We All Make Mistakes

When I was growing up, there was a family across the street from us that had two boys. One was my age, the other a little older, and they were both part of our neighborhood pack that would play baseball and football in the street, ride around on our bikes, or simply hang out in one of our yards. The younger boy and I, being closer in age, also shared an affinity for computers. His powerful Amiga had better games, so we would spend time at his house playing them, often for hours at a time.

I remember their dad being really strict. They would address him as “sir” and had to ask his permission for everything, from a can of coke to going outside to play. I could often see a look of fear on their faces when they interacted with their father, and I never knew what that was about until one day when my friend took a soda without asking. We were in the front room on the computer, and his father dragged him to the back of the house. As I sat there, I could hear my friend apologizing through the muffled sobs that echoed down the hallway. I heard the unbuckling of a belt followed by the crack of a whip and then more cries. After a few minutes, there was silence. My friend returned to the front of the house and told me that he couldn’t use the computer anymore and that I had to leave. His eyes were still wet. I couldn’t see him, but I knew my friend’s dad was listening, just out of eyesight. I stood up and left quietly.

I was probably thirteen when that happened and, in the years that followed, I watched as my friend continued to wrestle with his relationship with his dad. I could see it worn on his face, but he often shared how he desperately tried to please his father but always seemed to come up short. It was his failure, he would say, and not the unrealistic or inappropriate expectations of his father. I could see him starting to respond more with his own anger. His grades went down, which only made things worse between him and his father. He started to pull away, hanging out with different friends, until I stopped seeing him altogether.

After I moved away, my mother would occasionally give me updates. Unsurprisingly, my friend turned to drugs in high school. I’m not sure if he graduated, but this bright kid who could have done amazing things with computers burned out and gave up. My mother would see him every once in a while, usually at his father’s house after another stay at rehab. She said he was always polite, calling my parents “Mr.” and “Mrs.”. Each time, I would hope that he had finally sorted his life out, even as I wondered why he kept returning to the place that likely was the catalyst for the direction his life had taken.

As much as I hoped his life would take a different path, it never did. He was 33 when he died of an overdose. I couldn’t help but think that his death was the finally, unforgivable mistake that he would ever make and that it was the last in a long line of disappointments to his father. My friend spent his life never feeling like he could please his father. And then it was over.

I haven’t spoken to him since, but I sometimes think about my friend’s father. I wonder if he feels any responsibility for what happened. I wonder if he would change the past and how he treated his son. Sometimes, I wonder if I am making my son feel the same way.

The other night as I was putting him to sleep, my son said that he was sorry for making so many mistakes. It was a gut punch that came out of nowhere. My chest tightened up. I thought of my friend and his dad and I didn’t know how to respond. His comment was like an arrow that struck the bullseye of my greatest insecurity.

I feel like I’m always riding my son. Sometimes, it’s for normal mistakes that kids are supposed to make. Other times, it’s for things he can’t control because of the side effects of his medicine or seizures, or other complications caused by his condition. He struggles with attention and impulse control issues every day and, as hard as that must be for him, it must be even worse because I am constantly saying “no” and making him feel like he is always doing something wrong. I push him towards perfection because I think it will make his life easier if he can overcome his obstacles, but I am setting extremely unrealistic and unachievable expectations and setting him up for failure. And so I found myself lying next to my six-year-old who is apologizing for being a kid…and human. I don’t need to raise my hand like my neighbor’s father did to do the same type of damage.

I reached out and put my hand on my son’s shoulder. “We all make mistakes, buddy. It’s a part of learning and growing. If we didn’t make any mistakes, then we wouldn’t learn anything new. I make mistakes all the time. I must have made a hundred mistakes today.”

He rolled over and turned to me. “You did?”, he asked. “Like what?”

I laid down next to him and draped my arm over his shoulder. “Well, ” I said, and then I told him about the mistakes that I made during the day. I told him about what I learned from making them and that I was happy that I learned something new. We talked for a while (there were a lot of opportunities to learn and grow that day) until I saw his eyes get heavy.  As he drifted off to sleep, I hoped that by sharing my own mistakes, he would see that everyone makes them and not feel so defeated. It was also an opportunity for me to reflect on those mistakes that I made, including how I responded to my son, so that I, too, could forgive myself, and learn, and grow.

My wife had a great idea and I think we are going to start doing it. We have a nightly routine where we talk about out day…something good, something bad, something we are grateful for. We are going to add a mistake that we did today and what we learned.

