Here’s a trick I learned:
You get moments in parenthood. Moments when everything is going right, moments you want to suspend in time and never leave. Sometimes those moments come at Christmas or on birthdays, or on vacations or at graduations or weddings, but more often than not they sneak up on you unawares, in the car, at the supermarket, or curled up on the couch watching TV. Moments when the work and the worry of parenting melts away, and you’re left just enjoying the relationship you’ve worked so hard at. You can’t always anticipate when this will happen, but when you find yourself in the relaxed joy of one of those moments, do this:
Catch it in your brain. Think to yourself, “This is one of those moments I am going to look back on when my child has grown up.” Take a second to message your future self, “I get it. I’m taking this is, saving it all for later.” Put an imaginary sticky note on your moment, the brightest neon yellow you can imagine. Mark it.*
Last Tuesday, I had one of those evenings with The Knucklehead that had “Mark this” written all over it. Until Knucks went and marked it for me. But we’ll get to that.
To set the scene, last Tuesday evening found me and my nearly-20-year-old Knucklehead sitting at a table in a taphouse/restaurant in the town where he attends university. We were there to watch a World Series game together. We’d been to the same place last year to have dinner and watch our Red Sox beat the Cardinals, and I wanted to do this again. His school is just over a 30-minute drive from my house, so we’re able to do this without too much trouble. So I called him up while the playoffs were going on and said, “Pick a night. Game 1, 2, 3, or 4, I don’t care which, but I want to nail down one game we watch together. You can bring a friend or two if you want. Bring your homework if you want. But I want one game with you.” He chose Game 1, on Tuesday night, and it was a date.
Now, you might be surprised that I told my Knucklehead he could bring his homework, but I didn’t want him to have to carve out an evening at the expense of his studies. And, besides, we usually have something else going on when we watch a ballgame together, anyway. Baseball, even playoff baseball, has a rhythm to it that allows for reflection and conversation. You wouldn’t always know that from listening to national broadcasts, but the truth is, we’ve never sat in rapt attention to the game, first pitch to last, not even watching at a ballpark, where I’ll often bring my Kindle or a newspaper. Baseball is a civilized sport like that. The moments that capture your attention are easily recognized, and while the game always presents something to study, it unfolds at a pace that allows your attention to wander if need be. So Knucks had an assignment he was going over, and I had something to keep me busy. If baseball was not going to demand my son’s undivided attention, neither was I. To be honest, I just like hanging out with the guy.
And for how much longer would I have the opportunity? The Knucklehead is talking about spending a semester abroad next fall, something I’ve encouraged him to do. After college, what? Work, grad school, a family of his own? Where in the country will my boy land? Where in the world? I doubt very much this will be our last World series game together. But sooner or later we’re going to have a World Series without each other, and what’s to keep me from moping around then?
This is why you mark those moments. They are a gift to your future self. They are a way for you to look back when those moments are no longer at hand and say, “I didn’t take those times for granted. I knew a good thing when I had it. I saved those moments for later, when I’d need them.” They are insurance you take out against regrets.
And it works, too. I already know that. I can think back now to a warm autumn day when my boy was three, and a few hours we spent at a playground. I can still smell the leaves on that day, and feel the warmth of those little arms around my neck, he in his blue and teal fuzzy sweatshirt. I can return to that day, because I marked it while it was happening. There was a warmth in my heart that I didn’t want to forget, and so I savored every sight, smell, and sound of that afternoon so I could keep it forever. When I look back on that moment now, or a hundred others like it, I’m grateful to my younger self for hanging onto that day. It’s a gift I can pull out and savor whenever I need to.
My son and I fell into easy conversation as we ate our dinner and watched the first innings. The place was relatively empty, this being a Tuesday night, but we’d been warned that the place might fill up and get noisy when Tuesday Night Trivia began. That was OK with us. We didn’t really need to hear the FOX announcers, we were good to follow the game just from the visuals. Our conversation, befitting the solemnity of the father/son relationship, was along these lines:
Me: “Do you think they play Panic at the Disco whenever Joe Panic comes up to the plate at San Francisco?”
