In A Father’s Care

He came into the world, and everything changed.

I became a father eleven years ago. My experience as a dad is no more profound or special or remarkable than any other man’s experience as a dad. And yet, I suspect every man’s experience as a dad is special and remarkable. Becoming a father is an opportunity to see the world anew, through the eyes of the baby that changes a man into a dad.

From the minute I saw him, I knew that I would die before I let him meet harm. That is what I said to myself – that I would die before I let anything happen to my beautiful baby boy. It was love at first sight — but like the infant I held in my arms, I had no idea what that love would come to look like as the years went by.

I had no idea how to be a dad. I had a father, but I did not have a dad. My father did not spend any time with me as a child, did not teach me any life lessons, did not show me what it was to be a man, let alone a parent.  So when I had a child of my own, I was winging it from day one.

I was terrified. The first night home from the hospital, his mother and I took turns sleeping, so one of us could hover over his bassinet and make sure he didn’t stop breathing — because all the parenting books we’d read filled our heads with horror stories of babies suffocating under blankets or pillows or cats that climbed onto the baby’s chest to steal their breath away in some evil feline plot to gain dominance over man. (never mind the fact that we didn’t have a cat.) We slept with his bassinet right next to our bed. We also had a baby monitor in his bassinet next to his head, and the receiver in between our pillows so we could hear him — three feet away.

Like I said — terrified.

As the years went by, I sought to ensure his health and safety as any good parent would. I was hyper-vigilant in making sure he was looked after, he was comfortable, he was never neglected or left unattended. I made sure I told him he was loved at every available opportunity, and I demonstrated that love with physical affection and tenderness that I never received from my own father. I was bound and determined to be the Best Dad Ever, and keep him from harm.

And in that lofty, noble goal was my supreme error.

I spent countless hours worrying about his welfare, his feelings, his future. The older he got, the more I saw myself in him — and I saw him repeating some of the behavior that was shown not to work for me when I was a kid. I wanted to help him avoid the mistakes I made, and when he was resistant to my “help”, I worried more.

When the divorce came, I was wrapped in fear of what would become of my children. I was certain they would end up “broken” because their home was broken, and I would lie awake at night grieving the loss of the happy future that I was sure was lost to them.

And when a new man was brought in to their mother’s home almost immediately after I moved out, I just knew that my role as their father would be usurped and the bond that I had forged with them would be lost. I did not know what it was like to have a bond with a father, so I did not know how strong that bond can really be.

“Have a little faith in your kids,” my friend Rich suggested one night as I tearfully shared my fear about the new living situation we were in. “You’re the only Dad they will ever have. No one else gets to fill that role for them. Don’t you think they know that?”

I sighed reluctantly and believed it, but as the days went by, I still ached and worried about them. I would lie awake at night, unable to sleep, missing my kids and in deep despair over the path their lives were now taking. I spent weeks dwelling in despair, frozen in fear. I did not know what to do.

One day my son told me that he felt that his mother’s boyfriend seemed to be giving him messages that he needed to change. My son indicated that this man was of the opinion that he wasn’t okay the way he was. I was livid, and I plunged into even deeper despair over the fate of my son. I knew I was powerless over what went on in his mother’s house, and I knew that if I confronted the situation directly it would likely end up in a restraining order (or worse, a prison sentence) — and that would mean I’d see my kids even less than I already did.

I shared about this in a support group one day, and was really only intending to unload my burden because I had grown weary from carrying it around. It was difficult to speak with the giant lump in my throat that threatened to break into a sob, but I finally got it out. I felt a little better at having given voice to my fear, but I was no closer to knowing what to do about it.

And then a woman spoke. I did not know this woman. I had never spoken with her before.  But she delivered a message to me that day that I desperately needed to hear.

She said, “When I have a loved one in my life that is going through a tough time, and I find myself unable to bear the fear or sadness that I feel for them, I put them in The God Room.”

I looked at her, surprised, for I had never heard this phrase before. This was something new to me. She continued to speak, and while she spoke in the group, she looked at me as she talked. She delivered this message directly to me.

