by Michael Holland
When our youngest son was 8 years old, he was climbing up into a tree fort at a neighbor’s house. The access was through one of those nifty trap doors in the floor, and as Jesse neared the top of the ladder, he reached up to the edge of the opening to pull himself through. Suddenly the door came crashing down on his fingers. He came running to me and his mom, crying with pain and frustration. If this had happened when we were new parents, we probably would have had him in the car on the way to the ER in a heartbeat. But Jesse is our third kid. By the time this happened, we’d seen a lot tears from kids with scrapes, bruises, and other hurts, and we figured this time was no different. Besides, we were having a grand ole time hanging out with our neighbors, so our quick solution was to get him a bag of ice and tell him that his finger would feel fine soon. Sure enough, Jesse was off playing with his friends again in no time.
That night, however, Jesse complained again and again about his finger. Great parents that we are, we saw through all this complaining to an overtired kid, worn out from a day of playing outside. In a less than father-of-the-year moment, I grabbed a bag of frozen peas and sternly told Jesse to wrap the bag around his fingers and GO TO SLEEP!
Fast-forward to the next day, when I got a call from my lovely wife. She was at a pediatric surgeon’s office with Jesse, and she told me that our son’s finger was not only broken, but broken to the point of needing surgery to repair the growth plate in his finger. Without it, he’d end up with a deformed finger.
Wait, what? It’s broken? He needs surgery? I was lost in a new reality.
Watching Jesse being rolled back into the surgical room to be put under anesthesia is a picture that still haunts me. His little body in that huge rolling bed; big eyes locked on us with a lost look of bewilderment and fear; the doors closing behind him, and nothing for my wife and I to do but wait.
An hour later, Jesse’s finger was fixed and all was fine, but it was a lesson I won’t forget. As a father, I’ve made a tremendous number of mistakes, and I expect I’ll make a bunch more. Most have been fairly mundane in the grand scheme of things; others were more impactful. And some just seem to stick with me, reminding me of the fragility of my role as a father and the lack of training available for that role. I still cringe with guilt when I replay my less-than-perfect encounter with Jesse and the frozen bag of peas.
But the more important perspective is this: I was present. I was there for Jesse to come crying to. I was there with him at dinner, I was there to help him get to bed, and I was there for him to cry out to when his finger still hurt that night. I was there to take him to the surgery. I was there next to him as he lay in that big bed, watching a movie on my laptop just before the surgery. I was one of the last people he saw before going under, and the first person he saw when he woke up.
We all make mistakes, but in the end, that’s not what matters. We can fake caring about our kids but we can’t fake showing up. Being there is what’s important.
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