Window on his world

Author: Tom Montgomery-Fate

My son, Bennett, has a fever today and can’t go to school. So I’m staying home with him. As I write this — on my laptop in the family room — he is playing on the floor at my feet.

My work is all false starts and detours. I tighten and loosen and adjust dozens of words, but can’t get the tension right. Soon it all feels as hopeless as the red plastic truck Bennett brought me last week. He broke off its wheels while “driving” (bouncing) it down the stairs and then left it on my work bench in the basement along with his Mr. Potato Head (which was not broken, just missing its ears and eyes). My kids have often brought me broken toys, expecting miracles. I fix what I can, recycle what I can and discard the rest.

The red truck was a lost cause. Or maybe not. “That’s okay. I’ll keep it, Daddy,” Bennett had said and carried it back upstairs to the playroom. I see it now hitched up to a three-legged horse with a Star Wars character in the flatbed. Luke Skywalker seems to be lashing the horse with his light saber. I’m still not sure why the horse is standing upright, or how Bennett knew that it would. I just don’t see that way.

This morning, in spite of his illness, Bennett is happily lost amid two gallons of LEGO toys. He has no sense of time. We just found the toys at a garage sale, and their newness, the infinite possibilities, enthrall him. He sits rapt on the carpet inventing and quietly talking to himself — as if conferring with another 6-year-old inventor.

Every 15 minutes or so, after he has clicked a few more of the red, blue and green plastic pieces together, he shows me something. “Look Daddy. See this guy? He’s driving the ship.” Then a bit later: “Look Daddy I put a coffee maker on the main ship. But I put a lemonade maker on the shuttle.” “Which is the shuttle?” I ask, now understanding it was a rocket ship, rather than a sailing ship. “Here. Look!” he says, unhitching a red, match-box sized-platform from the main ship. A driver sits in a little chair, and I assume a green thimble-sized cylinder attached to the back is the lemonade maker. He flies the shuttle completely around the sofa, making a whooshing noise all the while and pausing twice to fire imaginary machine guns at a couple of Hot Wheels cars below him. Then he lands it on my thigh. There he takes the driver out, straightens his legs, and walks him to my knee, which is now clearly a precipice looking out on an alternate universe. An inch tall, the plastic, square-headed man surveys the messy terrain of the family room.

“He’s an explorer,” Bennett said. “What kind of explorer?” I asked. “I don’t know. Like a Power Ranger or maybe an Indian,” he said.

Well, I wasn’t expecting Meriwether Lewis, but the odd contrast of cultures fascinated me, as did the power of Bennett’s raw imagination — all that he saw and discovered in a pile of discarded plastic LEGOs. He was the explorer who most impressed me. I love how he gives himself over to his imagination.

Maybe I need a box of LEGOs — to remember how to explore, how to see.

This feeling, this inability to see, is not new. I used to get it a few years ago when I dropped Bennett off at the preschool at the college where I teach. Because it was a lab school there was a long one-way teaching mirror in the front hallway. Students and parents could look in at the kids without them seeing us — our window was their mirror. But it took me several days to even notice this. I was often in a hurry. After the sign-in sheet, the hug, the nod to his teacher, I usually bolted off to my office with my briefcase to do important things.

Yet one day, on the way out, I paused for a moment and caught a glimpse of my distracted self in the window. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. The kids are supposed to see themselves on the other side. But when I took two steps toward my faint, self-absorbed reflection, it disappeared. My “I” yielded to my eye, which suddenly saw through to the world on the other side, the world I so often just walked by: children sprawled everywhere on the carpet in a kind of wild and holy innocence — working wooden puzzles, reading board books, rocking dolls, singing silly songs. My God, they were delirious with curiosity, and I was thrown into their childhood, and my own, so abruptly that I found myself in tears.

What was it about this window?

I could see the kids, but they couldn’t see me. If they tried to look back at me all they saw was themselves and their own world: Four-year-old Maggie, in pink, glittery slippers and a baggy, green velvet dress and two strings of white, plastic pearls, stirred a pan of air on a little wooden stove with a rubber spatula and intently adjusted the dials until the temperature was just right. Then James came running over with a little snake he had rolled from a ball of electric blue Play-Doh and popped it in Maggie’s pan. This perturbed her at first, but soon she began to stir it in and to readjust the dials. Bennett, who wore a black-and-silver stethoscope, sat cross-legged on the carpet next to Maggie and diligently checked the heart rate of the stuffed green dinosaur he was cradling. Then he tucked it into a wooden crib and whispered something to it — perhaps a bedtime prayer.

