You know those days that are ruined by chance encounters with asses of the human variety? They appear with stunning unpredictability — at Starbucks, a doctor’s office, your office, your son’s soccer game. If it was the latter and you were in Charlotte, North Carolina this past Saturday around 11am at the field by 277 and Kenilworth, I was that kind of ass. If you bumped into me and I ruined your day, I’m sorry.
My nearly 5-year-old son started soccer this spring. It is his first team sport. Heck, it is his first sport. He’s never been a kid who has flocked to things involving inflatable balls. As he’s grown, he loves to build with blocks and play cars. Until recently, when you asked him what he wanted to be when he grows up, he would answer, “A racing car.” Not a driver, mind you. A car.
Those automotive interests are genuine and I like talking about them. But boys also model what they see. And Aidan has never seen me play a sport.
Brain tumor treatments — surgeries, radiation, chemo, etc. — have taken their toll. I haven’t been out there teaching him or playing with him. And I grew up loving sports — not excelling at sports, but loving sports. (Talk about distinctions with differences!)
This spring, though, Mom and I decided that a little soccer would be a good thing. His preschool buddy was on the team. Said buddy’s dad coached. Win, win.
He’s been to a few practices and has tried hard. He’s actually got some pretty good coordination — thank you, Mom, for those genes. His biggest flaw? His penchant to be a cloud watcher. A dandelion gazer. His penchant to be a dreamer and not fully engaged with his coach or the game.
I don’t have high athletic aspirations for him, but I do want him to listen. On the scale of life soccer is kind of irrelevant. Obedience, however, is kind of basic.
Fast forward to last weekend’s game.
It’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday. The little mini soccer fields are teeming with roving mobs of colorfully garbed mini-people chasing a little soccer ball. Parents are grinning and laughing.
The game starts. My boy kicks the ball into his own net — even as the coach is telling him to turn around and go the other way — and is happy. He thinks he’s just done something awesome.
I want to yell, “LISTEN, AIDAN! LISTEN!”
But I don’t want to be one of those dads – the insane ones at their kid’s sporting events – so I sit in my portable seat and fume. There’s been no outward evidence of my ass-ness. It’s an inner rage.
I continue watching. My boy stands looking at the clouds as his coach yells out his name. He turns and instinctively kicks at the air. The other team runs by him. Other parents are yelling advice to the kids. The coach is out there on the field — this, apparently, is how midget soccer works, with an omnipresent coach guiding each side around the field.
The other team, the Leprechauns, appear to have been coached by Pele. They are thrashing my son’s team. But this league doesn’t keep score. Huh?
I’m still fuming at my son. I’m not mad at the goal, per se. I don’t expect a little Landon Donavan. But I’m furious that he didn’t listen.
Moments later, he runs over and asks if he did great. Kim says yes. The coach says yes. Me? I’m half way between, “Awesome!” and “You suck!” I want to go for the former, I cannot say the latter. After the tiniest of pauses, I say no.
Nanoseconds feel like hours. He looks blankly at me.
I suddenly feel bile in the back of my throat. What did I just do?
“I”m joking, buddy! I’m joking! You did great.”
“Bad joke Daddy.” He walks away. Kim walks away. An assistant coach looks at me with sad incredulity. I AM now one of those dads. I want to vomit. But I’m too consumed with my snowballing rage – a rage now firmly directed at me too.
I HATE the coddling of America’s youth. I HATE everyone always been told that everything is terrific no matter how much it sucks. I HATE that we lead the world in self esteem and suck at math and reading. I HATE soccer games that don’t keep score. I HATE participation ribbons. Now I’m mad at our culture too.
I REALLY want to say, “Well buddy, you’re trying and that’s AWESOME. But part of trying is listening to the coach. Why don’t you try that too?” I want to give him a hug and tell him how much I love him and how great he is actually doing at this, his first game of any sort. I really do want to say those things. But I don’t. I just sit there with the staggering knowledge I just told him he did badly.
Kim comes back a few moments later, barely composed. “You are being an ASSHOLE!” she says through tears.
I stomp off. But I look back and there on the sidelines is my little son watching the game. I look to him and hold my thumbs up and smile. I know he’ll look back.
He does and I point to him with big thumbs up and I smile.
He looks away.
I go back to my seat.
He’s back in the game. And again he’s off with his head in the clouds when someone runs right by him.
I growl at Kim, “He’s STILL not listening.”
She says, “He’s 4, David.”
“He’s NEARLY 5.” I growl again.
She calls out, “Listen to the coach buddy.”
He turns around to look at her.
“KIM, STOP. Just stop. Stop making EXCUSES for him. Stop CODDLING him. He needs to listen to his coach not you!” Its not a yell, not a scream, not a roar. It’s a low, rage-filled growl. A woman next to us hears the growl and turns her head and looks with shock. I’m not only one of THOSE dads, I’m now one of THOSE husbands – the kind that humiliates his wife in public.
I stop. I’ve know those words. I know the tone. They are from my own childhood. My large and imposing and angry father with massively unresolved issues of his own always yelled, “NO EXCUSES. NO EXCUSES!”
Except I was the little boy who looked at him and didn’t really understand what was going on. I needed him to bend down on a knee and give me a hug and tell me he loved me and explain what I was to do better, do differently. I would have done it. Every little boy wants to please his father.
Kim drops her head.
I want to vomit. I want to go to Pluto. I want to cry.
We leave in silence. I stop by the woman who overheard my growls at Kim. I apologize for being an “unmitigated asshole to my wife.” The woman doesn’t have me arrested.
In the car, Aidan asks whether we are going to go somewhere special for breakfast to celebrate his first game. I just drive home and flee into the darkest corner of the house. Shoot me. Please. I’m stuck on a skewer of my own wretchedness.
What kind of man am I? What kind of father? What kind of husband?
I know the answers. I’m a hopelessly messed up man. I am a wretched father whose son will be marred forever. I’m at least as bad a husband. I’ve turned into the worst parts of my own earthly dad.
I know the theory of grace. I know that it is sufficient. I understand that, as Bono says, “Karma is the law of the universe; except for grace.” I get it — intellectually at least — that when I sin I do not need to go away and pretty myself up and then go to God. When I am at my worst, when I have done my worst, I run to my Daddy in Heaven because that is what he wants.
I get it that Jesus bought all of my sinfulness on the cross. I get it that he purchased my sins forward. 2,000 years ago he bought my sins of this day.
I get it all. But I don’t know how to de-skewer myself.
This morning, I relayed parts of the story to a friend. This is a good man. A godly man. A good and godly man. He dismissed me. “We’re all assholes sometimes. OK, I gotta run.” He hung up. I stared at the phone.
There wasn’t nearly enough punitiveness in that response. I needed more condemnation. I needed to have no excuses. How could this man dismiss my ass-ness that cavalierly?
But as this day has drawn on, I have begun to realize that my friend’s voice was the embodiment of my theoretical knowledge about grace. Yup, I’d been an ass. Next.
I have a different Father now. One who looks on me with far different eyes, with a far different tone of voice — a father who does not hate me for having my head in the clouds or looking at dandelions. He does not do anything but look on me with love and say that I am his kid and He is grateful.
I hope that I can have that voice penetrate my soul. If I do, perhaps my own son will one day write of his father that that he was kind and loving and never told him that there were no excuses because there are excuses. We are human.
And tonight he has soccer practice. He doesn’t know it yet, but no matter what happens, we’re going to IHOP to celebrate.