Image by cdd20 from Pixabay


2 May 2020

Dear Gus,

Today, we went to see B, your grandfather, because it was his birthday. We cooked steaks on the grill, ate birthday cake, and he took you kneeboarding, pulling you behind his boat on the lake behind his house.

You hadn’t been on the water since last season, so we decided that I’d get in first so that you could get comfortable on the boat. I donned my usual attire: pink, flowery swim trunks and an elephant-shaped towel draped over my bald head, the towel’s corners tucked under my chin and fastened with the sort of clip that we use to close off bags of chips and pretzels.

“Here we go,” you said as we walked to the boat, “King Elephant rides again!”

I got in, made it around the little island at the end of the lake, managed to survive the choppy water as we went through our own wake, and then fell in. Mom has this on video, so you can see it any time you like. She will be happy to replay it in slow-mo so that you can see the look on my face as I get dumped into the water.

Then it was your turn. You jumped in the water; I threw you the rope; you yelled “HIT IT” and B hit the gas. The boat sped forward, you got up on your knees, arranged the knee-strap, clapped twice in triumph, and then grabbed the rope. You were off! And you did pretty well!

Around the lake you went a few times, sometimes bailing because you had skidded well outside the wake, and you were worried that you might skate off into oblivion. Each time you succeeded in making it through a difficult stretch, B, proud grandfather that he is, blew the boat’s horn, and Mom and I cheered.

On one particular run, though, you showed us who you truly are. You came around the island at the end of the lake, hit the boat’s wake, and began to fall to the right. Your right elbow got so low that it was hitting the water, sending the spray up into your face. Your chest was parallel to the lake’s surface as you slumped in half, the kneeboard skidding to your right, its left side sticking up out of the water. You grimaced and held it there, in a terribly uncomfortable position, trying to figure out how you were going to save it.

“Oh,” I said, “He’s a goner.”

But I was wrong.

I’ve watched the video half a dozen times. You’re in this position for a full thirty seconds. It must’ve felt like an eternity on that board. Eventually, you let go of the rope with your left hand, grab the edge of the board, and slide it back underneath you. You pull yourself up with the help of your little-kid-abs and grab the rope with both hands. You look at us in the boat, a mixture of surprise and pride on your face. (What should we call that? Surpride?)

For those thirty seconds, as you struggled to get yourself upright and to get that board back under your knees, I saw the real Gus. When you’re at your best, you’re focused and tenacious. You believe in yourself and you know that, given a little time and energy, you can do any darn thing you want.

That’s the real Gus.

As we grow older, we often spend more and more time playing different roles. We move about the world and put on different masks because we think that is what each occasion requires of us. For example, when I’m at school, I put on my teacher-mask. I play the role of a teacher; I do the things a teacher is supposed to do. When I’m at home, however, I get to take that mask off and sink into the roles of father or spouse or writer or host or whatever else the occasion might demand.

Sometimes, I think this is a trap. Why do we need to emphasize different parts of ourselves in order to fulfill these roles? Why can’t we just bring our whole-selves to every occasion?

For thirty seconds on a Saturday afternoon, you brought your whole-self to bear on a particularly sticky problem. It was a great thing to watch. I’ve seen it so many times in the last few years, and it makes me happy every time.

To me, this seems like a much better way to live.

Don’t pretend to be this or that.
Don’t sell yourself short.
Don’t cut off pieces of who you are to make other people happy.

Whenever you’re tempted to do that, look back at that video of you on that kneeboard. Remember how happy you were when you solved that problem and did something that none of us really thought you could do. Remember that we’re at our best when we bring to any occasion the fullness of our souls and spirits in all of their marvelous and wondrous force.

Love,

Dad.