How odd it was to see Bennett but not be seen by him, to be in the same room with him, yet not. When I got up to leave for the office, and was several feet away from the window, I again turned it into a mirror, again caught my dim likeness in the glass. It was then that I finally saw the obvious: I was watching Bennett through the dim reflection of myself, weighing my own childhood against his, the known against the unknown. That’s a hard thing for parents — to stop seeing ourselves in our children — our gifts and flaws. As they get older it’s hard not to wonder if they will be blessed with your athletic or musical prowess, or damned by your impatience or depression.

But thankfully, the dimming mirror is also a sparkling clear window.

And I think that was the source of my tears that day — of my confusion and gratitude. I saw myself in the presence of those little kids and wanted to crawl on all fours back into their world, to dress myself up in their total surrender to the now, and in a kind of vision that could turn Legos into spaceships and Play-Doh snakes into food. When, I wonder, did I first begin to lose my sight, and my faith in the moment I was living in? When did my life first start to feel like a sprawling “to do” list?

Like me, my own dad sometimes struggled to see life’s blessings amid its burdens, and to shift from the I to the eye, from self to world. He too could get overwhelmed by work and the future, and struggle to get back to the present. Or at least that’s how it seems now, in the shadows of memory. But that was all a long time ago. He and Mom are close to 90 now. And though they have sharp minds and still swim most days, their bodies are wearing down as they approach the deepest mystery of all.

It was just the blink of an eye though –– just 40 years ago — that Dad was my age. And he sometimes picked me up at the lab preschool in Ames, Iowa, where he was a young pastor with a large church and four sons. I can see him leaning on the chain-link fence on the edge of the preschool playground, watching me play freeze tag on the blacktop with my 4-year-old friends. And there, in his sport coat and slacks, I imagine him waiting and watching us for just a few minutes before calling my name, before waving me in — before hugging me, zipping up my open coat, adjusting my hat and taking me home. Just a minute or two of pause, of revision, before returning to real time.

Maybe it’s because I’m now almost exactly in-between my son and father — 40 years older than Bennett and 40 years younger than my dad — that these small moments seem sacred. This morning I’m wondering about how my dad found such moments along the way — amid the chaos of family and church, amid all those sermons and meetings and potlucks. But I’m hoping he did on the edge of that playground — that my little friends and I, in our crazy games of tag and kickball, could, like Bennett did for me, somehow loosen the grip of time — giving him a moment of presence, of prayer.

By midmorning Bennett is still lost in his LEGOs. I tell him I’m going into the kitchen to clean the floor. He says “Okay,” but after about 10 minutes he calls in to me, “Where are you, Daddy?” “I’m in the kitchen,” I say. “Okay,” he says, again seemingly satisfied. A few minutes later he carries in an armload of LEGO spaceships and shuttles, and sets up shop on the kitchen table. Soon he is sailing off to other galaxies and planets while I scrub the floor on all fours. It is not long before he flies one of his LEGO ships over my head and dramatically ejects the pilot into my pail with a soapy kurplunk! and a squeal of laughter. “He can’t swim! He can’t swim!” I say. Bennett laughs.

The rest of the morning seems to pass quickly, or I barely notice that it’s passing. Bennett keeps drawing me back into his play, and then I return back to cleaning. I know this is “parallel play,” and that I should be fully engaged with him rather than trying to finish my work projects. But this is the best I can do today. And he seems pretty happy. Later, when I get out a sleeve of Ritz crackers and a bottle of 7-Up, he looks both excited and thankful for the simple snack. “I like staying home with you, Daddy,” he says, as he starts to make lean-tos and little towers out of the crackers. “Yeah, I like it too,” I say. His gratitude startles me and awakens my own. And again, for a brief moment, I can see just beyond my own reflection into a greater presence.

Reprinted from Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild, -by Tom Montgomery-Fate. Copyright 2011 by Tom Montgomery-Fate. By permission of Beacon Press,