We try to teach our children how to be good. Being innocent isn't necessarily the same thing, and some day, when the sheen has worn off, becoming a virtuous person in this world will mean making hard decisions and choosing difficult paths. I was fortunate enough to have a saint for a mother, and two sisters with Down Syndrome who taught me everything I will ever know about compassion. My moral upbringing and idyllic childhood are how the world and my place in it were given meaning - and why, I believe, I was chosen to become a nurse. To be entrusted with the well-being of another human being, and to respond to this duty with competence and caring are the things that inform my practice. They are also, if I am mindful of them, what will help me try to be a deserving parent. Fortunately for them, the responsibility to raise my three sons isn't mine alone, and it's a wonder to me that each day is an opportunity for them to learn or experience something for the first time, and each person they encounter may have a lesson to offer. In turn, my kids teach me something new every day (about the world, about myself, about what's important), and I will never get over that.
My oldest is six now. He is one of those kids that have no shame, and you hope never will. Anything for a laugh. Too funny, too friendly - no such thing as either, but there are times. Whereas I'm a stocky, seemingly unapproachable angry or pensive bear in appearance, my son is a lean, piano-fingered, open-faced, winsome boy. His dark brown eyes are big, like a Keane waif, and he needs to grow into his head some day. When he was two, we started calling him "The Mayor" - fearless in a crowd, among strangers, and engaging. My favorite example of his absurd social prowess is the time he crashed my sister-in-law's boss's swanky Sweet Sixteen party for his daughter. They had just popped in to drop off some paperwork, and he knew no one, but he insisted on staying for a song or two. He was working the dance floor alone for a while before he decided to pull the initially reluctant partygoers out of their seats and make some things happen. My wife told me that before long, all the girls had formed a circle around him and were chanting his name: "Go Leo! Go Leo!" She said the manager of the banquet hall approached them on their way out and thanked my son profusely for saving the party. Powermoves.
He is also quick to tears, which concerns me a little, but not really. He has a soft heart. When the waterworks are appropriate and genuine, it's touching as hell. If I mention the piggy bank that "nana gave me when I was born!" and was accidently shattered last year, or Mimi, his favorite stuffed cat (it's a dog, actually), that got a haircut when my wife decided putting it in the washing machine was a good idea, he wells up and turns away. I am proud of his sensitivity, moved by its depth and authenticity. Recently, my wife and I somehow managed to watch an entire movie without interruption. It was pretty decent, primarily because of its insistent and unapologetic adherence to formula; a real tearjerker. Leo wandered into the room, barely noticed, about halfway through. Two brothers are fighting during the climax, and although one is severely injured, the other is forced to continue to punish him. When the physical and emotional anguish was coming to a head, my son burst out laughing. When we turned, his face was streaming tears and he was pointing to it: "I can't believe I'm crying so hard! This is so sad!" We all started laughing, but he broke my heart and I had to get up and walk into another room.
Last year around this time, my son taught us a lesson about what the holidays should mean. We were picking up another of my wife's sisters at the train station downtown a few days before Thanksgiving. We were early, and my son wanted to walk across the street to look in the windows of the antique stores. He likes old things. The storeowners really respond to this kid. My son asks good questions, makes astute observations and clever jokes, is respectful; invariably, they quickly establish a rapport that excludes me. The guy at Salvage Alley calls me Leo's Dad, and has offered to take him on as a horologist apprentice. I think he meant it. Ever since Leo first walked into his shop, picked out an ornate, curved handle sword cane, assumed a fancy English gentleman's pose and said, "Ello Govna" to himself in a mirror, this crusty old bastard decided he and my son would be friends.
