A boy grows

Yesterday was Stephen Caleb’s birthday. He’s twelve, and there are now only 364 days between him and the onset of teenagerism, which I associate — at least among American kids — with sloth and self-indulgence, ignorance and idiocy and all-around brain malfunction, the latter now being scientifically proven at last.

We are all of us pack animals, and perhaps it’s that he’s lived among a curious herd that Caleb so far has shown little tendency toward dullness. His new passion, for example, isn’t some pop star, or video games (even though there is now a Wii in his house, which feels to me vaguely like barbarians are amassing outside the city gates).

It’s geocaching. The boy wants to hide stuff in the woods for people to find, and hunt down stuff that other people have hidden. It’s so Indiana Jones I can’t stand it. Caleb likes to read and he’s irritatingly logical and now he wants to hunt for hidden treasure, and all of this makes me happy and proud.

I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t want to love Caleb when he was born.

We had buried his sister only four months before, and everything in me was numb. I didn’t want to love Caleb, but he wanted to love me. As soon as his legs would carry him, he became my shadow. It was that boy who cracked open my scaled and darkened heart, and even though some days he drives me crazy with his everything-is-black-and-white-and-how-can-I-be-wrong attitude, I love him beyond measure, with more weight than words can bear, more breadth than a father’s arms can reach.

Caleb, Eli, and Isaac had a Star Wars party yesterday. One of the things about divorce is you have to figure out where you’re welcome and where you’re not, and this was definitely a not, so four year-old Isaiah and I decided to have a day on the town. He got all Buddy-the-Elf on me, what with planning our itinerary, which included some snuggling. We also went for haircuts — to Sports Clips, because we’re manly men on a budget that way.

Isaiah has a curious power to make women melt. He does this shy-baby thing, and that sets them all to cooing, and then he pops out with something precocious, and then they giggle, which puts him in eyelash-batting shy-baby mode again. The whole sickening spectacle makes me think the best thing may be for this particular Woodlief boy to become a monk.

He’s a little scared of electric clippers, though, and so the lady who cut his hair was soothing and gentle. She asked him lots of questions to distract him. One question she asked was: “Do your brothers pick on you?

“No. They don’t.”

This seemed to surprise her. She has three boys of her own. “They’re not ever mean to you?”

“Nah,” he said. “They take care of me.”

They do, I thought, and in that moment I loved them all so very fiercely, and wanted to gather them up in my arms — whether to heal them or be healed by them I don’t know, but if nothing else to show them how very thankful I am to be their father. I am thankful if only for the opportunity to learn how to love fully and richly and deeply, as these boys of mine do without even thinking on it, which now that I ponder it, may be the only way any of us can love properly in the first place.


  1. the gripping hand

    I felt the same way when the Young Master approached teenager-dom. It hasn’t (knock on wood) been too bad. At 16, he is still involved in Scouts, serves at Mass, reads at Mass occasionally, trains for track and cross-country, and gets good grades. So buck up, young feller – it could be fun!

  2. Marc V

    My first chance since your “Bread” post to tell you my heart breaks for you again, and how many of us are inspired by your will to put one foot (or word) in front of the other and soldier on. Thanks for continuing to dribble sand into the gears in spite of the pain.

    Now … my wife gets excited about geocaching but I just can’t get with that program. I know I should be supportive and join her, but it does not do anything for me besides make me wish I was doing something else. Maybe it’s just the old grumpy white guy in me.

    You may think you have a year but 12 y.o.’s have a way of pushing things along to feel like they’re teens ASAP. There are times my 13 y.o. will surprise me with his compassion, in between the periods of selfishness and general orneriness. I don’t know how teens without a father-figure make it to their twenties.

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