I sat with one wrist against the steering wheel as the sky darkened from cloud-fire to soot. It had been a tough week: meetings stacked upon meetings, crowds of emails filling my inbox, and now rush-hour traffic. The glow of taillights colored my face red. Hundreds of them burned like electric vertebrae curving into an endless spine of freeway. Thank God—it was Friday.
Except when I arrived home, the tension didn’t subside. Immediately I could see on my wife’s exhausted face how the day had gone. “Hi,” she said mid-sentence, as she called out to the children, “Girls, come here and put on your pajamas.” It wasn’t a new scenario, and my patience was slight. Minutes later, as they lay in their beds, I was standing in the dark explaining there would be no story time. “You will learn to obey your mother. Good night.” I closed the door to moans of complaint but didn’t turn back.
By morning, the stress had submerged beyond visibility, but I still felt the need to decompress. Within seconds of my sitting down to read, my eldest found me. “Daddy, I want to play a game with you.”
“Maybe later, sweetheart. See?” I said, holding up the book for emphasis. “I’m reading.”
Moments later my youngest was there, clambering onto the sofa and then my lap. She put one slimy finger on the page. “Daddy’s book?”
“Yes, Daddy is reading.”
“Why?” she said.
“Because I want to. Okay?”
She slid down the couch and toddled off, but just behind was her other sister, whom I sent in the same direction. “Go play.” For weeks, my wife and I had felt as if we were living under a sort of tyranny, unable to stride beyond the needs and messes made by our three young girls. What kind of father acts as though his children are obstacles to personal happiness? I had asked myself. And yet, not proudly, there I was.
I shut the bedroom door, pulled out my desk chair, and exhaled. Somewhere in the house, screams were followed by the sound of my wife’s voice reprimanding, then silence. I sat there, soaking in page after page of words.
When I emerged, the house was quiet, except for a low murmur coming from the living room. I walked toward it and found my family with coloring books and crayons spread across the coffee table.
Watching them, I felt an ache—the distinct sensation of having missed something I wouldn’t get back. I took a long look at my girls, noting the ways in which their features were changing. I listened to their speech, which was getting clearer each day, and thought ahead to months and years that would soon be past.
The eldest spotted me. “Here, Daddy,” she said, holding up a crayon. “You can help me.”
I obliged and, still deep in thought, began filling the page with waxy pigment. I wondered how she would remember my face decades from now—bright with love’s attention, or lit by the screen of a smart phone? Would she and her sisters grow up feeling as though they had simply been in my way? That I would be glad to have them gone?
After coloring, we played together until dinner. And when it was bedtime, I noticed a deeper patience toward my girls than I had exhibited the night before. Their behavior hadn’t changed much, but I had. The difference was my intention toward them—that I had taken the time to do something as simple and obvious as play. And in doing so, I had encountered their personhood. They were human beings—my own flesh and blood, incarnate images of the divine—not problems to be managed.
I’m reminded of Jesus, who emptied Himself on the cross for the sake of the ones He loved. And that if I choose to follow His example, the result is death. The irony, of course, is that the more of me I freely give—the more I die to self—the more I live in joy’s fullness. The extent to which I stop seeing those closest to me as hindrances to my own satisfaction is the measure by which my likeness to Christ is discernible.
So, I’m rediscovering the importance of making personal connections with my family on a daily basis, however brief the moment of opportunity might be. There will always be occasions for solitude—I need to be careful not to squander them. But the time to love is always here, right now.