The week before Father’s Day, my 18-year-old son Nick and I went on a hike on a wooded trail in St. Charles County out to the Missouri River bluffs. Nick was diagnosed with autism when he started kindergarten after a four-year period during which it became increasingly clear he was not developing appropriately—delayed acquisition of language skills and other missed benchmarks were the primary indicators.
While I surely have an important role in teaching my children, through example and good old-fashioned advice, I learn from them almost as much, if not more.
We made our way through the Lewis and Clark Trail, and the flat forest path gave way to a series of climbs and descents. It was at times a challenging hike, but he didn’t complain. He never does. A lifetime of hard work in school without the level of communication and reading comprehension that his peers take for granted has prepared him for challenges.
He walked behind me as we climbed up rocky ascents and crossed fallen trees and dry creek beds, and I could tell from the sound of his footsteps on timber or rock that he was copying my movements over these obstacles. I began to think of the things we take from our parents and pass along to our children.
My love of baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals undoubtedly started with my parents, as well as my tendency to yell at the TV during games. My daughter, Laura, now on the verge of 25, is herself a Cardinal fan, and Nick enjoys going to games as well.
In the year following my divorce, not long after my mother’s passing from Alzheimer’s, I lived with my father and learned a number of his quick and easy meals during that time. Our favorite was penne noodles mixed with canned chili and marinara sauce. The dish took on the name Mosta-chili and later, courtesy of Nick, Monster Chili. Today, Monster Chili is in the regular rotation of our meals at home. Laura took it with her to college and hooked her roommates on it as well.
Nick began running with me several years ago, and when he started high school, we asked him if he wanted to run cross country. Of course, he did. He embraces every challenge that comes his way. He competed with the team all four years, adding track and field in sophomore year, eventually becoming much faster than I ever was. He reveled in the company of his teammates, who embraced him as one of their own. After his senior season, he was awarded his team’s spirit award, which goes to the runner who best exemplifies the spirit of the team.
In presenting the award, his coach said, “If everyone went through life with the attitude that Nick has, the world would be a better place.”
The honor was not lost on him. He recently had to fill out a questionnaire which asked what one item he would take with him if his house were on fire. He selected his spirit trophy.
While I surely have an important role in teaching my children, through example and good old-fashioned advice, I learn from them almost as much, if not more. Laura, now an occupational therapist, a career she selected because of her brother, inspires me with her intelligence, her compassion, and the simple joy she derives from performing music and listening to it being performed. She makes a difference every day working with children who have been dealt a hand like the one her brother got.
And Nick—he teaches me every day about courage, goodness, and hard work, not to mention the importance of living in the moment. Without my asking, he tells me when he is happy, and he tells me this a lot. I have never heard him say a mean or critical thing about anyone.
Parenting is very much a two-way transaction in that manner, like a game of catch. We throw the ball to our kids, and then it comes back to us—back and forth, over and over, exactly like that. We are fools not to play along.