. . . why I love my wife -- well, I'll get to that in a minute. First, you need a little background. Here's the thing: I've known and observed a lot of teachers over the years, but I don't know anyone better at teaching small children than my wife. Among other locations, she taught for a few years in a run-down school in Detroit. Most of her students had only one parent at home, if that many. There were few resources, management was awful, and the curriculum imposed from above warrants a prison sentence for several Ph.D.'s in some university Education Department somewhere.
But she made it work. Her children scored in the upper 90th percentiles on the math and verbal sections of the CAT test, while the rest of the city languished in the 60's (the latter an inflated number because of cheating by teachers and administrators, if what she witnessed in her school was an indication of behavior elsewhere).
She gave her children equal measures of love and discipline, and they loved her in return. She excels at teaching, for reasons I don't fully understand. She makes it look as easy, like Michael Jordan used to do for basketball.
But the realities which render me the breadwinner and her the homebound mother are:
1) I can earn far more being pretty good at what I do than she can earn despite being among the best at what she does; and,
2) She is better at the daily tasks of training and teaching our children than I will ever be.
So she stays home, and our family is better for it.
And now to my original point. Today she got a letter from the county government. It's a "Jury Questionnaire," intended to determine whether the recipient belongs among the pool of people who might be summoned in the coming year to pass judgment on their fellow citizens. Among the data requested are "occupation" and "employer."
On the MSN website today you'll find quite possibly the most pathetic sports headline since "New Curling Champion Crowned." Referencing the latest triumph of the U.S. Men's Olympic Basketball team, the headline reads:
Dominating: U.S. Hoops Crush Angola by 36
In your face, Angola! Woo-hoo!
Beware, all you malnourished amateurs from war-torn third-world countries. Larry Brown's all-stars are on the prowl.
It was Nana to the rescue this weekend, thanks to the impending William Isaac's desire to see the world sooner than fits the doctors' schedule. With two boys, a wife on bedrest, and an upcoming board meeting, let's face it: I need back-up.
Thank goodness for my mother-in-law. Now, I understand that's not a sentence uttered frequently in English, or any other language. Go ahead, Google it. I'll wait.
Like I said, it's not a common utterance, especially among men. But most men don't have my mother-in-law. She cooks, she cleans, she plays with the kids, and she only fusses when I try to bus the table after dinner. She even makes me chocolate chip cookies.
I love Nana. With her riding shotgun, I was able to keep the wife relatively immobile, which is difficult to do even when the doctors give strict orders, which my wife interprets as "loose guidelines," or perhaps more literally as "impossible rules delivered by pinheaded compassionless automatons whose overriding concerns are prompt payment and lawsuit avoidance."
She says "to-may-to," I say "to-mah-to." In any event, we survived the weekend. Caleb pitched in, too, helping me make beds. Now, my philosophy of bed making is that it's a clearly inefficient use of time. You figure five minutes to make the thing and two to unmake it, and you're on the hook for 49 minutes a week. That's 42 hours a year -- a full work week. Think about what good you could do with 42 extra hours a year.
My wife does not share this philosophy. Apparently, bed-making is VERY IMPORTANT TO A WOMAN. So important that I twice caught her trying to make the thing. So I shooed her out and called on my oldest son, and we assembled the bed. Everything went fine up until the decorative pillow part, for which I have no flare. I know this because for the first few years of marriage, the wife thought I was playing a joke whenever I tried to be helpful by adding the pillows.
Caleb also knows it. As I added the pillows in some semblance of symmetry (why do they sell odd numbers of matching pillows?), he shook his head. "Dad, you are doing that so, very, wrong." With an exasperated sigh he corrected my work. I'm proud to report that his arrangement looked no better, though he was satisfied with it.
The next morning the wife and I lay in bed listening to the boys play in their room. My wife has them trained not to leave their room, except to use the potty, until one of us comes to get them. This is a very good rule. Nothing gets your day off to a bad start like being awakened by a two-year-old stepping on your groin as he walks across your bed to get to his mama.
We could hear them giggling and tumbling around, and I thought: this is heaven. Then the wailing began. In came Eli. "Caleb pushed me down."
"Caleb!" No answer. "Caleb!" Still no answer. The boy had suddenly gone deaf. "Stephen Caleb!" Apparently he was banking on my sloth to save him. "Stephen Caleb Woodlief! Get in here right this minute!"
Finally a head peeked into the room, framing a face far too innocent. "Yes?"
"Come here, child." Slowly he entered the room. "What did you do to your brother?"
"Then why is he crying?"
"I don't know."
"He pushed me down!"
"Caleb, tell me the truth."
"Well, I don't think I want to tell you, because then I might get a spanking."
It's very hard to sustain the grave visage of a parent about to dole out justice at moments like that. Once the chuckling was over, I pulled him close, and we talked about telling the truth, even when we don't like the consequences.
I've noticed that when I'm having those gentle, instructive talks with one of my boys that I like to hold my forehead close to his, with his head in my hands. Each of them in turn likes to tug at my beard while he listens. It's a moment framed by our frailty, as I try to impart to them the lessons I've only learned through failure, and they stroke my rough face, as if sampling the life into which they are being propelled all too fast.
I think we have only a few such opportunities while their hearts are really open to us. I imagine that if you could count them; the number would seem small when held up against all the times they will be tested and found either well-trained or wanting, protected or wounded. We squander so many of those chances. The rest of the time, they learn by watching us.
That's an even more frightening thought -- that the life of someone I love so dearly will be profoundly shaped by my actions and, just as important, my inaction.
What other mission compares to this? What other calling has as much eternal importance? The job? Don't deceive yourself; you'll be forgotten within six months of leaving. Your publications? Most likely irrelevant within a generation, if ever they were relevant to more than a handful of people. Your money? Talk to someone who already has plenty, search his heart, and see if any happiness you find there comes from the zeroes in his bank account. Admiration of others? The crowd is no more loyal than the wind.
Most of us leave our families each day to pursue one or more of these things, and many of us forget that they are but means at best, and we make them our life's purposes. But when we feel death coming to collect our bones, do we ask to be surrounded by our money, our books, our contracts and co-workers?
No, we want only those we have loved. And if there are none we have truly loved, perhaps we realize what those around us already know -- that ours was a wasted life. The same is true if the ones we love have no desire to be with us. The first is a measure of the heart, the second a measure of resolve. Can I love anyone more than myself, and have I given of myself to them? These are far more important questions than anything that can be gleaned from a resume, no?
Funny, how we spend all of our emotional energy on things that matter so little, and think so little about the things that matter most.
So, before you charge into the week, take a moment to consider why you are charging. Who do you love? Who loves you? Where are you going, and why? Worth asking now rather than later, don't you think?