The summer before Mitch passed away, Natalie and I took our kids on an adventure in southern California. Mitch, tired of using his motorized scooter, wanted to stand and go down the escalator by himself. For a moment, he wanted to feel normal again.
Before he stepped onto the escalator, Mitch said, “Dad, will go with me?” I smiled and said, “I would love to.” Mitch went first, and I immediately followed. A few seconds later, he turned his head to make sure I was with him.
Mitch often made glances as if to say, “Are you there?” Though he was brave, he didn’t want to be alone. No child does. So, I always tried to be there for Mitch and my other kids. I was, and continue to be, less-than-perfect. In fact, I wish I could do a lot of moments over. But I tried, and I keep trying.
As a father, I knew it wasn’t practical to be everywhere, all the time, with my kids. I had to learn to do what my brother-in-law taught me years ago … embrace a philosophy of selective neglect. That is to say, when work requires, I have to neglect other aspects of my life so that I can support my family. And when my family needs me, I will set aside work so that I might be there for my wife and kids. It empowered me to say “no” … or “I can’t” … or “I won’t.” It also taught me to say, “I will,” “I can” and “yes.” Selective neglect caused me to be deliberate in saying yes to the most important thing and “no” or “not now” to other things. If I were forced with an ultimatum to choose between work and family, work would lose every time.
Fortunately, life isn’t that dramatic, and most of us can find a healthy balance that works for our own family dynamic.
For every photo I have of Mitch, I have just as many of my other kids – each with a story of love and faith of its own. As I look through those photos, I can see each of my children doing this same thing as Mitch did in this image … possessing a quiet look as if to say, “Are you there?” From school programs to athletic competitions, my kids have always looked into the vast audience of onlookers to see a glimpse of mom and dad and to make sure they weren’t alone. To make sure we were there, supporting them. Loving them, not just in theory, but in practice.
Time and attention, service and sacrifice; those are the ingredients for love. These ingredients come from focus and effort.
For me, being there isn’t just about being physically present … it’s about being emotionally and spiritually present with my loved ones, too. Being present isn’t always easy for me; I worry about payrolls, client deadlines, employees, projects, investors and mountain of other things. At any given moment, I’m managing five catastrophes, 40 brushfires, and 1,000 mosquito bites. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For me, being present takes work. If I’m not careful, I can come home from work, yet never really arrive. Being present requires me to prioritize and remember that some things matter more than others.
So, on this sunny afternoon, I practiced selective neglect; I set aside work things and lesser things so I could give Mitch and my family all of me. They are my everything, and I can’t think of a time in my life I regretted living that core value.
As Mitch turned his head and glanced at me from the corner of his eye, he wanted to know his father was with him … that he wasn’t alone. I knew Mitch was in trouble. I also knew time was short – but how short, I knew not. I only knew I had that moment, so I gave him all of me.
I am guilty of many imperfections, and I wish I were a better human than I am. And while I try to sort out my own personal growth, I will always try to be there for my family, however imperfectly. When my kids turn their head, I want them to see a familiar face smiling back at them, loving them and cheering them on.