Monday, July 13, 2009

The Secret Brotherhood of Fathers

            I threw my back out this morning trying to pick up Celia. It was one of those hazy-morning foggy brain moments where she was starting to fuss about being in her little chair and I leaned over to pull her out, when Sproink! The mid-back felt a massive debilitating spasm.
            When this happened to me about twelve years ago playing frisbee, I ignored it and ended up hurting my back so badly I didn’t think I’d ever recover. It took me years before I was running around again. Since then, I’ve been very careful when something feels pulled. I ice it and stretch it and see a chiropractor immediately. I’m going to see a muscle doctor later today.
            When I showed up at work holding my back my co-worker who has two pre-teen kids said, “Ah! Don’t tell me. Let me guess.”
            I shook my head and started to say something, but he interrupted me and said, “You’ve reached the back-sprain age.”
            “What do you mean?” I asked.
            “Well, the first few months you get into the habit of picking them up by leaning over, and then you keep at it until it’s humanly impossible. Six months, maybe… How old is yours?”
            “Nine months.”
            “Oh!” he said, “You did well.”
            I shook my head. I guess I’m passing through the gauntlet, so to speak. These are the dues that every dad must pay. The “sleepless night” dues have been paid in full, and she’s now doing much better at sleeping through the night (although I know the war is not over, only the current battle). The “staying-home-instead-of-partying” dues have definitely been paid. Now there’s the “throwing your back out because she slowly grew to the point where she’s a heavy little bugger and I didn’t plan on it because it crept up on me” dues. All a part of the initiation for the Secret Brotherhood of Fathers.
            Yes, I’ve found members everywhere. We don’t so much have a secret handshake so much as a secret look we give each other. A look of knowing, that seems to say, “Yes, you know what I’m going through. You know and you feel my pain.” In some ways, I think these members of the Brotherhood know more about my life than my closest friends. Of course my closest friends know about the struggles I have at work, and even the details of which nights I got less sleep compared to others. Even so, they listen and nod, but they do not “know.”
            You can instantly tell if someone is a member of the Brotherhood when your baby’s poop escapes their diaper. Anyone who responds with shock, confusion, repulsion, or feeling sick is definitely not in the Brotherhood. True members will have none of these responses. Usually they will respond with amusement, although sometimes they respond with a simple nod of understanding.
            Members of the Secret Brotherhood of Fathers have a high tolerance for squeals. This is particularly helpful when you aren’t sure if someone is a member or not. For example, a wise-looking man in his late sixties who’s seen a lot of the world may give the appearance of being a member. In these kinds of moments, screaming in public is quite a propos. When your son/daughter begins to scream, watch for this man’s response. It may be slight, but you can usually tell if they’re bothered by screaming, whether it’s through sly comments, glances at the other people around, or a slight shudder.
            Those who are members of the Brotherhood will generally ignore the screams almost entirely. They have run the gauntlet. They have passed the challenges and entered the Brotherhood. For them, even forty years removed, a wail will have no effect on their seasoned ears and nerves. They are Fathers, and they know about screams beyond the surface, deep, deep down in their souls.
            They have been exposed to raw screaming at 3am that lasts for hours at a time, and they know. When the screaming occurs merely in a public place with somebody else’s son or daughter, one of these seasoned veterans will barely blink. There’s no equivalent to this kind of experience. The only way to truly understand is to run the gauntlet yourself. All of the pain, cricks in the back, earplugs, smells, and wails are the entry initiation. But once a member, you will always be a member of the Brotherhood.
            I’ve noticed that in the more wealthy parts of town the membership is dwindling. I think I can understand why. Those who are gifted with many comforts will find it more challenging to consider joining.
            But for those of us who’ve joined, whether willingly or not, we know we’ll never need a secret handshake to recognize one another. Oh no, nothing like that is necessary. One simple look and we instantly will recognize that we’ve found another kindred soul who was foolhardy enough to brave the gauntlet and initiation dues to become a member of the Secret Brotherhood of Fathers.
            Another man who’s life would never be the same again.

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