I was never more proud of my son than I was that day, just a few weeks ago. Thank goodness that has worn away, so I can keep loving him for who he is.
My wife and I have been working on a landscaping project at the house, converting a thousand-square foot area from grass to perennials and herbs. Grass never grew well in this south-facing area, and I am excited about having even more fresh flowers to cut in future years. As a part of the project, I decided to replace a section of fence with a dry stone wall and to install a border of paving stones between the driveway and this new garden.
A couple of weeks back, the day’s work involved digging a trench for the pavers, sixty feet long and about a foot wide. Being next to an old asphalt driveway laid on top of New England clay soil, there wasn’t much easy digging. As I went, I worked to save the small rocks that came out of the ground, since they would make good fill around the base of the stone wall. This meant sifting out the dirt and sorting the stones into different piles. One foot at a time, on a very warm August Saturday.
My son shuffled towards me relatively early in the day. Can I help, Dad?
I thought for a second about what he might be able to do. My initial reaction was that he wouldn’t be able to help. The pick axe is too heavy for him, I thought. The weight of stones themselves, while small, would add up quickly, and they needed to be piled a good fifty feet from where I was working. The wheelbarrow is too big for him to manage.
Sure, I said, still thinking. Go get a bucket, one of the big ones. And put some good shoes on.
When he returned, I showed him a few rocks that were about the size of a baseball, and asked him to collect ones about that size. We picked a spot by the side of the barn to pile them, and I set him to work.
He filled up the bucket with a dozen or so rocks that size. Do you think that’s good, Dad? he asked. Sure, I replied, just don’t make it too heavy. You won’t be able to get it over there.
I can carry it, he replied. He muscled the bucket across the driveway, part carrying, part dragging. He managed to empty it in the spot we chose, and then returned to fill it again. And again, and again. He did this for at least half an hour, building up quite a large pile. My wife came out to see him, bringing him some “work gloves”, like Dad’s since you are working so hard, she said.
I thought he might quit when the larger size rocks were done, but after finishing those he asked what to do next. I had started putting five or six shovel-fulls of rocky dirt at a time into a sifter that I had built a few years ago for compost. I sifted each load so that the soil would fall through onto the project area, then dumped the rocks, acorn-sized now, into the wheelbarrow.
Want me to dump those somewhere, Dad?
I was dubious that he’d be able to do it, but his eagerness won me over. We picked a spot, and he wheeled them over. I shoveled more into the sieve while a watched him out of the corner of my eye. The wheelbarrow was, in fact, difficult for him to manage. It rocked back and forth and nearly spilled more than once on his first run. He had to use every ounce of leverage in his eight-year old body to tip it upwards to empty. Pulling it back down, it fell to the side, and he struggled through two or three attempts to right it.
Then he rolled it right back to me for another load.
This went on and on – for hours. Bucket after bucket, wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, without a single complaint, or even apparent expectation of reward. Nearing the close of those hours, his bucket was dragging heavily through trails of dirt and sand, his feet shuffling slowly.
My spirit soared.
We sat on the porch together in the afternoon, scanning the area, talking about how hard we had worked.
In the weeks since, there have been many hot afternoons of work. My son hasn’t volunteered to help.
On a couple of occasions, I have asked him to help me. I’ve needed the help – but I have also wanted to go back to that day, to the closeness I felt with him, to the pride I felt in watching him work.
He hasn’t wanted to go back there. Instead, he has wanted to jump on our trampoline or play squirt guns with his brother and sister. He has helped when I have asked, but clearly for the purpose of getting the work done.
The first few times this happened, I thought to myself, what happened? What happened to him?
I can’t force that day to come again. I cannot recreate it. Yet I was trying, and it affected how I thought and felt about my son, risking me thinking less of him. Sure, my attachment to those moments, to those feelings, is understandable. Yet it isn’t going to help me be present with my son here and now. It isn’t going to help me love him or treasure his spirit.
The bucket is still sitting where he put it down at the end of our work that hot afternoon – I should to let it rest there.