“You be as angry as you need to be,” she said. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Not your grandma, not your dad, no one. And if you need to break things, then by God, you break them good and hard.”Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls
The pieces of your Avengers Tower Lego lie scattered across your bedroom floor. The lacquered head of a pink plastic poodle dangles from its body, held on by some cheap wiring. Superhero figurines and trading cards of your favorite athletes, recently perched proudly atop your bookshelf, now cower together under the bean bag in the corner of the room.
“I’ll never be forgiven!” you mutter between sobs under your bed sheet cover. “I know there will be a consequence!”
It doesn’t matter how many times I tell you I’ve forgiven you or that I’m not imposing any consequences for your tantrum (Lord knows you’ve already created several for yourself). The blind rage that led to this destruction has now been replaced by an equally strong and blinding shame.
My calming words are having as little an effect subduing the shame as they had quelling the anger. I am sitting on the edge of your bed, trying to keep in mind the dying mother’s words from A Monster Calls: letting you feel all the emotions that need to be felt; letting you break what needs to be broken.
But it’s hard to watch you tear yourself down.
When my words don’t pull you out of your spiral, I try to get you to focus on your breathing. “Breathe in,” I say and demonstrate a long inhale. “And out,” I add over your sobs.
“And in.” Inhale.
I think about what led to this moment: me telling you that you had to sleep in your own bed tonight.
“And out.” Exhale.
I resist the urge to cave and go for the quick fix of letting you fall asleep in my room again.
I notice that I am feeling better after a minute of this breathing exercise, more resolved and certain you will be fine. But you have not joined in and you remain hidden under the covers. “I’ll never be forgiven!”
I change tack again.
“You know tomorrow is the anniversary of the day Grandpa Webster died, right? It will be twenty years. I almost can’t believe it.” I notice your breathing has calmed a bit. “Wish I could talk to him at times like this. He always knew the right things to say. What do you think he would tell us right now?”
“I don’t know,” you say, and you start to cry again. “I never met him.”
“When I was in college he wrote me some letters,” I tell you, pushing past it. “They are some of the most important things I have in the world.” Your breathing calms again and you ask if you can see them. I tell you that I’ll find them and show you them tomorrow.
“One of the things that he told me in the letters was how hard it was for him to drop me off at college because he was sad that I would be far away and that I was growing up so fast.”
And then I shared with him the words that have been imprinted on my heart the last twenty years.
“[Since dropping you off at college] I have had a chance to think a great deal about being a dad and about how blessed I have been. I have figured out that my love for you & Heather, Hannah, & Ben isn’t diminished by the miles that we are apart or the days that go by, and that has helped me to better understand the depth of God’s love for me, and God’s love for each of you.”Grandpa Webster
You have calmed down. For that alone, I am grateful for my dad’s words, but I don’t really know why I have shared this particular quote with you. I haven’t worked out the threads yet, can’t quite see for myself what it has to do with your tantrum. Maybe I’m just talking to direct your attention elsewhere. Maybe I’m hoping my dad’s wisdom will inspire some of my own.
“Do you know when I forgave you for causing this mess?” I ask you, stumbling my way through it. “Was it when you tried to clean some of it up? Was it when you said you were sorry? Was it when you asked for forgiveness?”
You think about it for a few seconds and, clever kid that you are, see through my subterfuge. “Immediately,” you answer, with some reluctance.
“That’s right,” I say. “The second you did it I forgave you. There’s nothing you can do that will ever make me love you any less.”
And now the threads are starting to come together in my mind.
“Nothing you do will ever make me love you any less. Whether you’re angry or happy or sad. Even if you break all your Legos. It doesn’t matter what you do or say. It doesn’t matter how close or how far apart we are. I’ll always love you this much.”
“Just like what my dad said,” I add. “I still love him 20 years after he died, and he still loves me. Like how much we love mommy and she loves us.”
And I’m feeling pretty good about our talk, even fifteen minutes later when you convince me to let you sleep in my bed for one more night.
It’s the following day, the twentieth anniversary of my dad’s passing, and we are at Red Robin for dinner.
It was your idea to come here. You remember two years ago, on the eighteenth anniversary, when you and I went to a movie together and then met your mom here. It was the last time she was around for this anniversary. The last time she would buy me Dots, Diet Coke, and baseball cards to help me remember him. The last time she would buy me a card and write a message of encouragement in it.
You remember that day two years ago, just as you remember that I used to eat at this chain during my own childhood with my dad and the rest of my family. Without knowing you are doing it, you have taken over from your mom the roles of rememberer and comforter.
As we wait for our food, a teen at a table behind us keeps loudly dropping the F bomb. You look at me with horror on your face, and briefly I think how nice it might feel to rage a bit myself, like you did last night. Instead, I make exasperated faces at you when we hear the word, and together we smile and shake our heads.
I tell you a story about my dad as we eat our dinner. It’s not a very good meal, and it’s not a particularly good story, either. Just one about how we’d pick up crabapples together in the fall while we listened to a broadcast of the football game on the radio. I don’t know why this memory came to mind or why I’m sharing it with you now. There’s not much to tell.
As I describe it to you, though, I surprise myself with how vividly I remember kneeling down under that tree, flinging fruit into a bucket with my dad as the Griz score another touchdown. The static and whine of the radio. The feeling of accidentally putting my hand down on a mushy apple. The briskness in the fall air. The sweet smell of decaying fruit. The grass and mud stains on my knees and the ache in my back when I finished and stood up.
Oh well. The best memories don’t always make great stories.
We head home after dinner and find a package on our doorstep. One of our friends has sent us some Dots and baseball cards. I am touched and I am grateful, since I had forgotten to pick these special items up from the store earlier on my own.
So, don’t fret. You won’t have to be the only rememberer and comforter. As always, our friends will carry us along.
We get ready for bed and tonight you have no problem falling asleep in your own bed. You do not need to break anything tonight. You aren’t worried about forgiveness and consequences. You are calm and happy, and my love for you is just as strong as it was last night when the toys were flung out across the floor.
Sometime later we’ll put the Lego tower back together. Not tonight. Maybe not for a while. Once you finally calmed down last night we carefully collected all the pieces and put them in a ziplock bag. They can stay there, broken, for now. Maybe even for a long time.
After twenty years, I’ve learned you don’t need to set everything right all at once.