There’s a grief that can’t be spoken. –Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Les Miserables
By Mark E. Smith
I’m really striving to keep a super clean house these days. It’s always been tidy, but after 11 years of living there, dust bunnies and cobwebs collect in corners. However, my close friend sneaked into my house while I was away working an Abilities Expo, and did a dramatic deep cleaning, where my kitchen looks new again. So, I’ve been doing my best to keep the house spotless.
Yet, my 16-year-old isn’t so mindful. She has a bad habit of piling jacket after jacket on a kitchen chair. And, with her virtually never home anymore – at school during the day, and drama rehearsal, band practice, and hanging out with friends at night – I’m the cerebral palsy version of Ozzy Osborne, with this over-the-top career by day, but puttering alone in the house in the eves, somewhat lost beyond my work.
So, amidst my immaculate kitchen, I saw my daughter’s myriad of coats, sweaters, and hoodies once again piled on a kitchen chair one evening, and I got really mad. How come she can’t just put these jackets in her bedroom? I’m stuffing all of this in a garbage bag, putting it on the curb, and teaching her a lesson!
Of course, I didn’t really do that. Instead, I went and lay on my bed, surrounded by the silence of the house. And, when my daughter got home around 10pm, I asked her how rehearsal was, not mentioning the jackets piled on the chair.
A few days later, I was working on a project, and a distant colleague raised a very trivial issue, one of no real consequence other than to get a rise out of others. “Why’s he making an issue of nothing?” I asked another colleague.
And, she said among the most profound insights, “Sometimes when people feel a lack of control over aspects of their lives or careers, they focus on that which they can control, the small things.”
Indeed, we do often focus on the small things that we can control when the bigger aspects seem overwhelming or uncontrollable. In the wheelchair world in which I work, consumers sometimes hyper focus on small details regarding a wheelchair, only later to share how overwhelmed he or she is by the entirety of disability experience, that the small issue with the wheelchair was merely a way to avoid facing the larger issues in life. Similarly, think about how often emotions build up in relationships, where a small issue ends up representing much deeper issues. Even in the movies, think about how often one character wants to tell another his or her feelings, but can’t get the words out, instead rambling about something trivial – it’s a classic cinematic tension builder based on human nature. …It’s true that it’s often emotionally easier to hyper focus on small issues rather than tackle the big ones – especially when we’re not ready or don’t feel emotionally safe doing so.
For me, I immediately thought back to the jackets on my kitchen chair. In the grand scheme, it really doesn’t matter if they’re there. But, as a single dad puttering around my empty house, it’s about all that I felt that I could truly control these days in the larger picture of my parental life. After all, my daughter’s growing up, times are changing, and while it’s all good, healthy, and normal, it’s also a bit scary – namely on my own, as a single dad, where my daughter has been my foremost focus. It’s the realization of, Wow, I’m not caretaker of a child anymore, but father of a wonderfully-flourishing young lady…. and where do I fit into all of this, and go from here?
Of course, I know the logical answers. My role remains vital, where my daughter comes home at night, plops on the big, stuffed chair in my master suite, as I’m already tucked in bed, and I listen to what’s going on in her life, asking questions, sometimes giving advice. Sure, she still needs me very much – just in different ways – and I’m forever there for her.
But, the heart isn’t so logical. It realizes that my little girl is growing up, and soon the jackets piled on the kitchen chair will be a fond memory as she heads off to college. And, there’s both a joy and sadness in that process. So, what I’ve realized is that those aren’t just jackets piled on the kitchen chair, but my own emotions as a father watching his truest pride, joy, and love grow up – and rightfully struggling with it all.
And, so for now, I’ll just leave the jackets on the kitchen chair, not worrying about it, but appreciating this stage of her life – our life – before it changes even more. Why strive to control such trivial aspects when I can just enjoy the more important aspects of life as a father.