The Brett Favre of parenting

Guilt is a byproduct of selfishness. Guilt, that tightness around the heart and lump in the throat, reminds us that, but for satisfying our own wants and desires, we might not have overlooked something so simple we could’ve done to make it all better. Instead, we went our own way. And then the guilt.

My life works on an axis of guilt. I do what I want and try to keep myself largely in line. I massage my Id, and then spend double the time wallowing in a puddle of guilty, existential angst. I don’t know what Atlas felt like, but the selfish part of me likes to pretend like I do.

This is what found me driving through spitting cold rain on Friday afternoon. I’d spent the better part of the past three weeks with my head in a computer screen. I’d discovered that it was possible to work even after all the work was finished. An unknown consequence of a goal-oriented life is that it’s tough to shake the focus. I’ve spent much of my life as a slacker, a hedonist, and the Richard Petty of guilt racing. And so on Friday I grabbed my older boy and put him in my broken down vehicle. He loves riding in the thing. It has no window locks, he sits up high in the back seat, and we listen to rock and roll.

I had no plan. The rain was going to turn into snow and it was already after 2pm. But, it was Friday and I’d vowed to tear myself away from the work I’d created for myself. We went to the bank where I got some cash and got him two Dum-Dum suckers. Back in the car, we debated where we would go. I let him pick. It was Monkey Joe’s, followed by Guitar Center, followed by a drive to Sonic in the snow. Before we got home, he had a new pair of drum sticks, a hot dog, a milkshake, and some tater tots.

The snow piled up enough outside that we could go play. So we did, and I found my guilt freeze up. I may not be the best father, and I may not be around as much as I should be, but when I do it right, I do it well. Inside, my wife made hot chocolate and put the baby to bed. My wife suggested a fire in the fireplace might be nice for a snowy night.

I looked at the clock. It was already getting late. But it was Friday, so I relented. I built a small fire in a fireplace we haven’t used for its intended purpose more than a handful of times in the past ten years. The boy sat in front of the fire, cautious, a little afraid, but trusting his father, the man with the paunch who was saying, “It’s going to be cool, buddy. I know what I’m doing.”

And I do know what I’m doing. I spent much of my youth building fires in a wood stove. I’ve built countless campfires (although, I know I’ll get debates from my camping buddies who will insist they build better fires). I know fire. I was confident the little conflagration in the fireplace would be fine.

The next half an hour was something out of Norman Rockwell. Hot chocolate. Giant pillows. The dog nuzzling up to a little boy. My wife telling stories while I noodled on my acoustic guitar. I actually left my body for a second, looked down on us, and thought, “Now there is a happy, well-adjusted family. There is a family that will look back on this night as one of its finest memories. In fact, it may become one of the memories that helps define my boy’s childhood. When he is 36 years old, he will tell his drinking buddies about the day he got to eat junk food, play in the snow, drink hot chocolate, and then sat in front of a fire with his dog and parents while listening to his mom’s stories and his dad’s guitar.”

That’s when I noticed the glint of something reflecting on the bottom of the fireplace. I tilted my head like a dog that hears the fire engines in the distance.

“Wax,” my wife said.

Wax. Five years ago or so, we burned giant candles in the fireplace during parties. Somehow, the wax residue was still there. It was blackened and invisible, but it was still there.

A few seconds later, the wax started to drip out of the front of the fireplace. A few seconds later, what had become a giant pool of wetness underneath the logs caught fire.

I tried to be casual, but the fire had tripled in size in a matter of minutes. I closed the glass doors and we scooted back from the flames. My kid tried to mimic my ease.

“I’m just going to pick up these toys,” he said and started dropping plastic animals into a plastic sleeve. It was clear that he was terrified but trying to be cool for his dad. He moved deliberately with one eye on his toys and one eye on the fire. The noise inside the fireplace was a giant sound, a simultaneous whoosh and sucking rattle, like something you’d hear at an airport when a plane was taking off. Within 60 seconds, the kid’s fear had overtaken him. He’s climbed into his mom’s arms and was crying, shaking, and frozen with terror.

And I stood there powerless. I knew that the wax was going to burn off eventually, and it was just a matter of making sure it didn’t make it outside the fireplace. In the meantime, though, I felt powerless. I felt angry. I felt like the Brett Favre of parenting.

Because, here I am. I am the guy who believes in himself. I am the guy who shrugs when other people applaud his efforts. I am the guy who can fascinate and impress his son. And then, when it feels like it’s the most important moment–maybe ever–I throw a stupid pass into the arms of the defense and then just stand there looking helpless.

Nothing breaks my heart more than seeing my son afraid. I can handle him being sad when his Nanny and PaPa leave town. I can handle him being mad because we’ve made him stop being ridiculous. I can handle him being confused about why people die. But I can’t handle seeing him afraid. I’ve spent the last five years telling him my job is to make sure he stays safe and telling him I won’t let anything happen to him. He is rarely truly afraid, and when he is, I feel like the biggest failure I know.

I’ve felt this bad only once before. A few months back, the boy was really ill. His fever had climbed up around 104 degrees and we were doing anything we could to get him back to a temperature that would make it seem like he wasn’t on fire. The doctor suggested a cool bath. It fell to me to administer the torture. When I picked him up and set him in the water, he screamed like I’d thrown boiling grease on him. I tried to reassure him that it would be over soon and I was just trying to make him better. The cold was too much, though, and he shrank up against the back of the tub, screaming, flailing his arms to keep me away from him. It almost looked as if he was fighting off an abusive parent. When this thought occurred to me, I nearly broke down. I ripped him from the water, wrapped him in a towel, and then wrapped him in my arms until he’d stopped crying. I honestly can’t think about it without wanting to cry myself.

There is a rational part of me that remembers the story of the The Falling Christmas Tree Incident. When I was very young, my father was putting up our Christmas tree when it topped over on top of him. I happened to be watching and the sight scared me enough that I ran from the room crying. I wanted nothing to do with the tree that year. That is, that’s the story they tell me. I don’t remember the incident at all. It’s only a part of my memory because my family told the story about once a year after that.

So, indeed, there is the rational part of me that that believes my boy will forget about the Exploding Fireplace Incident of 2010. The wax eventually burned off and the fire died down, but the moment had passed. There would be no reclaiming the peace of a few minutes before. And so I hope my boy won’t remember that his dad told him everything was going to be cool, and things turned out decidedly not cool. He may even come to like the idea of a fireplace some day.

For now, though, from this pit of existential angst into which I’ve dropped, I feel fairly horrible. I feel like I–once again–blew a perfectly good moment. I feel like the Brett Favre of parenting.

The only difference is…I like Brett Favre.