Going out to eat with my son is like trying to lead a prayer group with a strobe light. It’s distracting to say the least, and never a calming experience. He’s not much of an eater and would rather use the booth as a jungle gym. But not long ago we’d been out to dinner and my son had eaten almost as much as I did. It was strange and exciting. But, I guess I should have known something else was coming.
My wife was fighting sickness so she crashed early and I was on monitor duty in case the boy exploded. Turns out, that wasn’t far from the truth.
Sometime around midnight I heard him calling for me. I’d been in his room about an hour prior and he seemed restless. There was a smell on his breath I couldn’t identify…. but some part of me recognized the stench. Now when he called me again, it wasn’t just a restless cry but a cry for help.
“Dada… I spit in my bed.” He said as I opened his door.
Then I turned on the light and was greeted with the scale of the problem.
His dinner was back. The smell on his breath had been bile building and now it had pulled an “everybody out” ejection of his entire stomach. Sheets, pillows, stuffed animals and his pajama ensemble were all injured in the blast.
I picked him up carefully, noting that he was drenched and scared. I wasn’t surprised as puke is a substance with defies categories – being so slick it takes away all traction and so sticky that it can’t be wiped off of anything. To be honest, puke scares me too.
I tried to talk him through everything we were doing and going to do. I stripped him down to completely start over: diaper, socks, jammies… and built a pile of puke-ified objects on his floor. He was very apologetic, which I kept telling him wasn’t necessary as I offered him the chance to help me. We stripped the bed and gathered up the sticky stuffed animals. There was a quiet observation to him, taking in everything I was doing as my demeanor guided his fragile emotions.
He helped me put soap in the washer. We remade the bed. And eventually, he calmed, tired, and fell back to sleep.
The next day I shared this experience with one of my closest friends and he was quite horrified. He’s watched me as a father and knows that while I make a serious effort, I struggle in my role. Trying to get through dinner while my son acts like the Red Bull mascot is one of my least favorite things on earth. Imagine how much midnight puke patrol would get under my skin.
And yet, I realized I loved him a lot more as we stood together and cleaned up the return of his dinner than I did when he originally ate it. I didn’t like the task at all, but I didn’t mind the moment.
“Why is that?” my friend asked, in a mixture of confusion and curiosity.
I had to think about it for a minute. Digging though strange knee-jerk responses to arrive at something I didn’t expect:
I liked my son far more because he was listening. At dinner he’s like containing a whirlwind. But sick in the middle of the night he was calm, open, and looking for guidance. We were able to face his problem together, and it made it more bearable for both of us.
Some time later I realized the cold truth in this experience; I’m also better when I listen. Too often in life I’m going through experiences like my son in a crowded restaurant. I’m not listening to anyone. I’m self-entertaining even if it isn’t what’s best for those around me. And most detrimental, I act like there’s nothing around me worth learning from.
I don’t hear God. I don’t hear my wife or my friends without thinking of what I’m supposed to say next. I don’t listen to the random things that would push and challenge me. If I can cruise through a situation, I will. Then in spare moments I keep the mental noise going with a mobile device and a series of apps.
Adventure and challenge grow me far more than Status Updates and News Feeds. Hearing someone else’s story helps me more than refining my own. So, I’m trying to realize those moments when I should stop, be quiet, and listen to what’s going on right in front of me. It’s harder than I remember, probably because we’ve all got so many more distractions.
Maybe I need to puke on my shoes.