets and Horns” for the whole crew. As I started marching around like a fool, Luke turned to our guests and asked as though he’d never seen this behavior before, “What is he doing?” They all got a good laugh at my expense, especially because I was set up by my own child.
Recently, we watched a bit of the Wimbledon Men’s Finals to see Australian Patrick Rafter try to keep up with Pete Sampras. Occasionally, Rafter had a bad service toss and apologized to his opponent by hollering, “Sorry, Mate!” Luke was quite amused by this, and while I tried to remind him that Australia was one of the continents and that Rafter’s speech was like that crocodile hunter guy, all Luke could do was repeat over and over, “Sorry, Mate!” So, this past week, whether he was making an errant throw during a game of catch, or mispronouncing a word while reading, all we heard from our little lad was . . . you guessed it. It’s a bit annoying, but I’m also sorry it won’t last forever.
So, children seem to make due with what they have to minimize the bad and manufacture a bit of bliss. Regardless of their circumstances, they are able to find simple satisfaction on their own terms. In Birches, Robert Frost’s poetic reflection on childhood, I think he captured this notion when he wrote, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” It’s about a boy who finds himself closer to heaven by simply living the life of a child. I encourage you to read the whole poem, and to send me any of your own childhood reflections at firstname.lastname@example.org.