Knucks: “No. No, I don’t. Because he’s probably sick of hearing that wherever he goes.”
Me: “Oh, I don’t know. When he hit that home run in the NLCS last week, I posted ‘Panic at the Disco!’ as my Facebook status, and the next day at work a bunch of people asked me what I was talking about.”
Knucks: “Would these be old people, like you?”
Knucks: “So what you’re saying is, among the 50-year-old crowd at work, you’re like the most in tune with popular culture?”
Me: “It sounds so lame when you say it like that.”
But I was getting him back. See, regular readers of this blog know that Tuesday nights are when I go to my local pub and write to my Knucklehead. So I thought, while he’s doing his homework, I’m going to write his weekly letter to him, while I’m sitting right next to him, and see if he notices. It’s really a remarkable experiment in letter-writing. As the game is going on and we’re talking about the game, I’m simultaneously writing about the experience, INCLUDING THE FACT THAT HE HASN’T CLOCKED ONTO WHAT’S GOING ON NOT TWO FEET AWAY FROM HIM. It’s astonishing, really. An excerpt:
Maybe I should be impressed that you’re so devoted to your studies. But how do you not notice the fact that I am writing a letter on the very stationary I write to you every week? Are you that oblivious, or just terribly incurious? I may do a blog post about this this weekend. This could be the most documented evening of your young life, and you simply have no clue what’s going on. This is all very “meta”, and you’re totally missing it. Boy, are you going to feel stupid on Thursday when you read this.
Oh, I’m loving this. I’m waiting for him to say, “Is that my letter you’re writing?” and he never does. Even as I tear finished pages off the tablet and lay them aside. Not a clue. Not through the whole evening.
It’s our kind of night. Baseball, a little banter back and forth. But mostly, enjoying each other’s company. Both of us relaxed, just being ourselves. I’m smiling, and as I feel myself smiling, I’m preparing to mark this moment. Probably for next year, when he’ll be in Europe.
And then something happens that makes the marking unnecessary.
As promised, at 8:55, the place suddenly fills up. Where we were sitting in a relatively deserted area in front of the TV screen, we are now surrounded by older college students, with plates of wings, pitchers of beer, and trays of shots being delivered. It’s getting noisy, the emcee is gearing up for the evening. We can still watch the game, alright, but I’m feeling decidedly conspicuous for my son’s sake. He’s still underage, so he’s sitting there with a Pepsi in front of him, and he’s sitting next to his dad for chrissakes while he does his homework. All in clear view of upperclassmen. Suddenly, this whole thing feels a little selfish on my part.
“Hey,” I whisper to my boy, “anybody here you know?”
He looks up from his work and scans the pub. “Yeah, a few.”
“Why don’t we move to another part of the restaurant. Or we can go somewhere else, or head back to your dorm. C’mon. Thanks for doing this, but you don’t want to be sitting here with your dad in front of all these people.”
And Knucks looks me straight in the eye, and says, “I don’t care what any of these people think.” And turns straight back to his homework.
Suddenly, I’m not so self-conscious any more. If anything, I’m a little in awe of my kid. If The Knucklehead is fine with this, so am I. I relax, watch the game, tune out everything else around me. I got baseball, and I got my boy. After about an hour and a half, the place empties out as quickly as it filled up, and we watch the rest of the game in peace.
No, I’m not going to have to mark this moment. My son just did it for me.
*There’s more that you can do than just mark it in your head. You can scribble it down, write about it, blog it, or journal it. If that seems like a lot of work to you, it’s not. I have a friend who writes a blog called Saving My Life, in which the whole idea is to save snippets of the stories, ideas, memories and feelings that make up a life. Sounds intimidating? It’s not, and my friend, Natalie can show you simple ways to save your life a little at a time, and if you’re so inclined, turn them into beautiful essays, like she does. She loves non-writers and beginning writers, and reading her blog is like having coffee with her at her kitchen table. If you’ve always meant to start a journal, but found it too intimidating, she’s got some great ideas.