(This story is a follow up to something I wrote last week, A Father and Sunoco. If you have not read that brief piece, I recommend starting there first. That piece is here.)
I learned something about fatherhood this past weekend. I write to better remember.
Last Sunday, in Philadelphia, my son, JP, played his last college squash match of the season. He was competing in the individual collegiate nationals; he made it through two rounds, to the round of 32. The college squash scene, in the US, is made up of semi-pro level players from all around the world. So, in the round of 32, it was no surprise that JP came up against an inform, speedy, determined Luis Moncada from Mexico. Moncada plays at the University of Rochester and has been playing great – so JP would need to dial up his best game.
Instead, he showed up listless and flat. With lead feet and a fireless mind. He lost 3-0; it seemed like he just didn’t care.
This is the part where I get honest about some very human emotions. I coached JP from the age of 6 to 18, so I know what he is capable of; I know when he has checked out. On this day, he checked out.
I was disgusted. Angry. Pissed that, at JP’s request, I made the trip to come to Philadelphia to support him this weekend and he didn’t give his maximum effort in this important match.
Now I’ve made fatherhood mistakes before. I’ve learned that my expectations and emotions and patterns aren’t always – or even aren’t often – the best barometer for gauging how to father a child or react in a given situation. And I certainly am still new at fathering a college student.
So I chose to bide my time and hold my reactions in.
Even so, I still made one thick-headed move.
The match was just over. JP was sitting court-side, facing the court, with his coach next to him. I should have walked up to him and said something like “Tough one;” something that would have showed a modicum of empathy. But I was too mad for empathy. What happened on that court – to my unfiltered mind – was not good enough. Not acceptable. I wasn’t going to affirm JP in that kind of performance. There would be no empathy from me.
Instead, I walked up from behind, patted JP on the shoulder – that’s it – and withdrew from the courtside area. I found a quiet spot where I could take counsel with my emotions and my wiser half. I called my wife, Katie. She had been watching the live stream. She could see what happened. She understood.
“I don’t know what to say,” I vented to her. “I can’t affirm what he did. But I don’t want to come down too strongly either. But, really, what’s the point in coming all this way if he is not going to show up?”
“The point is to support him,” she said. “To be there with him as he goes through life.”
“No! The point is maximum effort!” I joked, replaying one of my childhood tapes from a hard driving father. “The point is to leave it all on the court win or lose! The point is excellence!”
Katie didn’t take the bait. “Excellence is not about maximum effort all the time,” she said. “Excellence is about going through life and learning from the challenges you face.”
“I don’t like that!” I joked.
But I knew I did like it. I knew I had just learned from my wife how to father in one of life’s messy downturns.
Then she added:
“Maybe there’s something else. Maybe he is struggling with something that we don’t know about. Maybe there is something beneath what happened today.”
“Oh that could be it,” I rejoined. “That would make sense. I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen him play this kind of match. Maybe there is something else.” After all, JP is the kind of kid to play through a sprained ankle and a broken nose. What happened today was out of character.
I hung up the phone a few minutes later. I filed away her phrase and kept repeating it, to let it sink in. Excellence is about going through life and learning from the challenges you face. But how was I to help JP learn through this challenge? Was that even still my role, now that he was in college? How would I start the conversation? How could I stage such a dialogue?
I remember standing there for a few moments, after I hung up the phone. I had this strange insight. This strange sense of knowing. I didn’t know what action I was supposed to take next. I couldn’t think of what words to say. I was still a little mad. But I sensed, somehow, that I would know. That when I stepped into whatever scene would be given to me as a father, that I would know, from the heart, how to speak to my son.
This was a strange thing for me to know. I’m going to call that grace.
I read somewhere that fatherhood is sometimes marked by moments of unknowing and even grief. But that the road forward is through steps of faith and love. I figured, in a few hours, I would take some steps of faith and love and trust that the knowing would follow.
I let a little time pass. I texted JP to see if he needed anything for lunch. Over the past few days, he had been wanting my help with meals, since each player ate when it fit with his match schedule; maybe he would want the same help today. But JP said he was going to eat with other players. That was good.
He said maybe we could grab a coffee after one of his teammates played his next match. He was going to watch that match.
I said: “Sounds good.”
I knew the perfect spot.
The afternoon moved on. I took a break from the squash courts. Went into the city and explored the Catholic Cathedral and a nearby Eastern Orthodox Church. I drove past the Philadelphia Art Museum and photographed the regal statue of Washington mounted atop a stately war horse. An image of strength muted by a subtle sense of grace and humility. These scenes lifted my mind to higher things. I returned to the courts, watched the match of JP’s teammate, then waited for JP out front.
I had been praying for grace, praying for wisdom. I knew this time would be important.
We walked across the grounds of Drexel University toward Saxby’s Coffee House, the place I had picked out. We chit chatted on the way. Nothing serious. I don’t even remember what we talked about. We got to Saxby’s. JP went to the counter and placed his order. It was crowded so I went around looking for a good place to sit. I had learned once that kids do better talking when they are facing in the same direction as the person they are talking to. It’s less intimate for them – and hence less uncomfortable – than staring face to face and talking. So I found two stools in front of a large window at the front of the shop. The stools looked out the window onto 34th and Lancaster Street. I went and ordered my drink.
More chit chat. I kept my fatherly displeasure neatly zipped in my black Carhart backpack. I kept it light until our drinks came.
“Neal?” A voice came from the counter.