“When I’m in fear for someone I love, I close my eyes. I visualize myself walking with that person, holding their hand, smiling and telling them what they mean to me – telling them what I want for them, sharing my hopes for them. And as we walk, we come to a door. We stop before the door, and I turn to my loved one and I tell them, ‘I love you so, so much.’  And then I turn to the door.”

As the woman shared this visualization, I could see it clearly in my mind. I was mesmerized. She continued.

“I see myself turn the doorknob, and I can feel it is pleasantly warm. And when I push open the door, we are bathed in light. The door opens into a room that is filled with the purest, brightest, whitest light imaginable. It is warm and feels safe and comfortable. The light fills me with a sense of peace, and grace. And I visualize myself turning back to my loved one, hugging them tightly, and I kiss them. Then I usher them in to this room filled with the bright, peaceful, warm light. And then I close the door.”

She paused for a moment, and then said, “I put them in The God Room. I do this because they are in God’s hands, not mine. I can love them, and I can support them, but I have to let go of my will for them and let God’s will be done.”

She looked at me one last time and said, “Put your kids in The God Room. They’re gonna be okay.”

That woman gave me a great gift that day. She reminded me that, while I love my kids fiercely and unconditionally, I am only their Dad. I am not their God.

Today, when I feel that fear over my children’s well-being, I remind myself of what my role in their life really is: I get to love them, I get to model behavior for them, I get to demonstrate what works, I get to support them in their own learning, on their own life paths. And I get to play with them, giggle with them, sing songs with them, and be silly with them.

But I can’t shield them from all harm, all sadness, all heartbreak. And really, why would I want to? For shielding them from that is interfering with their life experience. My job is to help them grow up to be good people in the world, and part of that is helping them to deal with adversity. God is in charge of the rest.

My son is eleven, and adolescence is approaching. We are seeing the signs already – the moodiness, the frustration, and impatient and intolerant attitude that surfaces now and then. He is experiencing his challenges – some of the very same challenges I experienced at his age. I remind myself that my experience is not his experience. He will experience this in his own way. I get to support him in his growth, help him up when he falls, and love him through all of it.

He is in The God Room.

Hugs, Not Rx

“Health Care” – two words that bring to mind calm and peaceful images, like “atomic blast” or “prison riot”. Few subjects seem to have such a polarizing effect on friendly conversation these days. Relax – I have absolutely no interest in weighing in on that hot-button topic. But today I was reminded of a series of health-care-related incidents of an unusual sort – incidents that, although quite simple, utterly amazed me when they occurred. This is a story about three doctors – three men who showed me that my whole view of medical practitioners was very limited, and who –perhaps unknowingly– restored my faith in mankind.

I’ve had a lot of doctors over my lifetime. Some better than others, naturally – doctors are just like any other segment of human society in that you’ll have your really good ones like Heathcliff Huxtable and your really bad ones like Hannibal Lecter. And while those are two fictional examples, there is surely no shortage of evildoing doctors in the history books. But I would imagine that those are the rarities, and that most doctors would be considered at least respectable, if not benevolent.

Some of the doctors I’ve had were flat-out brilliant, and some seemed rather out of touch with modern times and probably started practicing medicine when leeches were still considered a cure-all. Some were wise and instilled instant comfort and confidence, and some seemed young and green — the ink on the medical license probably not even dry yet. Some were very thorough and took their time with me, and some seemed to be working in an HMO medical factory where we patients were herded along like cattle for a seven-minute consultation where no eye contact was made.

Throughout my life, my experiences with doctors all had one consistent theme: I saw doctors as service providers. I never really thought about the human beings they were under the white coats. I never thought about them as regular people who just happened to have a bunch of letters after their name. I went to them when I had a problem, and I expected they would know what to do to fix it. I never really saw them in another light until two years ago.

Two years ago, when my marriage ended, I was a mess. I think anyone who goes through divorce can probably admit to having days where it seemed like the world was crashing down on them, and they were simply at their worst emotionally, mentally, and physically. I was no exception. It was the hardest period of my life, and while the emotional and mental difficulties were expected, I was unprepared for the physical effects the grief would have.