And then we’re going to celebrate it.

epilepsy dad make mistakes

Father Forgets

Last week, I was listening to the audio book version of Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends & Influence People on my way to work, and there is a chapter that includes a reproduction of a story by W. Livingston Larned titled “Father Forgets”.  By the time the narrator had reached the second paragraph of the story, I had moved myself to the inner edge of the sidewalk, out of the way, and found myself focusing intently on the words. The words that described how I feel most days after my son has gone to bed; the words that describe my interactions with my son and how I correct his every action and why he always seems to be apologizing when he is around me.

It took everything I had to keep my composure as the words penetrated my ears and bounced around in my brain. When the story was over, I skipped back to the start and listened to it again. Then a third time. I was convinced that the story was written for me to hear and I wanted to absorb every syllable.

Navigating this complicated, messy world of epilepsy continues to be a never-ending sequence of impossible situations. But my biggest challenge continues to be separating the condition and its effects from the boy and what is normal or expected at his age. He is so amazing in so many ways and I take that for granted, so I expect him to be amazing in every way and all the time. I forget that he is just a boy. I forget that he is still learning. I overreact hoping that I am curbing any appropriate behavior caused by his medicines or the wiring in his brain when all I am doing is making him feel inadequate and broken and flawed and like he is constantly disappointing me.

In spite of this, he enthusiastically greets me every day when I come home from work. He’ll ask me to play hockey or baseball, or to have a tickle party, because we have fun together, even as I’m wrestling internally to not correct every little thing he does.

I don’t want my son’s childhood to be a constant struggle for perfection. There are enough obstacles and unfair complications in his young life, and I don’t want him to look back on this time and have the happy memories colored with a sense of disappointment.

It is with the most misguided of best intentions that I find myself at the end of the night finding flaws in my own performance and wishing I had done better. Wishing I had taken that deep breath before I replied with a criticism or adding a “but” to a compliment. The habit of finding fault is not an easy one to break.

But the look on his face when I get home lifts my spirits. The laughter at the end of the night inspires me to try again the next day.

Tomorrow, I will try to be a real daddy, too.

Father Forgets

Listen, son: I am saying this as you lie asleep, one little paw crumpled under your cheek and the blond curls stickily wet on your damp forehead. I have stolen into your room alone. Just a few minutes ago, as I sat reading my paper in the library, a stifling wave of remorse swept over me. Guiltily I came to your bedside.

There are the things I was thinking, son: I had been cross to you. I scolded you as you were dressing for school because you gave your face merely a dab with a towel. I took you to task for not cleaning your shoes. I called out angrily when you threw some of your things on the floor.

At breakfast I found fault, too. You spilled things. You gulped down your food. You put your elbows on the table. You spread butter too thick on your bread. And as you started off to play and I made for my train, you turned and waved a hand and called, “Goodbye, Daddy!” and I frowned, and said in reply,

“Hold your shoulders back!”

Then it began all over again in the late afternoon. As I came up the road I spied you, down on your knees, playing marbles. There were holes in your stockings. I humiliated you before your boyfriends by marching you ahead of me to the house. Stockings were expensive‐and if you had to buy them you would be more careful! Imagine that, son, from a father!

Do you remember, later, when I was reading in the library, how you came in timidly, with a sort of hurt look in your eyes? When I glanced up over my paper, impatient at the interruption, you hesitated at the door. “What is it you want?” I snapped. You said nothing, but ran across in one tempestuous plunge, and threw your arms around my neck and kissed me, and your small arms tightened with an affection that God had set blooming in your heart and which even neglect could not wither.

And then you were gone, pattering up the stairs. Well, son, it was shortly afterwards that my paper slipped from my hands and a terrible sickening fear came over me. What has habit been doing to me?

The habit of finding fault, of reprimanding‐this was my reward to you for being a boy. It was not that I did not love you; it was that I expected too much of youth. I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years.

And there was so much that was good and fine and true in your character. The little heart of you was as big as the dawn itself over the wide hills. This was shown by your spontaneous impulse to rush in and kiss me good night. Nothing else matters tonight, son. I have come to your bedside in the darkness, and I have knelt there, ashamed!

It is feeble atonement; I know you would not understand these things if I told them to you during your waking hours. But tomorrow I will be a real daddy! I will chum with you, and suffer when you suffer, and laugh when you laugh. I will bite my tongue when impatient words come. I will keep saying as if it were a ritual: “He is nothing but a boy‐a little boy!”

I am afraid I have visualized you as a man. Yet as I see you now, son, crumpled and weary in your cot, I see that you are still a baby. Yesterday you were in your mother’s arms, your head on her shoulder. I have asked too much, too much.

-W. Livingston Larned