The drinks were ready. I went to grab them: a strawberry banana smoothie for JP, a vanilla latte for me. I had never had a vanilla latte before. I figured the extra sweetness would be good for me today.
I sat down. We bumped our glasses together: cheers. We continued our light conversation for a while. And then . . .
I opened the conversation I felt I still needed to have with my son.
“So tell me: what happened today? Is everything OK?” I let the silence hang there until JP filled it.
I didn’t show anger. Didn’t show displeasure. I showed curiosity. I showed care.
And in the face of these traits, with the taste of strawberries and bananas hitting his palate, JP spoke:
He shared that he was just exhausted. That his legs felt worn out from the intensity of the grueling matches he had played last weekend in Team Nationals (where he played two marathon matches, tougher than any he had played before). He said he had a weird pain in his ankle, making it hard to push off.
I listened. Sympathy on the face.
“And I guess I’m just discouraged,” he said. “Discouraged by this season and where my game is. All the injuries (he had 3 injuries this year) made it hard for me to find a rhythm. I’m just kind of down about my game.”
I kept listening. It was starting to make sense. I hadn’t considered these factors because I was not there last Saturday when he lost a marathon 5-game match to Cornell in the deciding team match between UVA and Cornell. And I was not there the next day, last Sunday, when he lost another marathon 5-game match in the deciding match against Princeton. Yes, two days in a row, JP, as a freshman, played the deciding match for his team; and twice he came up short in grueling 5 game battles. So each day UVA lost the match 5-4 and JP took it hard. He felt responsible.
In the world of collegiate squash, UVA is a young team, still on the rise. They don’t yet have as deep a bench of players to match up against more established Ivy programs like Cornell and Princeton. UVA’s #3 player also suffered an injury last weekend, meaning JP had to play up, in the #3 spot. That meant the intensity and difficulty of his matches was, well, off the charts for a freshman from Ohio. Those two matches took a big toll on his body. He said he was in pain until Wednesday.
But that was just the physical toll. Now I also understood, by listening to him and looking in his eyes, that those two losses last weekend took a deep toll on his psyche as well. He felt he had let his team down with those losses. That was a huge blow. You could see it in his face. He hadn’t recovered yet. He had needed more time to recover. Those losses weighed on him. It made perfect sense.
I took all this in, between sips of vanilla latte, looking out the window at the gas station on Lancaster and 34th. I leaned forward. Then I turned to him and tried my hand at that sense I had earlier that I would know, from the heart, what to say when the time came:
“Can I say something?” I said. “Do I have your permission to speak as your father? To say what I see?”
“Yes,” he said. There was no hesitation in his voice.
“I don’t think you should be disappointed by your level of squash this season,” I began. “You have achieved more this year than I thought possible. You rose to a spot on your team higher than I thought possible. You have competed against incredible players this year and kept it close. You almost upset the #3 from Penn. You trounced the #4 from Yale – that was your best match of the season.”
“Oh yeah, I forget about that match,” said JP, as a smile broke out on his face. Under the weight of his heavy disappointments, he had forgotten about his best performance of the season.
“Yeah, it was incredible,” I said. “That Yale match is the measure of how well you are playing this year. So you lost at #3 to Cornell and Princeton. Those guys were awesome and you took both matches right down to the wire.”
“And you did it,” I said, slowing down for emphasis, “despite suffering 3 injuries this year. Despite being a freshman and having to juggle all your new responsibilities, when some kids might have taken the year off and lost their discipline. Think what you can do if you stay healthy, and if you put in a lot of good strength work in the off season this spring and summer.”
“I think you have had a fantastic season,” I said.
I let it sink in, along with the taste of strawberries and bananas.
“There’s one thing that might help though,” I added. “What happened today was not your best effort. I get that you were sore and discouraged. But you definitely had more in the tank, physically, than you thought you would – you showed that in spurts today. That string of 5 straight points you won toward the end of the match – clearly your body had more reserves than you thought.”
“As for the mental side, the feeling discouraged, I could have helped you with that. We could have talked through that. I think I can still help you with stuff like this.”
“Do you think that’s worth a try? Would it be OK if I came back alongside you from time to time, like I used to do in the old days?”
He nodded. Again, without hesitation.
We both looked outside the window at the passing traffic. The “meaty” part of that conversation lasted no more than 10-15 minutes. But something happened during those ten minutes. I found a space again in my adult child’s life, a spot where I could pull up a stool, sit beside him, help him face life’s challenges and learn and grow.
Those two stools, at Saxby’s Coffee Shop, side by side, looking out on the gas station on 34th and Lancaster Streets in downtown Philadelphia: they are a metaphor for my changing role in my relationship with JP. A kind of new Sunoco station.
Yes, I am no longer the Dad who tucks his son into the back seat of a car so he can sleep on a long drive; no longer the guy who watches over every detail of his son’s life. But I am not discarded either. I have not altogether lost my role. There is still a meaningful part for me to play, a role as part of his thought team, like a member of his board of advisors.
But this is a role I need to work at.
I was off the mark that morning in my initial reaction to JP’s match. I needed perspective from my wife; needed to take some space; needed the seeing that comes from grace and prayer; needed first to listen to JP and to take in his wounded soul.
Needed to be, for my son, more than just a thought partner. I needed also to be a heart that pulses love and affection when his own heart, not to mention his body, was weighed down under heavy strain.
I think I will like this role. This spot next to him at a coffee shop window, listening as he goes through life, chit-chatting between sips of smoothies or lattes, chiming in when the load is too heavy.
When the next time comes, I hope I am worthy of it.