For what is fatherhood at its best, everywhere, but the training of good men to take the teacher’s place when his work is done? – Henry Van Dyke, from “Au Large” in the collection Little Rivers. (1895)
During Lent a few weeks ago I came home around 10pm and saw that the light was still on in my oldest son’s basement bedroom. I had been out with a few close friends praying a rosary and Divine Mercy chaplet for the unborn and their moms as we do each Lent. Knowing that he had to be up at 5:15am the next morning for a 6am high school baseball practice I went downstairs to see if he’d fallen asleep with the lights on. What I found was a visibly stressed out 15-year-old lying on his bed. I can’t describe it for you other than to say that a parent recognizes these things. After making some small talk I convinced him to come outside with me to go for a walk to clear his head so we could talk about whatever it was that was upsetting him. It was a nice evening, requiring only our hooded pullovers, and we walked a few blocks in silence to our neighborhood park where we found a bench to sit down. We sat in silence for long periods of time while he found his voice; I won’t go into specifics about what was bothering him but after an hour we went back in the house and to bed. He was wiped out during our 5:40am drive to practice but when I picked him up after the after-school practice thirteen hours later he was all smiles and the most relaxed I’d seen him in weeks.
It was after our talk the night before while I laid in my bed that I realized I was running out of time to get to writing this book. During our discussion I had given advice to my son that I myself was not following. I was not stretching, growing, reaching or testing myself as I had told him to do. I was growing complacent towards this book project as I had done to so many other projects. Who was I to tell my son to suck it up and push himself because “anything worth doing is hard”, if I myself was unwilling to do the same?
So I’m writing it now, in stops and starts, at my dining room table on my laptop and intermittently in my basement upon my PC. Where ever and when ever I can find some quiet time, I write by electric light or candle light, fueled by a glass of water, wine or bourbon.
I write because of events such as I had a few months ago. I found myself standing before our bathroom mirror looking at my reflection. It was a few weeks after my 43rd birthday. I stood and stared at my bed-head hair. Man, there was a lot of gray up there. I can always tell when it’s time for a haircut because of the amount of gray. For two or three brief seconds I will admit that I considered coloring my hair. But that vanity quickly passed. A lot of vanities are being let go as I grow older, but on this morning I felt too old, too gray, and too overweight. It wasn’t a pretty reflection.
Part of what I saw reflected back were tired eyes. I had stayed up until 3am the night before reading Promise Me by Richard Paul Evans. I began the book at 10pm, was quickly hooked, and decided to finish it in one sitting. At midnight I left my bed to sit in the living room chair so I wouldn’t bother my wife.
The first quarter of the book disturbed me, as it presented the picture of a man who had much but threw it all away due to his selfish actions. It hit close to home. Too close. I’ve known that man. I’ve shaken my head in disgust and silence at him. I’ve counseled him or those he’s left in his wake. I’ve even been that man. While that story arc ended and the book progressed beyond it, its memory and lessons will stay with me.
I write because as I wrote earlier I am now 43 years old. A few months back I was sent a link to one of those silly websites in which you answer some basic health and family background questions and it will tell you the date you will die. And so to God and country I can now announce that I have 15,676 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 30 seconds remaining above room temperature. Or at least I did a few months ago on March 26, 2011. Now I’m closer to 15,600 days left. I’m going to die on Feb. 23, 2054. I’ll be 86. According to this website I am almost exactly at the halfway point of my lifespan.
Of course this is nonsense. This assumes I will not have an accident, will not be subject to sudden storm activity out here on the prairie, or other world events that are beyond my control. But it was interesting to look upon the numbers and dates and contemplate the meaning of it all. On one hand, I can relax right? I mean, I have FORTY-THREE MORE YEARS to write this book, or any book for that matter. That’s plenty of time to meet my goals of sharing my thoughts on life within its pages with my children.
I’m not going to take that chance. If we learn anything from our experiences each day it is to expect the unexpected. Because it isn’t just about filling your days with events and activities. It is merely not losing sight that each moment has the potential to be your last, and that some moment will be. There will be the last time you make love, the last beer you ever drink, the last time you see your kids, the last time you listen to your favorite Don Henley song. We cannot regret that there will be a last time for everything. But we should savor it in its due time, and let go of it all without fear.
So I write.
On the morning I stood before the mirror I started to read another book. It was a book for men by Fr. Larry Richards named Be A Man: Becoming the Man God Created You to Be. At the end of the first chapter he asks these questions:
- Do you live for today or eternity?
- What would a person who was honest say about you if you died today?
- What do you want them to say?
I’m still finding my answers to these questions. I’m learning to recognize them as I write this book.
I’m finding they appear out of nowhere and in what I read each day. Recently I came across something I’d never read before, a poem by Will Allen Dromgoole called The Bridge Builder. It’s a wonderful work that I think relevant to this subject matter.
The Bridge Builder
by Will Allen Dromgoole
An old man, going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening, cold and gray,
To a chasm, vast, and deep, and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned, when safe on the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.
“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim, near,
“You are wasting strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide-
Why build you this bridge at the evening tide?”
The builder lifted his old gray head:
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followeth after me today,
A youth, whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him.”
Perhaps you read this and asked yourself, as I did, if we build bridges every place that people may struggle to get across then how will they acquire the strength and knowledge to cross them like the old man did? Aren’t we weakening our youth by building bridges everywhere? After some thought it came to me: we build the bridges not to weaken those who follow, but so they may have the strength to go further than we did, and become better men and women than we were. I didn’t read the poem to say that we need to build bridges so that things will be “easier” for those who come after us. To me, the poem seemed to say that our actions aren’t just for us, but also have an impact on those who come after us. My favorite line in Scripture is from St. Luke: “To whom much is given, much will be required.” (Lk 12:48) We are given much. It is terribly selfish not to share it with those who follow. We have bridges to build, leading and helping those who may follow.
Even if what we do makes certain things easier for the next generation there will always be new struggles to draw strength from. The old man built that bridge so the youth could conquer chasms that he would never even meet. There will always be another chasm ahead. If the youth is wise, he’ll pause on that bridge and remember the work of the old men who built it before him. These bridges, built upon the struggle, hardship and firm foundation of experience from those who have gone before us, are the key to building a generation of young men and women better than ourselves.
This poem makes me think about the reason I exist. To pave the way for my own children, so that they may travel faster, easier and give them the opportunity to achieve more than I was able in my own life. It is why my parents built bridges for their children and still are to this day. My own bridge is half finished. I’ve a long way to go yet.
There’s an old saying that “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” I’ve also heard it said that “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”
And so I write…
©2011 Jeff A Walker. All Rights Reserved.