"Soldiers, daddy," in a goofy baby voice because that was how he used to pronounce it; so, I hoisted him on my shoulders, and off we went. I was still explaining how someone had put a three-masted fully rigged ship inside a bottle he had spied in some dark corner of Vestige in a Bottle when we heard a girl shout. She was backing out of a doorway, and quickly covered her mouth with both hands. I let my son down, and he latched onto my arm as we approached the scene. The girl told us that she and her boyfriend were about to start walking up the stairs when an old man fell backwards from "almost all the way". As she was saying this, I noticed a few people standing over the man, and one of them was trying to get him up. I bolted over and intervened. We carefully lowered him back to the floor, and I looked up for my son. He was walking toward me, holding the shaken, top-heavy teenage girl's hand. I asked that people clear some space, but I think that only brought more attention to the situation from passers-by. I scanned the advancing crowd again for my son, and saw him saying something into his pretty new friend's ear. She promptly walked over and told everyone to make some room and that I was a nurse. Some nudging, the shuffling of feet, and in an instant, the doorway was empty. People were either looking on at a significant distance, or had simply walked away into the remainder of their otherwise uneventful night. It's an odd thing, and not the first time this has happened to me. An old woman gets dizzy at a wedding, I mention that I'm a registered nurse, and someone grabs me by the arm and clears a path. (Diagnosis: too many ouzo martinis and circle dances.) I believe as far as most of the people on the sidewalk that night were concerned, the situation was being handled. However, as I started to assess the man, I realized he was in trouble. He was struggling to sit up, but I gently redirected him. I was asking him questions, but he simply stared at me. His affect was blunted, and I noticed a very slight droop on the right side of his ashen face. I asked him to squeeze my hands, but I couldn't tell whether or not he could understand me. I had heard someone calling 911 when I first approached the scene, and now there were sirens in the distance. I could feel my son standing directly behind my shoulder, and the man's blank gaze shifted from my face to his. I looked over at my son to make sure he was all right when he simply lifted his hand and said, "Hi." When I looked back at the fallen man, his brow furrowed slightly. Then he spoke. "Hi ... What's your name?" It was mildly garbled, but clear enough. "Leonidas," proudly, without hesitation, then, "I'm 5 and a half. I have a band called Glaciers." A hint of a lopsided smile, then the gentleman relaxed his posture and his breathing. The ambulance pulled up, and I happened to know one of the EMTs. I told him what I could, and we withdrew. As we were walking back to the car, my son beamed and put his hand up for a high-five then asked me for a ride. He felt like a victory garland on my neck. I answered his questions, and made convincing assurances that the man would be okay. Then I asked him why he told him his age and about Glaciers. He started laughing and said he didn't know, that he was nervous or something. Then we were both laughing like idiots and couldn't stop.
Thanksgiving came, and I was grateful for food and family, and food again. Leonidas, when it was his turn to offer grace said that he was "thankful the guy was okay." He had told the story many times already, so everyone knew what he meant. The day passed, then a few weeks. The two of us were walking downtown again. Leo had asked to use some of his own money to buy "something old for nana because she's old, too". We were walking past the window of a little railroad-themed greasy spoon when my son abruptly stopped in his tracks. His improvised song 'Tiny Moby Dick Inside a Bottle' had started falling apart anyway, but had included a catchy rap hook that paraphrased something we had read recently: "Don't talk to me about blasphemy; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me." I was impressed. How does he remember everything?
"There he is." I asked him who. "The man at the bottom of the stairs." And there he was, eating alone in an empty cafe. Leo insisted we go in. "Excuse me." He looked up from his hashbrowns. "I remember you. Do you remember me?" He didn't, but then stood up and shook our hands when Leo told him about that night. He asked us to sit down, and we did. He had a brace on his wrist, which was sprained, and told us he had suffered a mini-stroke. A haggard Jimmy Rodgers was the image that came to mind as I looked at his face, and he was swimming in his hickory stripe bib overalls. The three of us proceeded to have a conversation about transient ischemic attacks, the holidays, family, old stuff, and various other topics. We learned his name was Richard, that he was a widower with no children and lived alone in an apartment above the liquor store next door, and that he ate lunch at the Track and Trestle Beanery every day. It was nice to see him, and to know that he wasn't injured badly and was recovering well. He insisted on giving my son a silver dollar, and wouldn't let us refuse. Why do people do that?
We stopped by for lunch fairly regularly after that. Leo couldn't get enough stories about World War II or Richard's life as a train brakeman. Just before Christmas, the whole family went to the Track and Trestle for lunch with Richard. My son had made a nice card, and asked that we give him a mug because he loved coffee so much. He gave Leo a vintage tinplate caboose, and said it was the exact one he used to work on. My son, in return, reached into his coat pockets and pulled out the two halves of his favorite geode. My wife and I had no idea. He explained to Richard that "inside the chalcedony shell of the rock are celestite crystals" and that they would each keep a half "forever". It was a grand gesture, and the first time they hugged.
What becomes evident when I reflect on that time in my family's life is that the spirit of nursing and the spirit of the holidays are not terribly dissimilar. I consider myself lucky to be a nurse. Although I may tend to idealize or romanticize my role, the fact of the matter is that I get paid to help people. I try to give back by being there - by holding myself accountable, by being an authentic presence, and by being mindful of what motivated me to become a nurse in the first place. Essentially, the guiding principle of nursing is reflected in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and although I'm not a particularly religious person, it is something that comes readily to mind when considering what nursing, the holidays, and trying to be a decent father have come to mean to me. Helping someone in need is how we make a difference in this world; picking someone up when they have fallen, if and when they are ready to be picked up, is how we make our lives worthwhile. Sure, this clichï¿½d sentiment is a bit thick, but, like that movie that made my 6-year-old little boy weep, I don't really care to apologize and, rather, have to insist on its ability to affect people profoundly. If I am able to teach my children how to recognize this principle, to know and appreciate it when they see others performing acts of kindness, to treat people in accordance with it, then I feel like I am doing something right by propagating its message. I look out my window at the leaves or the snow, and I realize that the holidays are meant to be about expressing gratitude and good will. I am lucky, and I am humbled: I look at my son, Leonidas of Glaciers, and I see a truly good person. He's the best of us, Jerry, the best! He is my gift to the world.