Spring is a time of promise, of opening our windows to blow out the germy winter air and replace it with nature’s sweet ionic breath. It’s also the time of year when I remember how a female police officer, her hair in one thick braid, walking through my bushes like a tense ghost, hand over her gun, glaring at me, and asking, “Is everything okay, sir?”
I’m normally a good parent, good by my own standards anyway, which and is to say by guy standards. Sandy, my wife, was gone for the weekend, so it was just me and our three kids, plus Kayla, their cousin.
It was a sunny, warm, and breezy weekend. All was right with my little suburbia world. I was reading, lounging, and listening to A Prairie Home Companion. Four kids were running around the house, and so as a guy, as long as they don’t come to me carrying one of their own limbs, I don’t really pay much attention.
And as a guy, I try not to contaminate play, you know, hover, ask a lot of questions, make sure everyone’s self-esteem is pumping on all cylinders, that everyone in the play group feels empowered, that everything’s equal and everyone agrees—you know, the kind of stuff mom’s are prone to do.
I’m a guy, so if children must run with scissors, I make sure the pointed end is pointed down and I make sure to tell them to roll onto their back if they fall, keeping their scissor hand away from their body. If they choose to jump from the trampoline into the pool, “tuck,” I say. “You’ll rotate faster.” These are things my wife will never say to our children. Her tombstone could read, “Careful. That Could Hurt You.”
And I don’t respond to just any scream either. It has to have a panicky quality, the kind you hear in horror movies or when people are drowning, before I’m going to get up and investigate. Scratches have to be real, dramatic, something out of Alien—not white, but red, swollen, weeping with mucus and something swimming in them before I’ll put anything on them.
So when my son Garrett and his cousin Kayla told me in my office that “We dialed 9-9-1,” I brushed it off as a clever joke. Sure you did, you rambunctious children, I thought. 9-9-1. You pranksters. I wasn’t born yesterday.
Well, apparently I was.
They told me again. I didn’t believe them. Then again. I told them to go away like the flies they were because Garrison Keillor was about to give us the news from Lake Wobegon, a near sacred time in my week. The prank was getting old, so I went to the front yard to get a break.
I was reading The Humor of Kierkegaard, not exactly a best seller I know. He puts you in an existentialist state of mind, so a philosophical attitude toward life was billowing inside me, like cumulous clouds. I was hearing one hand clapping in the forest, I was thinking about smoking a pipe (but what style? I wondered: corncob, or that thing that looks like a mini saxophone?) when out of the bushes came a woman dressed in blue.
A police officer crouching forward, glaring at you, ready and willing to draw heat upon you, has a way of knocking your head out of the existentialist clouds. And when she says, “Someone called 9-1-1—five times! Is everything okay?!,” I suggest to you that responding with a question born from existentialist rumination, such as, “What do you mean by ‘okay’? Is anyone really ‘okay’?” is not the route to take. It’s not that such a question is wrong, just inappropriate in that is has no real power to keep you from being wounded.
Oh, and did I tell you that my other son was crying on the front yard? Talk about Kierkegarrdian irony: One son and his cousin dialed 9-1-1, five times. My other son was sitting on the front yard crying from hitting his knee on a tree trunk. I’m not an especially bright man, but even I know what this looks like. The officer with her pale hand over her gun thinks I’m a child beater, and no one likes a child beater.
It’s all making sense now: 9-9-1 was really 9-1-1. Fives times over.
“Um….oh…,” I tried to say, still stunned. “They weren’t joking. Elliot, go get your brother,” I said.
“Officer,” I said, “you’re going to want to talk to my son, and I’m going to stay right where I am.”
I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember the relief I felt when she removed her hand from the top of her holster.
Garrett came out, wearing his usual deer eyes when he knows he’s in trouble. They make disciplining him a real challenge. I was eager to see how long it would take for the officer to melt before their mighty power.
“Garrett,” I said. “This officer wants to talk to you. Tell her what happened.”
Garrett has sweet, almond-shaped eyes and a lot of hair that frames his face. He also has a smokiness to his voice, which when dripping with sincerity makes you want to squeeze him, not scold him. He could melt Leona Helmsley, even Martha Stewart. If we were ever homeless, we could send Garrett out to beg and we’d have a down payment on a new home the next morning.
The officer may have been packing heat, but she was no match for what Garrett carried. She went from gruff to maternal in less time than it takes to fill a baby bottle.
“You know what you did was wrong,” she said, looking like she wanted to kiss him.
“Yes,” he mumbled, staring at her with deep-blue sincerity.
He cinched it with that one-word answer. The mother in the officer came fully to the surface, no longer constrained by her masculine uniform. She looked like she wanted to adopt him. She touched his shoulder and smiled.
No scolding. No scary stories about the horrors of the criminal life. She just had him promise that he wouldn’t do it again, which he hasn’t. She left about as quickly as she arrived.
We worry about too many things as parents, and having to call 9-1-1 is at the top of the list. Yet in my home it has been called five times in real life—none being real. I’ve called for help more times than that in my nightmares—none of those terrors were real either. Most of our deepest parental fears never come to pass, yet look at the powder we burn on them? It takes more courage to trust in goodness than to give into the temptation of fear, our most common parental temptation, our most natural state of mind.
Spring is a great time to blow parental fear out like the germy air it is.
Paul Coughlin is the author of No More Christian Nice Guy, and the upcoming, No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps: Raising Secure, Assertive Kids in a Tough World (June 2007). He is the co-author along with his wife Sandy of Married But Not Engaged. He's also a founding member of GodMen (www.godmen.com). To have Paul speak at your men's event, contact him at www.christianniceguy.com. Sandy can be reached at http://reluctantentertainer.blogspot.com/