Do Your Eyes Light Up When Your Child Walks into the Room?

As it appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine on August 15, 2021

Twenty years ago, when my wife, Shelley, and I were raising our son, I began watching The Oprah Winfrey Show in the afternoons. My company had offered an early retirement package that included nine months of pay, allowing me to stay home until I found another job. One day, Toni Morrison was the featured guest, discussing her book The Bluest Eye. Toward the end of the interview, Oprah paraphrased something Morrison had just said: “Do your eyes light up when your child walks into the room?”

Not always, I thought, especially not when he was in one of those moods, or banging on something, or whining. But I’d always listen for that 3 o’clock rumble of the school bus. I’d move to a window where Jesse’s friends on the bus couldn’t see me. My eyes would light up as he crossed the road in front of the bus and walked up the driveway. And when he came through the door, I’d hug him for the one exhilarating moment that reminded me why loving this child was the most important thing I would ever do.

My mother and father had never hugged me, and I didn’t understand the value of hugging until Shelley came along. Her friends were always hugging one another, and then, Oh, God, they were hugging me. At first I thought all this hugging was a bit overdone, but eventually I actually enjoyed someone’s warm embrace, particularly Shelley’s. So I’ve hugged Jesse through the years as much as he allows.

Jesse was having a tough time then. His troubles were with a sarcastic sixth-grade teacher who’d humiliated him in class, a pediatrician who’d peeked into his boxers as part of a routine checkup, a collarbone broken while snowboarding, and several amorous 12-year-old girls who wanted to date him (Jesse said he would be glad to . . . when he turned 30).

And then there was the problem of having to explain sex-related terminology. When Jesse asked what Mono Gamus meant, I thought he was reading Latin. Single game? But when he showed me the printed word, I explained monogamous meant having one mate and was not pronounced Mono Gamus. When he saw a Viagra commercial about the cure for E.D., I had to define erectile dysfunction. Some weeks later, he shouted, “Dad, there’s something wrong with this commercial! This guy on TV is smiling and he’s got erectile dysfunction.”

Sex-related questions made me want to unplug the television. “Dad, what does genital herpes mean?” Then there was the king of nonsexual questions: “Dad, when can I get into dirt bike racing?”

Allowing a child to race dirt bikes might have been a sign of mentally deranged and deficient parents. But because Jesse had met the prerequisites (saving half the cost of a Kawasaki KX85 and getting A’s in school), it was difficult to say no to his passionate dream. Hauling the shiny green monster home in our little trailer was, according to him, the happiest day of his life.

When Jesse was born, things I’d thought were important previously became less so. When he became a teen, I found more empathy than I thought I possessed. Trying to understand the intricacy of raising a child, I’d sometimes ponder an Abraham Lincoln quote that I kept taped to my file cabinet: “A child is a person who is going to carry on what you have started. He is going to sit where you are sitting, and when you are gone, attend to those things which you think are important . . . the fate of humanity is in his hands.”

Twenty years later, the happiest moments for me are still those times when he walks in the door. My eyes light up — they always have. And I think he sees it.