I couldn’t sleep. I was a ball of anxiety as I went through each day spinning on thoughts ranging from fears of financial devastation to forlorn heartbreak to wrathful plots of revenge. It was hard to drift into a peaceful slumber when, just as sleep was about to engulf me, I would think of a new expense to worry about, or I would invent a new scenario of “what really went on behind my back”, or I would come up with a new way of committing murder without getting caught. Sleep just doesn’t enter that kind of neighborhood.

I lost weight – which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for me, and in fact I’ll be the first to say that The Divorce Diet is just about the most effortless form of weight loss there is. [I envision an infomercial about The Divorce Diet in which I give testimony, my broad smile resembling The Joker without make-up, with a “before” photo of a heavier me superimposed in the background; I stare sort of wide-eyed and crazy into the camera, saying “It was effortless! The weight just fell off of me – it simply disappeared! Sort of like my hopes and dreams of retirement, or any sense of who I was as a man!”]

Every time I looked in the mirror, I would see this haunted visage staring back at me. I barely recognized that man (“Hey, I lost my double-chin! Thanks, Divorce Diet!”). I had dark circles under eyes that were perpetually red-rimmed, and though I looked like a wreck, I didn’t care much about that. However, my heartbeat felt irregular and I always seemed short of breath. When I started to notice my hands trembled slightly, I realized that I should probably see a doctor. Not for myself, for at the time I didn’t really care what happened to me; but for my kids, because they needed their Dad.

I made an appointment to see my General Practitioner, a man about my age who I will call Dr. Justin. I had been a patient of Dr. Justin for several years and felt comfortable with him – he embodies all of the “good” qualities that I think a doctor should have: smart, kind, thorough, friendly. I genuinely liked him, and thought he would be able to give me some advice on what to do about the lack of sleep, the shortness of breath, the shakes.

After being checked in and getting weighed and blood-pressure-checked by the nurse, I sat in the examining room in a daze. All my days were spent in a daze back then. After a quick knock, Dr. Justin came in, smiling and a handshake ready. He asked how I was and I said simply, “Okay”.

Maybe it was something in my voice, maybe it was the dark circles and red-rimmed eyes, but he evidently saw that I was not, in fact, “okay”. He frowned slightly and sat on the little wheeled stool and looked at his computer pad that has taken the place of clipboards in twenty-first century doctor’s offices.

“Wow, looks like you’ve lost some weight,” he said, looking at the nurse’s notation. “That’s great.” He looked up at me and again must have seen the dark clouds brimming there, for he then said, “So. What’s going on?” He didn’t say “What are you here for today?” or “What seems to be the problem?” or any of the standard questions. Simply, “What’s going on?” Casual and friendly, it put me at ease.

I let out a deep sigh and told him what was going on with me. He listened. He just listened and waited for me to tell what I had to tell without interrupting. When I was done, he was again simple, casual, and friendly. “Wow, I’m sorry to hear that. I know how hard it must be right now.”

He then went on to talk about what he has seen in men our age, when dealing with stress, crisis, life-changing events. He spoke from his position as a doctor treating men just like me, and I could tell he spoke the truth. His words were not meant to make me feel better, they were just meant to give me awareness, to share experience. I liked that he didn’t treat me as a victim; he just treated me as the wounded man I was. Wounded, but still a man.

We spoke for nearly forty-five minutes (which is an eternity by today’s doctor’s office-visit standards) before he even talked of treatment. He gave suggestions on what I could do to manage and cope with what the conditions of life were presenting me at the time. Eating better will help with sleep. Sleep will help with the shortness of breath and the shaky hands. Exercise will help most of all, he said, and suggested I find a new activity to try.

“Take this opportunity to re-invent yourself,” he said. “Do something you’ve always wanted to do. Try new things. You’ve got a lot of life ahead of you, and you’re healthy for the most part. Think of things that you want to do, and go do them. You’ll get through this.”

I knew our time was at an end, and there was really nothing left to say anyway. I felt tears want to well up at his last few kind words, and I held them back. Too many people had seen me cry lately, I didn’t want to add to the list in my doctor’s office. I took a deep breath, stood up, and said, “Thank you, Doctor.”

