Letting It All Hang Out Over A Schoolyard Fence
Beating a platitude to the punch one somber sunny afternoon
It was a typical late spring afternoon. The sun was shining, the temperature was up, and my world was falling apart.
I was loitering at the boundary fence of my daughter's Catholic elementary school, waiting for the bell to ring and then to wait as my daughter would be amongst the last to leave the school halls. Then, the gang of three, my daughter and her two best boy chums, would meander their way across the field to waiting parents.
On most occasions over the years, my wife was there to collect our child, and while she waited, it was a time to catch up with moms or dads of the kid collective. But, with the recent changes, it was my role to gather my youngling more often than not. My parental company alternated between the same mothers and fathers.
On that day, the father of one of the lads had his turn to collect his crew of three boys. His youngest was first out. He would come sprinting to his father, lob his backpack over the fence, ignoring his father's instructions not to, then dash back across the field to the playpark until his brother's arrived and their father summoned them to leave.
His middle child moved like a ghost. You'd never spot him exiting the school doors when suddenly he would manifest somewhere amongst one of steel and lumber contraptions. Dashing, dodging, and almost always getting into turmoil in the crowd of energy-riddled children finally set free from the institution.
Then, there would be a long delay until his oldest appeared at the far end of the schoolyard. Then, his son, my daughter, and the third member of the entourage would move at snail's pace towards us. This long exit gave us the time to chat.
He's a firefighter in the city, and more than that, he's a station chief and in rotation as the deputy fire chief. The man is what you would picture a lifelong firefighter to look like. Lean, thick, clean-shaven, and seemingly carved out of ageless granite. I liked him despite an odd physical mannerism of blinking often and rapidly and generally light-hearted conversation material. Over the years, our families gathered for biannual dinner parties, children's birthdays, and shared school activities.
With his health-conscious, attentive, and undeniably beautiful wife, who worked as a top nurse in the city, these two are nothing short of a local power couple.
She, too, is one you would expect to see in any tv or movie couple of this caliber. Tall, with a runner's body but doing a fine job of holding curves above and below, his wife was exceptionally kind even though it seemed like everything she did was all business. She is also a solid two-level woman. Level one is the running pants, vest-wearing, long, beautiful brown hair fastened into a pony with no make-up and still a knockout pretty gal. If she showed up with her hair in long, loose curls, a splash of color on her lips, and painted sparkles over her eyes? Well, that was a test sent from God that had two rules. Appreciate and Behave. I always enjoy being in her company, and she's good enough to ignore my too often given glances.
Back to the day and the Dads.
As dad talk goes, our conversations were usually about the news, local events, or for one reason or another, cars. I'm not much a gearhead, but if it was all three of us Dad's together, then after brief salutations and "How's it going?" I would wait patiently for the kids to arrive while the other men spoke about horsepower, gear ratios, and whatever else they found enormously interesting about 70s' muscle cars. I would almost fall asleep where I stood. But it was their thing, and that was cool. It was also safely away from engaging in anything real.
But on that particular day, several things weighed heavily on my mind, and my spirit twisted with despair. So when the fire chief arrived at my side, turned towards me and, with no one else in earshot, asked, "Hey, how are things?" I let go. My hands curled around the chain link fence posts, and I emptied my soul.
I didn't mean to. I didn't want to. The first words came out, and it felt like my feet couldn't find solid ground. I vomited words.
I told him about the very recent news about my tumor. I told him about the highly stressful, multifaceted failure to adequately provide for my wife and child as a husband and a father. I explained about the last remains used up from my previously successful business. I told him about the Grand Canyon-like chasm of lost intimacy in my marriage. I kept spilling out all the poison that afflicted my mind and body.
Maybe it was because leaving the conversation on his part would mean having to walk away or run. Perhaps it was because no one's children were in the midst of mayhem in the play park for once. Or maybe he just understood. It could be that in his professional capacity, he has to acknowledge and handle men with stress overloads, trauma-related breakdowns and knows a thing or two about mental health. But he stood there beside me and listened. He didn't say much at first and most importantly, and I cannot stress this enough-he gave no cheap, easy, shitty platitudes. He didn't seek an out for himself.
So there I was, hanging over a schoolyard fence, standing in a knee-deep puddle of misery, worry, and stress, and another man cared enough to listen.
Before that one-sided conversation, I was staring a complete mental breakdown in the face.
I apologized to him immediately afterward. Once I had caught my breath and realized all the things I had confessed, and it was a confession. The grounds of the Catholic school replaced the confessional, and the fireman stood for the priest. In his graciousness, the firefighter doused my apology as unnecessary.
He did not make light of a single word given, and when he spoke, "Man, that is a lot to deal with. I don't know how I would handle it," it gave me just enough ground to steady myself on. Barely.
I have worked hard in my life - hours upon hours of grueling, unrelenting, physical work. I have found physical and mental strength and stamina when my peers have faltered. I have overcome several significant challenges. But that day? On that afternoon, I was summoning every ounce of mental and physical power to keep from falling off a cliff, and with every step forward, I was sending pebbles into the abyss. One sidestep could have been fatal.
I've thought about that day, about his involuntary conscription into my misery. I won't say that he saved my life, but I can't say he didn't. I can say that he listened and I felt heard. This man, more than an acquaintance but less than a close friend who I'm sure has a wagon load of his own worries. What with three children, a mortgage, bills bigger than mine, and being on call to save the city from flaming chaos-every day? Yeah, I'm sure he's about chock-full of life's crap. But he cared enough about another man to manage.
And that was enough.
Writing about this was brought about by reading this piece from Danielle Loewen Did it resonate? Hell yes. Is what she had to say truly important? It's profound.
Humanity matters. Kindness matters.
If you're going to ask, be prepared to listen. If you're going to act as though you care, then ready yourself to see the role through. Avoid giving meaningless, worthless, insulting platitudes. If someone puts their heart on the line, tow the damn line.
It doesn't cost you anything to be invested in another human being, but it can cost everything to the one needing some care.
If you have the means and desire to help support my writing, you can do so here. Everyone needs helps at one time or another and I sincerely appreciate any that comes my way. Click on the link here if you want to buy me a cup of coffee! Thanks in advance!
About the Creator
1st generation Canadian-Hungarian
Father, Fly fisher, Chef, Reader, Leader, and working on writer.
Feedback appreciated anytime. Tips always appreciated.
There are no comments for this story
Be the first to respond and start the conversation.