Twenty nine years ago this Friday, September 5th, I became a father for the first time. My oldest son, Jon, was born. Looking back on it now, I realize that I wasn’t prepared- the sleepless nights, the diaper changing, all of those inconveniences you hear about. But they were nothing, they weren’t a big deal. What I really wasn’t prepared for was the spiritual sonic boom of love that struck me. a force of unimagined power, the first time I held my son in my arms. It was one of those rare moments in a life when I knew, as it was happening, that everything was changing, that nothing would be the same anymore.
There are things expected from a new parent that may be intimidating at first. Things like responsibility and commitment. These sound scary at first, but they become second thought when that lighting bolt of love hits you. You know beyond the shadow of a doubt that there’s nothing you wouldn’t do on behalf of your child. The trade off is the opportunity to see the world again through a child’s eye. You’re given access to experience the wonder and awe of everyday living and breathing and being, and the realization of just how perfect and precious these things are.
Here’s an excerpt from a piece I wrote several years ago, on the occasion of Jon’s college graduation, previously posted on this site as part of a piece called “We Could be Heroes:”
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Our first child, our son Jonathan, was born at about 8:30 on the warm late summer night of September 5th, 1985. To say he was in no hurry to enter the world would be an understatement. It took a pair of forceps and 35 hours of labor to bring him out. But that’s Jon – stubborn and independent to this day, he’s always been his own man, and his entry to the world, like nearly everything that has followed, would be done on his terms, his way
I was, of course, thrilled beyond words when the doctor pronounced, “It’s a boy.” Deb and I had been married just over four years, having bought our house in Pleasant Prairie the previous November, and we were ready for children, ready to begin raising a family. We had purchased a modest house in what was still a pretty rural neighborhood, on 2 ½ acres of land that was once part of a large apple orchard. When we bought the house, there were still 35 mature fruit bearing apple trees on the grounds. Across the street from us was a large meadow that ended where 37 acres of old growth oak woods stood. At night, in the winter, deer would make their way out of the woods and through the meadow to eat the remaining apples that had fallen on the ground in our yard. One evening, Deb and I counted seven deer feeding in our front yard. We were convinced this was the right environment for our children to be raised in.
The first night Jon was home with us, we put him in his crib in the bedroom next to ours and watched him fall asleep. Moments later a severe thunderstorm hit that shook the rafters of the house for hours. With each crack of lighting and boom of thunder, we were awake and in his room, the two of us, amazed every time to find him still peacefully asleep.
It seemed for the next two years that that would be the only night he slept through. We had these cheap baby monitor walkie-talkie gizmos, one listening in his room and the other broadcasting in our room. My ear was trained such that when the slightest sound of static would carry over these airwaves, I’d wake and shoot like a rocket out of bed into Jon’s room, and if he was in fact awake, I’d get a bottle out of the fridge, sit him on my lap in the wooden rocking chair we had put in front of the big window in his room, and rock him to sleep. This was our nightly ritual for nearly all of the first two years of his life. I almost always got up before Deb, even the nights when I’d lie awake and wait for either his crying to stop or Deb to get up, whichever came first, until I could stand it no more and got up, at which point Deb would stop pretending and fall back asleep for real.
But I didn’t mind waking up and spending that time with my boy. I was head over heels in love with him. There in the soft lamplight of the night in that rocking chair in his room, I’d talk to him in hushed, soothing tones, comforting him and reading to him. Over the course of several months I actually read to him in its entirety Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild,” knowing full well that he understood little of it but happy to have an excuse to re-read the favorite book of my own childhood.
When the night would get too long and it was time for him and I to both get back to sleep, I’d position the rocking chair so we could see the night sky thru the big window in his room, and I’d point to the bright star in the west and tell him the story of the Jon-star. The Jon-star, I explained, was the one star out of the millions of stars in the sky that burned brightest for Jon and Jon alone, and no matter when, no matter where in the world he might find himself, if he was ever lost in the night, all he had to do was find that star and say, “Dad”, and no matter where I was, I’d hear him, and know he was lost. And at that moment, I’d look to the sky, and the Jon-star would also burn brightest for me, and no matter where I was or how far away Jon was, I’d follow that star and I’d find him, and he wouldn’t be lost anymore.
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Jon is an adult now, working and living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He’s a professional, with a job as safety coordinator for a regional airline. Jon always loved airplanes and flying, having majored in aviation at St. Cloud State university. He’s turned out to be an exceptional man: bright, confident, capable and caring. I sense sometimes when we’re together that he’s looking out for me, and I realize now that the light of the Jon-star shines both ways, and that if I’m ever lost, he’ll find me.
I am so proud of the man my son has grown up to be. I know that as a father, I can only take so much credit for how he’s turned out. I know I made mistakes, I know I made my share of bad decisions, I have my share of regrets. Thankfully, Jon’s been strong enough to overcome my missteps.
But one thing has remained constant all these years – my love for my son is as pure and powerful as when it first struck, and I am a stronger and better man for it.