My wife and I made a pact at the advent of our marriage: I’d wake up the kids, rustle up breakfast, and drive them to school. Mornings would be conduits for father-children bonding while Andrea, who battled chronic fatigue syndrome, obtained much-needed sleep. We wound up with only one child, a son, so Caleb and I have built a relationship over breakfast cereals tasting like shredded sections of the New York Post coated with milk and sugar.
Andrea insists on buying “nutritional” corn flakes.
She’s right, of course. But the kids aren’t fibbing: All those nutrients add up to a flavor called “blehhh!,” and my “it’s good for you” assurances only confirm one thing: I’m possessed. My own father occupies my body at breakfast and speaks through me with that same condescending voice. How the old man sneaks away from his and my mom’s Berkshire retirement home defies explanation. I gotta hand it to him: He’s good.
But the rest of the morning is a gem. Caleb and I have developed a get-out-of-bed process that delicately hinges on three gentle warnings. We’ve been at this for fifteen years, fine-tuning it into a well-oiled wake up machine. I share it with any parent longing to deepen his or her relationship with a child.
WARNING NUMBER ONE: The parent enters the room and smiles upon the kid. Sleeping children seem so … precious – even when they’re teens. In my case, I reluctantly whisper: “Caleb, it’s time to wake up. This is warning number one.” I then tell him I’m about to turn on the lights. He buries his face in the pillow; I switch them on and quietly leave the room.
WARNING NUMBER TWO: I re-enter, rub the back of my child and say: “Warning Number Two. You awake yet?” The child grunts. I leave.
WARNING NUMBER THREE: I enter again. Caleb is thoroughly and soundly asleep. It is quite clear that the previous two warnings were total losers. It’s like they didn’t happen. So I rub his back more vigorously and say: “Caleb, it’s time to wake up. In fact, this is Warning Number Three, so I’m afraid now is the time.” Caleb attempts to say something. It sounds like mmmbbbbneebombefrum; but, through a process of decoding worthy of a CIA specialist, I determine what he has said: “You didn’t give me the first two warnings. This is only warning number one.” I respond that I understand he’s tired, so – in this one case – I’ll allow him an extra warning.
WARNING NUMBER FOUR: I enter the room, find that he’s as unconscious as a prize-fighter who has just slammed onto the floor (he’s hardly breathing, in fact: I wonder if I should call the paramedics), and I say: “Caleb, it’s time to get up!” He responds in that special code, telling me that the three previous warnings – which did not happen – were not emphatic enough. I inform him that they did happen and that they were emphatic but that I will not argue with him this time. The next warning – warning number five – will be the FINAL warning.
WARNING NUMBER FIVE: A decoded message informs me that the time lapse between the last warning – which was not emphatic enough and did not happen – and my re-entry was too short. Furthermore, I’m rubbing his back too hard and I’m rushing him. I must leave. Now. Return after a “correct” time lapse – and I’m supposed to discern what is “correct” because (again, a decoded message) “parents know everything” (a bald, flat-out contradiction to previous statements made when the teenage tyrant was conscious).
WARNING NUMBER FIVE (again): I rush into the room and find that the lazy little rug-rat is still out like a light. “Caleb! It’s time to get up! Now! No fooling!” He emits the code, something about how he needs a vacation. “You just had a vacation! Besides, every day is a vacation for a child (Dad again. Somebody get me an exorcist.)! There will be no other warnings! You must get up … NOW!”
WARNING NUMBER SIX: Obviously, this kid’s in a coma. I find myself pleading and begging. I’m throwing myself at the mercy of a 15-year-old: “Caleb, I gotta get you to school. Honest. It’s the law. They’ll arrest me if I don’t get you up. They’ll cart me off and I’ll never see the light of day again! Did you hear that? You’ll be fatherless!” I rue the day I got rid of my Led Zeppelin albums because, right now, I’d love to blare them into the little stinker’s ear.
WARNING NUMBER SEVEN: It’s time for the nuclear option. I heave a heavy sigh, brace myself, bend over, and tickle the young man. This would be fun at any other time, but not now – not in the morning. Caleb shrieks like one of those noon-day sirens that shoved us under our desks when we were kids (ballistic missiles in the air? No worries. We’ve got those desks), threatens me with charges of child abuse and neglect, and hollers that this collides with all theories on enlightened parenting (where did the brat get that trash? Oh yeah. Forgot. He’s got a front row seat. Action Item #1 for Sunday morning: stuff his ears so full of cotton that he can’t hear his own pop’s sermons), and informs me that such tactics are beneath the dignity of any father – especially a father who is a “pastor” and must be an example to his flock. I respond in all eloquence: “Pastor, shmaster. Get up or I’ll get you up, you little creep!”
By now, Mom is marching into the room, wearing her grim I-must-deal-with-my-two-boys look. She gently says to our son: “Come on, Caleb. It’s time to get up.” Kid’s up and ready. I shred the morning paper and stuff it into his bowl as an act of revenge (I’m a very mature pastor). He thinks it’s the same “nutritious” stuff he’s eaten all his life and sucks it like spaghetti. I drive the kid to school (we’re not speaking to each other, of course – except for the teen’s lecture on how my warnings were far too emphatic, to which I eloquently reply: “Shad-ap.”), and then go to my church office to prepare a sermon on Galatians 5:22-23 (“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”) – and to avoid my wife, who may want to “have a little chat” with me.
NOTE: MY SON READ THIS AND APPROVED WHILE LAUGHING OVER HIS MORNING “NUTRICIOUS” CEREAL. HE’S A GOOD KID AND A GREAT SPORT.