Recently, I had the flu. Not the influenza that puts you down for weeks at a time, but the stomach flu that seemingly causes you to spend all of your time next to the toilet. It was bad. It was really bad.
During this time, my 6-year-old son Camden walked into the room where I was quarantined. His concern was quite palpable and I felt bad because he obviously was worried. I mean, dad is not supposed to be sick, right? But I was. I was very sick. So, he talked to me for a few minutes (he gave me the flu, so I was not worried about him catching it).
The conversation went something like this.
“Dad, we’re buddies, right?”
“Yeah, Cam, you know we’re buddies.”
“Well, I don’t like you being sick. Buddies have to look out for buddies.” At this point he put his fist out for a fist bump, which I gladly gave him.
“Yeah, we look out for each other. Are you worried about me?”
“Yup. You’re kind of old and I don’t want anything to happen to you.” This was a bit of kick to the stomach as I do not think of myself as old, but there was context. The day before, my parents’ dog Baxter died. Now, my parents live about 1.3 miles from my house and my kids spend a great deal of time there. They have grown up with Baxter and loved the dog like he was their own. In fact, Baxter and my oldest son Brody were only a few months apart in age. And the death of the dog hit Cam particularly hard. He was quite upset when told and cried a lot. He is a thoughtful and quite sensitive little boy and this was one of those times where his sensitivity shone through.
So, I just looked at Cam and said, “Buddy, there’s nothing that’s going to happen to me. I am going to be here for a long time. I mean, I have a lot I have to do. I have to see you get through kindergarten and elementary school and then graduate high school and college and maybe get married and have kids. I want to see that happen to your brothers too. So, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, ok?”
This satisfied him and he just says, “Ok” and gives me a big hug. It’s a great moment. And one that I will cherish.
The moment also caused me to spend some time thinking and thinking hard. I mean, when you are quarantined to a bedroom and have nowhere to go, there is not much else to do than think. And my conversation with my thoughtful little guy got me thinking a lot.
One of my biggest struggles in my mental illness (I have bipolar 2 and anxiety) is with suicidal thoughts. Even when I feel on top of the world, when my hypomanic state comes to full fruition, I still have a tendency to want to die. Or, at least, I do not care if I die. And it is honestly kind of frightening. My death, at times, consumes me. It is all that I can think of or concentrate on. And, for this reason, I usually hedge my bets. I do not make grandiose claims about seeing my kids graduate college or see them get married because I know how much death haunts me. I know that people with bipolar live shorter lives and have other health problems and the like. I know that even if suicide is not where I end up, the stress that my mental illness puts on my body makes me more likely to experience death sooner. And this often seems like a welcome release.
So, my conversation with Camden was a surprise, even to myself. It was the first time in a long time that I made a promise to be there for events that I am honestly not sure I can make it to. But, I want to. I want to be there to watch him and his brothers get through elementary school; I want to be there to help my sons walk through the wildness that will be their awkward middle school years; I want to be there when they walk across the stage to get their high school diploma; I want to move them into their dorm room at college and meet their girlfriends and friends who will be there throughout their lives; I want to be there when they get married and I want to be present when their children are born and I want to see my grandchildren. And I want to walk with my boys as they go through adulthood.
And this is something I have never promised or made mention of before.
Yet, on this day, I knew that the only thing that I want in life is to get to the next day and the next day to see my boys grow up, to live with my lovely wife, to go on and on. Death haunts me and I cannot help that. And, when my depression gets deeper and deeper and I am in the darkness and numbness and pain that goes with it, I know that the hope I have in seeing my wife and my boys today and tomorrow and the next day should be enough to sustain me. It’s my desire to be there, to live life so that they may have me as part of their life. However, I am no longer living just so they do not have the damage of not having a father; rather, I am living because I want to, because I have to see them grow and move and learn and make mistakes and live life.