Soon after Jack was born I began having these strange and sometime unsettling day dreams about saving him. Elaborate scenarios wherein I would rush into a burning house, or rescue him from drowning, protect him from an attacking dog, or the most common was the one where someone tried to kidnap him and I would save him but only after a brutal fight with the abductors that leaves me injured, sometimes fatally. In fact, in most of the situations in order to prevent him from being harmed I had to sacrifice my own wellbeing, my own life.
These delusions of parental heroism have intensified since Adam was born last year and I think the reason I have them is because whereas I’ve always been confident about my physical strength, capabilities and athleticism, how fast I could run, how much I could lift, how much pain I could endure during training or a competition when it comes to what it takes to be a good father, being a good example, teaching my children the right principles and values, spending enough time with them, loving them enough, I’ve always felt I was a failure.
If I can’t say the right words, act the right way, love them the way that, in my heart, I desperately want to then I’ll protect them with brute force.
Yesterday morning as I was leaving for work I told Jack that he should bring King Brian to school with him. When Jack was about three years old I would read Darby O’Gill and the Little People to him in an Irish accent every night and without fail he’d be asleep by the final page. King Brian is the King of the Leprechauns in the book, but eventually King Brian became an imaginary friend that Jack and I shared. All Jack had to do was say, “King Brian.” and he would appear ready to tell Jack a story or climb into his pocket or have a sleep over with him. Even though I was obviously doing the voice of King Brian Jack would never address me directly, instead holding out his hand for King Brian to stand in then talking to the empty space in his palm.
When I arrived home from work I asked Jack if he brought King Brian to school with him and he said he had not. I asked him why and he said that it was time for King Brian to leave. Leave? Why would King Brian have to leave? Jack was standing on the couch in front of me; his eyes welled up and his face contorted into an anguished mask and he began to cry.
“Wait, Jack, what’s the matter? King Brian doesn’t have to leave.” I picked him up and hugged him.
“Yes he does. It’s time for him to leave.”
“But why? Did something happen at school? Did someone say something?”
“No. Nobody said anything. I’m growing up and it’s time for him to leave.”
“Growing up doesn’t mean he has to go Jack. If making King Brian leave makes you sad then you should let him stay.”
“No Daddy. It’s inside me now. I’ve made my choice. He has to leave now”
He cried harder and I tried to hold him tighter. I sat down on the ottoman and cradled him into my lap while he wept and clung to my shirt. I didn’t know what to say? I never know what to say when he’s upset like this, but this was different. Jack loved King Brian imaginary or not, he loved him and now he was choosing to send him away. Why? Why would he choose to separate himself from someone he loves? Growing up? He’s only five years old. He looked up at me with tear-filled eyes, “Daddy, you have to leave, too.”
“Me? Why do I have to leave?”
“You just do Daddy. You have to leave and so does mommy.”
Kathleen came into the living room; we were both on the verge of crying. Something had happened to make Jack want to send us and King Brian away. Something I couldn’t protect him from. All I could do was hold him as he cried, pained by some invisible monster telling him he was too old to have King Brian as a friend, telling him Kathleen and I had to go away too. Without lifting his face from my shoulder he asked, “Daddy when are you going to die?”
“Not for a long long time Jack.” Death? Jack has yet to experience death. No family members, friends or even pets have died since he was born. Where was this coming from? Why the fuck wasn’t I a better father, a father who knew it was death he was afraid of, a father who knew the right thing to say to reassure him, to make him stop crying.
He cried harder and asked Kathleen when she was going to die. She told him the same thing I did. Not for a long time. It didn’t matter. He was inconsolable. Minutes passed and no one said anything, no words just the trembling sobs of child lost in the wilderness of life, death and the pain of loss and separation.
“Daddy I think I’m going to get sick”
Still holding him I sprinted up the stairs to the bathroom where he knelt down on the cold tile and put his head over the toilet. I rubbed his back for a moment then stood up and stared down at him. He looked so small, fragile, defenseless…alone. He didn’t get sick and we were able to calm him down enough and get him into his pajamas. 15 minutes later he was asleep on the couch, Kathleen and I on either side of him whispering about what happened. Concerned, confused, and scared.
We were awakened at 2:00 A.M. by Jack’s terrified screams. I jumped from bed and ran to his room where he was standing in the middle of his floor screeching “No No No No No No….” hands extended as if to protect himself from someone or something attacking him. I’ve never seen him so scared. Even after I picked him up and rocked him back and forth he still cried and trembled. Even after I told him it was just a dream, that it wasn’t real, that I was there and it was going to be alright he kept looking around the room searching for whatever had slithered from the depths of his imagination. Even after putting him back to bed and laying with him for over an hour he slept fitfully, rolling back and forth, trying to escape the monsters. The ones in his head, the only place I couldn’t protect him.
Once I was sure he was asleep I kissed his forehead, stood in the middle of his room and watched him sleep. As I stood there I felt powerless. There was no one to chase; nothing to fight. It didn’t matter how strong, how fast, how big, how physically determined I was I couldn’t protect him. I couldn’t save him. Before me was my child, vulnerable and there I was a helpless, weak man motionless yet wanting to swing wildly in the air, to throw punches at the invisible monsters.
Because it’s the only thing I know how to do. Because it’s the only thing I’m good at.