One could do worse than be a swinger of birches. — Robert Frost
So there I am in the Fern Hill school yard, sitting under a pomegranate tree with my son on the first day of 4th grade. It seems the sadness of the world is with us. It always seems that way to me when Nick cries. Time slows and slows. I wonder if it will stop altogether.
Morning meeting finishes, the children come out to play, and Nick’s teacher Dante meanders over to us.
“Nick,” says Dante. “We missed you at morning meeting. What seems to be the trouble?”
“Nothing,” says Nick. “I want to go home.”
Much of the patience I have with Nick, such as it is, I’ve learned from observing his teachers. I watch the gentle back and forth between Nick and Dante, punctuated by long silences. I’m hoping the reason for Nick’s miserableness will tumble out. But after a quarter hour, Dante is no more successful than I am at unlocking that particular door.
“Nick,” I say, “I want to talk with Dante a minute.”
Dante and I move a short distance off. I count it as a victory that Nick lets me go. I’ve done what I can here, I think. At least Nick has gotten to his feelings. He seems cried out.
“I’m going to go home,” I say to Dante.
“Really?” Dante says. “I think Nick could use your support.”
As in, show up.
As in, be there.
I think hard about my agendas. I don’t have to be a doctor today. Today I was going to be a writer. There’s the Pulitzer I’m angling for, the Nobel to be considered. What of it? The plain truth is the world won’t miss me or my words.
It’s occurred to me now and again that I’d have made a good parent volunteer in the Fern Hill yard. A gust of shame passes over me that I’ve never done it. Not one single day in all these years. Though I regard the yard as a kind of paradise, and perhaps, when my last breath goes out, my true name will be revealed not as chronicler or healer, but swinger of birches.
Nick’s voice calls me back to myself.
“Dada,” he says.
“Will you stay with me?”
Would you rather write about your kid or be with him?
Dante grins and wanders off. Nick nestles next to me on the futon as I settle in. I’ve decided to to accept the gifts of the day, which are considerable. A release from the injunctions in my head. Surrender to the passage of time. The warmth of Nick’s body next to my own.
I close my eyes and listen to the twittering of blackbirds, the voices of the other children playing. My rhythm slows. All I know is that I’m here. What will be will be.
“Is Nick sad?”
Nick’s friend James is standing before us.
“Are you, Nick?” I say.
“Yes, James,” Nick says.
“Jay told Nick he hated him when he didn’t save a cubby for him,” says James.
“Nick, did Jay say that?”
“Is that why you’re sad?”
The whole story comes out: how Nick’s best friend, Jay, was late and Nick couldn’t save him a cubby. How, when Jay finally arrived, Nick had demanded an explanation. How Jay, who had been late through no fault of his own, had lashed out at Nick.
“Can we go home now, dada?”
“Let’s take a walk.”
As he gets up, Nick pulls his hat down over his face.
“You’re trying not to call attention to yourself?” I say.
“Yes,” says Nick.
“I can’t think of anything more interesting than a boy walking with a hat over his face.”
Nick readjusts the hat.
“Do my eyes have red?”
“Not much,” I say. “Nobody would think there were tears there.”
The world travels so fast. I live in a city called Impatience. Not that I hate slowing down. I don’t know what slowing down is.
I used to run the 440-yard dash. Sometimes, I’d be crouched in the starting blocks, every muscle straining at the block pedals, every nerve on edge, yearning for the sound of the gun going off. And the shot would misfire. Or someone make a false start. Or, worse, a block pedal would slip and I’d push off into airy nothingness. Seven other runners sprinting away and I flat on my face, eating cinders.
Moments like these have names.
They are called, here.
I had thought I was going to tell this story in two posts. Silly me. The First Day of School continues next time with Magic Wand. It takes what it takes.
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Image Credit (feet): Trudi Forrestal
Thoughts about patience? Maybe you’re a swinger of birches? Just Add Father is listening. (Unburden your mind by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)
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