By Patrick Atkinson | Submitted Photo
On the seventh day, when God finished creating the earth and decided it was time to rest, we mere mortals were left to our own devices.
One result is that we created babies. After that we became parents.
We fed our children and watched as they stretched out limbs and tore through shirts, shoes, and toys. They made us laugh.
Then they became teenagers and stopped talking to us.
What did I do? I wondered. Had I yelled at my son a little too loudly, or corrected him one too many times in front of his friends?
Or maybe I was too easy on him. Was he in trouble? I wondered.
“No,” I decided after weeks of pondering how I had blown it. “He must be going through a stage, a phase, or a sign of the times.”
While not perfect, I had done my best. Still, I missed him and often thought about how he was doing. Did he miss me, too?
It seems like I didn’t know him anymore, and even though we shared the same dinner table each night, I wanted him to come home again.
“What are you doing?” I asked one beautiful evening when I stepped outside and found him sitting alone on the steps.
“Nothing,” he said.
“Great! Let’s go for a walk.”
My voice exuded confidence and I started to move. Inside, though, I was afraid he would say ‘no’ and the gap between us would grow wider.
With an inspired lack of enthusiasm, my son rose and began to walk beside me. Or behind me, as was his preference. I slowed and let the inches between us disappear. I spoke first.
“Man, I can’t believe…” and told him what happened at work that day.
“Look at that…” I said and pointed to something I found interesting.
“What do you think about?” I asked out loud, more to myself.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “Maybe if…” and gave a complete answer.
I was so excited he had even responded—I wanted to jump back in and give my opinion. “Just listen,” something told me.
For the next several minutes, I stopped being his parent and started to be his friend. I learned that he tuned out when I lectured, which is what he heard through his filtering system when I ‘shared my wisdom and experience.’
I also learned it didn’t become uncomfortable when he said something he knew I wouldn’t like while we walked, or when we had a minute of silence, because we were moving. Either of us could buy an escape or a reflective moment by switching to talk about the houses we saw or people we met.
Most of the time, my job was to listen. On a good night, I might get in a brief three-sentence lesson.
We grew to love our walks and looked forward to them whenever we could get out.
All children, young and old, want to know they are loved, protected, respected, and accepted. And even during their toughest years, they need to know they have a parent who is there for them, and loves them…regardless.
While my son never doubted I would always be his papa, when we went for our walks, he wanted me to change hats and also become an older friend he could trust; a sounding board with whom he could talk, and never use what he said against him.
We are now both older and our occasional walks together far fewer. When we do get out, we talk about family and jobs, and what the other will do when the first of us goes home to God. We know each other’s deepest secrets and trust that they are safe.
We recently took our last walk together as father and single son. It was around a lake and the night before he was to be married. As his bride watched from a distance, my boy quietly said he’d be walking with his future wife now and she would know secrets I could never know. I would have to be okay with that.
Both with sadness and joy, I understood what he was saying and thanked him for the tremendous honor he had given me to be his father. I also thanked him for our many years of wonderful walks together.
Those will never end, he promised, as he gripped my hand.
Far too soon our evening together ended. He went on to be with his bride while I walked on alone. Over the years, I realized, he had been listening, too.
Bismarck-native Patrick Atkinson is the Founder and Exec- utive Director of The GOD’S CHILD Project and the Institute for Trafficked, Exploited & Missing Persons.His most recent book, Message For My Child, is available in 13 languages worldwide.