He stood as I did, and I reached to shake his hand like I always do. But instead of grasping my hand, he opened his arms and embraced me. My doctor gave me a hug.

I was so stunned by it that I barely had time to register that I was being hugged and thus hug him back before it was over. I had never been hugged by one of my “service providers” before, and I was completely surprised. I felt a lump form in my throat and I didn’t think I’d be able to talk, but as I stepped back I managed to croak another “Thanks” before picking up my paperwork and heading for the door.

“Be well,” he said as I walked away. I looked back with a nod and what felt like a genuine smile. As I checked out and took the elevator down, I marveled over that hug. So unexpected, so out of the ordinary, so appreciated.

The following week, I sat in my therapist’s office, a man I’ll call Dr. Kerry. I had been seeing him for years at this point, so he had counseled me through all the recent months of my marriage disintegrating, but this was my first time seeing him since I’d hit the “emotional bottom” of the separation process.  This was the first time I’d seen him since I learned the truth about what I now simply call “The Betrayal”.

I usually get 45 minutes in his office, and it is always a useful 45 minutes. When I leave Dr. Kerry’s office, I have something I didn’t have when I got there – some new insight or awareness that had not occurred to me before.  He knows me well, and he’s good at what he does: what he does for me is help me to see that I’m really okay.

As he ushered me in to his office and I took my standard place on the couch across from his chair, he could tell by one look at me I was not okay that day.

“What’s going on today?” he asked quietly, speaking in a soothing tone that is like the cool side of a pillow on a hot night. I started talking, then raging, then weeping, then talking some more. I was all over the place in my narration, covering the whole range of the human emotional condition. I could’ve been speaking in tongues for all I know – I only knew that I was in pain and it hurt badly. He mostly listened, and offered comments where comment was needed.

I spent a long time dumping a whole mess of emotion into his office that afternoon, until he eventually said to me –in the gentlest way possible—“We gotta stop there.” I looked at the clock and saw that a full 60 minutes had passed – something that had never happened before. I also saw that I had used up the whole box of tissues that sat on the end table by the couch. I nodded and wiped my eyes with the last tissue I held in my hands, and tossed it into the wastebasket as I stood up.

He, too, stood up at the same time, and once again, as I moved to leave his office, my doctor stepped forward and gave me a hug. I had been seeing this man for several years, but up until that moment I had only ever shook his hand. That day, he apparently saw something that Dr. Justin also saw – a deeply sad man who needed to be embraced by another human being.

I hugged him back briefly, and again managed a “Thanks” as I let go, but as I pulled away, he held me by the shoulders at arms length and looked me in the eye. He spoke clearly, directly, and with a gentle force that was meant to get past all the negative messages I fed myself. “You will be okay,” he said intently, his eyes kind and clear and certain. He half-nodded and raised his eyebrows as if to ask if I understood, continuing to lock me in his gaze. I nodded silently, then turned and headed for the door.

I felt slightly embarrassed, but tremendously grateful. I felt like I was not alone.

About a month later, I had my six-month check-up with my dentist. I’ll call him Dr. Xerxes. This man has been my dentist for nearly fifteen years, and every six months he gets an update on my life. I was nearly four months past-due for this particular check-up, so it had been almost a year since I’d last seen him – a long, dark year. I’d postponed my appointment for months because I just couldn’t get it together to go, I was so stuck in my misery. I finally got to the “Life goes on” stage of progression, and made good on my appointment.

Dr. Xerxes came breezing in to the exam room, all smiles and perfect white teeth, and said “Hey man – wow, you look great! You’ve really lost some weight!” he exclaimed.

“Yeah, I guess I have,” I said, thinking that forty pounds is more than a “guess”.

His eyes widened and he flashed those perfect teeth again, and said, “Well, you look great! How’d you do it?” I noticed that he, too, was looking much slimmer than the last time I’d seen him. “You working out?”

