A father's nightly rituals are a thing of boundless fascination to his son. His endless hours at work might as well have been spent in a mysterious patch of the Brazilian Amazon as in an office building two miles from the house. My brothers and I would anticipate the nightly ambush we planned to lay on our unsuspecting father. At the moment of his triumphal return there was a mandatory wrestling match in which I would make dark-hearted threats like, "I'm going to squeeze your hand too hard." That's right; that was my attempt at the blackest of intimidations. We would reenact all of the karate kicks we'd learned from the day's TV binge-fest. Each night the mock battle raged between Father and sons. We spilled much imaginary blood on that shaggy orange living room carpet.
The fathers of a lot of my friends drank a beer in the evenings, if not a few. I remember the first time I visited a neighborhood friend and spotted the icy cans of Miller in the refrigerator. His father's billiard room with a massive beer fridge, was the centerpiece of the house. An uneasy feeling came over me as I stared into the cooler containing the unfamiliar brew. His beer-drinking dad was a great guy. He took the family to Catholic Mass weekly, played football in the yard, and cracked open a cold one every night. Beer was just a part of their lives. It wasn't part of ours.
My dad's routine never included alcohol. He had enjoyed occasional drinking before he had kids, but he gave it up for his child-raising years. Once, however, I saw him sipping champagne at the wedding reception of one of his life-long friends. He let me try some knowing it would result in a crinkled nose and gut-level revulsion. Though raising three boys had to be like a twenty-pound sledgehammer to the chin, he handled it as a man should. He didn't lean on a cold beverage to drive away the edgy stress of the day, managing the ups and downs of being a college professor and freelance illustrator without anything but positivity and a sunny disposition to aid his ever bright mood.
As the sun crept low and the calls for bedtime began to ring from Mom's evening reading nook, Dad could often be found in his recliner trying to stave off the drowsiness the day's tasks had wrought. He wasn't picky about programming. He would watch whatever the cheapest cable-TV package offered. The creak of his second-hand rocking chair, the plaid pattern of its out of style and well-worn material, and the rests rubbed smooth and shiny from years of forearm friction is where he found his end-of-day relaxation.
In those sleepy after work hours, he could have insisted on alone-time, or man-time, or shut-your-mouths-you-little-brats-time, but he wasn't selfish. From his three wild and often barefoot boys, he didn't demand anything that wasn't reasonable for a child to give. He offered consistency in his temperament and the kind of predictability a kid wants from an authority figure three times their size. His discipline was measured, calm, and strategic. He hugged after every spanking and spoke in a controlled tone at every correction.
There was one thing that my father did every night without exception. After each of us had crawled below the covers and nestled in for the nocturnal hours, Dad would get up from his chair, no matter how tired he was. He would quietly enter the bedroom of his three boys. He would sit on the edge of the bed and do something that was like treasure to an adoring son. He would talk for a few minutes with each. In those dusky moments he taught us how to do what men the world over do. He didn't lecture, prattle, or blubber, but instead showed his eager kids how much fun it is to have a conversation, a discussion, a meaningful talk. At the end of the bedside chat, we would pray together before he sent us off worry-free to the land of dewy dreams.
Through constancy and commitment to his three little men, he built a trust like Gibraltar that was near unshakable. It doesn't seem fair. Plenty of kids throughout my hometown went to bed after being yelled at by a scary red-faced man whom their mom refused to break up with. At those same soul-crushing moments, while other children's little hearts were turned to coal by fear, I basked in the glory that a good dad brings to a household. I spent the last few moments of every night chatting and praying with a man I knew loved me, a man who would kick the teeth out of anyone who tried to harm me.
Through prayer and conversation he opened the doors to the minds of three boys who would soon be asking the big questions. He knew that someone would answer those questions and he wanted to be the one sitting there, in the dark, when those questions came. One day in late October, Dad's firstborn, my trailblazing brother, asked one of the biggies with the kind of gusto befitting the oldest.
“Why are you crying?” Dad asked Lance, who had the coveted top bunk.
"Dad, are we going to run out of air?" Lance gulped, fighting back sobs.
“No, Buddy. Of course not. Why do you ask that?” Dad said as he wiped away his tears.
“You remember the movie we watched, Robinson Crusoe On Mars? He ran out of air.” Lance said.
That was it. That was all the opening Dad needed to give reassurance to his frightened son, both for this life and the next. Dad used it as an opportunity to talk to Lance about the free gift of salvation. After reassuring him that our atmospheric pressure wasn't going to fail anytime soon, Dad spelled out the basics of the gospel so that a seven-year-old might understand. After explaining in slow deliberate words, Dad prayed with Lance as they always did. There would be more conversations to come, but something beautiful had begun.
I had been eavesdropping from my shadowy bunk below. There are no secrets among bunk bed brothers. When my father knelt to sit at the corner of my bed, he was surprised to find that I was crying as well. That was not an occurrence all that uncommon. I was often found wetly weeping in the first decade of my life. He began to question me, trying to discover what had broken the fragile wits of his emotionally frail middle son.
"I want to be saved too," I said, fearing that I would be left out. Like a kid whose brother just got an ice cream cone, I was moved to righteous jealousy. I didn't know what he was talking about on the top bunk, but I wanted in. That is the ever-present curse of being the second born. It took longer than usual to return Dad to his recliner that night. My thoughts were too smeared by tears to grasp the significance at that moment. Some mustard seeds were planted in the soft soil of our hearts. The conversation continued for a few days.