I was forty when my first son arrived. That was no coincidence. Had I started my family any earlier I am certain that my boys would not be growing into the young gentleman that they are today. Tonight, 12 odd years later, I will remember forever.
Tonight, I walked into the house from the garage to the sound of laughter in the kitchen. What better sound to walk in to?
Michael, my oldest son, had his shirt pulled up over his belly and he said to his little brother, “Look, Jeffrey! I’ve got a one-pack.”
Although he was laughing, I knew from conversations in our past that he was self-conscious about his weight. In spite of the fact that he’s a beautiful young man, inside and out, he has always been self-conscious about his belly being “too big.”
Truth be told, yeah, his tummy sticks out a bit, but it’s been that way since he was a baby. In fact, I remember taking pictures of him when he was just a toddler, then sending them off to his doctor, wondering if there wasn’t a serious GI issue. At its worst, it was dramatically distended. As early as 2 years old, his stomach occasionally looked like he was 9 months pregnant. It looked painful. Then, within hours, he looked quite typical again.
Well, long story longer, this year, Michael’s self-imposed “resolution” was to become a fitter, strong, healthier kid. “Maybe we could go to the gym together Dad. What do you think? Not every day, but maybe 2 or 3 days a week?” His resolution. His terms.
Back to the laughter.
After looking at Michael with his shirt pulled up, and recognizing that this is one of those times when, as the same gender parent, this was a time to show him that I love him, absolutely and unconditionally.
At the time of this writing, and after a short break from triathlon training, I was probably 15 pounds heavier than I want to be…and I was feeling it! I looked Michael in the eyes, then paused for a moment. I was thinking, “I know in my heart that this kid loves me, respects me, and admires me. I know that he watches me put in endless hours of swimming, jogging, and sweating on the trainer in the garage. I know that he has had tears in his eyes when I’ve crossed the finish line at various triathlons and other races.” Then, with my focus on him, and empathy in my heart, I pulled my shirt up, stuck out my belly a bit, and said, “See buddy. I’ve got a one-pack too! I’ve got your back! We’ll work on it together, OK?”
That’s when he absolutely blew my mind.
That’s when he said it. He looked up from what he was doing, for just a split second, and said, “5 words Dad. 5 words.” Then he went back to what he was doing.
That phrase, “5 words,” has evolved over the thousands, (yes, he’s 12…so literally thousands) of hours spent tucking him in at night. Sometimes bedtime is a long and challenging part of the day, filled with growing pains. Sometimes bedtime is short and sweet. Other nights are just filled with peace, love, and comfort. So, over those years, “I love you.” became, “I love you, buddy.” Then it was “I love you more” or “I love you to the moon and back.”
Now he’s older. Right now, as a middle-schooler, it’s so important that he knows, in his most awkward and challenging moments, that no matter what…I love him exactly as he is.
So what are those five words?
“Just the way you are.”
On this night, I showed him that I‘m self-conscious too. I showed him that I’ve got weaknesses and doubts, and perceived imperfections too. And when I showed him my insecurities and my weaknesses, his immediate, almost unconscious response was just that…
“5 words dad. 5 words.”
Those hours by his side for all of those years are showing now. It’s amazing to think that, very directly, I am the recipient of the love that I have given. I’m reaping what I’ve sown.
Love, the noun, is the fruit of Love, the verb.
I know that it can be hard. I know that perhaps now more than ever, we’re overwhelmed and fearful about our futures. But this makes it even more important that we stay plugged into our kid’s lives. We are not here to love our children for doing what we think is right. We are here to love our children because it’s the single greatest most inspiring, most transformative, nurturing act that we could ever do for our children; for anyone for that matter. That kind of love is worth more than any family vacation or college tuition ever could be. The absence of that love is the single most devastating and destructive force I’ve ever seen.
So love ’em…with all of their imperfections. Love them for those imperfections. Love them when you’ve got nothing left to give. When they make mistakes, and they will…guide them, direct them, set expectations for them, challenge them, and love them…just the way they are.
Mikey…you’re a special boy with a really sensitive and loving heart. I love you, son….5 words.