“Well,” I said, and suddenly remembered that my former wife was also his patient, and would likely be seeing him soon if she hadn’t already, and so I chose my words carefully. “I’m – we’re — separated right now, going through a divorce, so it just kinda happened.” I shrugged awkwardly and smiled equally so. “The weight loss, I mean. It just kinda happened.”

His smile faded from his mouth but not from his eyes – they still shone with bright awareness and knowledge. “Ahh,” he said, nodding sagely, “The Grief Diet. I know all about that,” he said, and took a step back and gestured to his body.  “I lost 25 pounds on it,” he said, confirming my suspicion that he was slimmer than I remembered. “My wife and I divorced last year.”

Suddenly the room equalized and I felt completely at ease with Dr. Xerxes, and it occurred to me that he was always good at helping me feel at ease when I’m in his chair. I guess this explains why I’ve been seeing him for fifteen years. He’s also good at what he does.

Instead of having his hygienist do my cleaning that day, he opted to do it himself – a first in all my years as his patient. He cleaned my teeth himself as he talked with me about my situation, his experience, the commonalities we shared. He commiserated with me, he supported me, he made me laugh. He invited me for drinks if I needed to talk. I was moved beyond words at this outpouring of concern and care from my dentist.

And again –perhaps not so surprisingly this time—upon check-out, he stepped toward me, thanking me for coming in, and opened his arms to embrace me, which I did, much less awkwardly than the previous two times with the previous two doctors. This time felt natural, as if it were not unheard of for professional health care providers – even male professional health care providers– to hug their patients.

Three hugs from three doctors. Simple gestures that had an extraordinary effect on me. I have not forgotten them, and my appreciation for these men increased exponentially as a result. Since then, I have discovered that men in all walks of life are not only capable of hugging another man without any sense of awkwardness, but do it regularly, intentionally, as part of who they are. Today I am happy to count myself as one of them – a man who is alive and kicking again, who does not carry the fear and pain and sadness that shuts men down and hardens their hearts.

Everyone, everywhere, at some point or other, needs to be embraced by another human being. And when a person is at his lowest point, that need becomes acute. These three doctors of various disciplines understood this, and when I was at my lowest, they seemed to know exactly what was needed. It was more useful and effective than any pill they could have prescribed. I wonder if they teach this in medical school. If not, maybe they should. 

Today, I hug everyone, warmly and genuinely, because I want to – because I have love and compassion in my heart. When I greet someone, I hug them. When I say goodbye to someone, I hug them. When I congratulate someone, I hug them. When I thank someone, I hug them. I find that I usually hug at least one human being every day – as much for myself as for them.

In terms of health care, one could call it “preventative maintenance”. Hugs are good medicine. No insurance necessary.

An Offering at the Temple of Flux

A canyon is where I received it, and a canyon is where I let it go.

I make the pilgrimage to the Temple with my offering in my bag. My hope is to achieve a symbolic release, to let go of the past, as that is basis of the message I have been receiving for the better part of the past year: let go. Everyone has advice for me on how to deal with divorce. Many have walked that path before me, and I find myself seeing them in a new light. I am grateful for their counsel, even if some of it (“Man, the best way to get over one woman is to get under another one”) is not exactly pearly wisdom. I know they mean well.

The sun is low in the afternoon sky as I make my way across the desert floor to the wooden structure known as the Temple of Flux. Upon seeing it for the first time, I am reminded of canyons: it rises from the playa in a whitewashed swirl of plywood, rounded and uneven, natural lines and rustic shapes that do, actually, look like canyon walls.

The name alone speaks to me, for I am, indeed, a man in flux. The canyon-like appearance, though – that is just too much to be coincidence. A canyon is where I received it. This does not feel like random chance. It seems to be a message to me. A message that came down from the eye of the Universe in a flash of light, straight to planet Earth, hurtling towards the western portion of the North American continent and the rugged Nevada desert to come to a silent, peaceful impact in the middle of a prehistoric lake bed, waiting for my dusty boots to carry me down the temporary street to the space where this man-made canyon sits awaiting my arrival. I am one of thousands of others here for similar purpose, and yet this Temple holds a message just for me. A message of light from Beyond that tells me, “This is the place. This is the place where you can go through.” Read On