This weekend the kids and I went on a walk. By kids I mean the furry four-legged one and the blonde two-legged one. By walk, I mean a painfully slow ramble down the street in front of our house. Thankfully, we have a dead-end road so wandering down the middle isn’t a problem, and the view is quite spectacular so it forces me to pause and feel blessed. It also teaches me things I don’t expect.
The dog loves this walk, she’s off leash and we don’t really have a destination so there’s plenty of time for romping through the field, the neighbors yard, random snow-piles, and anything else she’s generally restricted from when let out to pee.
The boy loves these walks because there are always things to see, touch, pickup, notice again for the first time, and eventually grow tired of and want to go home.
A sampling: “Tree Dada.” Two steps later: “More tree Dada”
“Moooon.” By which, of course, he means the sun.
“Cold.” Which is a conclusion reached by sitting in the middle of the road in twenty degree weather and putting your palms on the pavement.
Meanwhile the dog is tracking the deer that came by three years ago and probably planning to eat their fossilized droppings. I keep her coming back to check in by yelling out “Sierra!” and offering a sharp whistle. She complies.
My son does the same, except coming from him it’s “See-ya-yah” and the same fast exhale he uses to blow out a candle. She does not comply to his commands.
Either way, this walk is not about me.
And yet, this weekend I learned something about the kind of father I am. Or more specifically the kind of father I want to be and pray I don’t fall short.
At the end of our street is a small house with small dogs. Two terrier-mutt mixes with Canine-Napoleon complexes. They start barking when you’re still two houses down, and when you dare pass in front of their house they will tear out toward the street in the choppy short-legged way that seems reserved for yippy terriers. They are incensed by the fact that you’ve come this close and wield anger twice their size wrapped up in a high-pitched bark so violent that it actually hops them backwards when they try to stand their ground.
One of them won’t leave edge of the property, but the other charges right into the street to face Sierra. Never mind that my black pit-mix is twice this dog’s size and four times its weight. As I said… a Napoleon complex.
Sierra now puffs up, her hair ridging across her spine as she sniffs back at this dog in perfect silence. The terrier keeps yipping and hopping and growling and generally acting punt-able as my son stops to watch what will happen next.
I don’t claim to be an amazing dog owner, but I know my furry child pretty well and have found that what works with her at least makes an impact on any canine. A lack of aggression mixed with a lack of fear seems to make most normal dogs subservient and curious to hear what you’d like from them.
So I squatted down to dog level and kept saying the same thing:
“It’s okay. We’re all friends here. Everybody’s okay. We’re all okay.” Quietly. Repeatedly. Offering scratches to both dogs and watching them both treat me like the one with the most information about the situation.
My son kept watching. Curious, and a few steps away. At one point the Napoli-terrier decided to renew its yipping in his direction and he recoiled with a look that didn’t say “I’m afraid of you,” but more “My god you’re loud, please go away”. I whistled at the little furball and steered it back away from Bodie. The angry dog complied.
“We’re all okay” I said again. Repeated it, actually, and it seemed to help.
Then I offered Bodie my hand. Generally he’s a self-reliant little guy and would rather just walk on his own. But this time he reached out and took my hand (well, technically only two fingers) and we continued our walk past this house. Even a Grinch like me enjoys a moment like that.
The terror-terrier came with us. Still yipping occasionally and doing “you wanna piece of me” circles around Sierra as we walked onward.
Then I heard Bodie saying something in his quiet little voice:
“We all okay. We all okay. We all okay…”
I smiled. I couldn’t help it. And long after I told the terrier to go home and both my kids were happily walking and romping I realized something.
I’m not a rough-housing father. I don’t shadowbox, or play-tackle, or tell anybody to “go long”.
I’m not finding my missing purpose or long-lost satisfaction in being a parent.
I’m colder than I should be. Less patient than I should be. And certain to let my little man down.
Yet I can teach him to live without fear.
I hate fear. It’s the cancer of living. A vampire which sucks the life out of new experiences or inspired exploration. It turns “different” and “challenging” into “wrong” and “dangerous”. I’ve felt it creep into the corners of my mind and steal away moments and opportunities. It’s prevented me from many things and seems to lock our entire culture up in an ever-tightening grip.
I remember reading that humans are born with two natural instinctual fears: Fear of Falling, and Fear of Loud Noises. Every other fear is learned.
And I don’t want my son to fear. So no pressure there.
Respecting the danger of a situation is different than fear. Respect is a rational awareness of what’s going on around you. Fear is the irrational belief something will happen to you.
I look back over my favorite pastimes and see dangerous activities with layers of safety measures available to those who respect the danger. I’ve never been flippant on a rock-wall or a racetrack, and I’ve rarely been scared.
There was a terrified dog yipping at Sierra and my two-year old son. It was looking for guidance about how to respond. So was Sierra. So was my son. There were plenty of reasons to separate them quickly with yelling and pushing and knee-jerk fear for safety. But that never crossed my mind. I did the only thing that made sense to me in the moment – let my words and my actions tell them all there was no reason to fear.
How often does God do that to me? How many times have I gotten myself worked up in my own irrational conclusions while he’s quietly whispering “You’re okay. Learn from this. Don’t be afraid.”
My son listened. My dog listened.
Apparently I’m the hard-headed one.
I hope and pray that when Bodie steps out into adventure that I can be man enough… father enough… to instill in him rational respect, and an immunity to fear.
“We all okay. We all okay.”
How different would my life be if that were my mantra. My son’s listening, and I’ve got my work cut out for me.