Filling the gap

Lightning struck an old oak tree in our yard several years ago. Water poured through the break, seeped down to the base of the trunk. It was becoming unsafe, and would have to come down.

I discussed it with my two daughters. Kate reminded me she was much too small. The other, Sharon, said that she would be working at her part-time job that weekend. And when she wasn't, she said, there was hair to be washed, dates to be met, and shopping to be done. Ah, I thought, girls are nice, but just once , it might be nice to have a strong, independent boy.

An evening or so before the weekend I decided to take down the oak tree. Sharon asked if it was OK to bring over several of her friends for supper, music , and conversation. The supper would be hot dogs or hamburgers, of course; the music something that I long ago stopped trying to understand; and the conversation full of new words that were not around when I was young.

And so that evening, the house became filled with a variety of young people, of differing backgrounds and upbringing, united by electric guitars and the debate on whether lavender will continue to be the ''in'' color this year. During these times, I tried to do what all good parents are expected by their offspring to do: keep well out of the way.

I usually retire to the bedroom to read or watch TV, but I have always found myself listening to the house full of sounds of more than just two female children. I would listen to the assertive shouts of the boys when they wanted attention, and the softer voices of the girls as they competed for attention in the larger crowd. Wistfully, I would remember that I came from a larger family, and how much easier it is for debate (not always reasoned) and argument (not always won) to be expressed in a larger family. And I would dream not only of sons, but of larger families and the sense of community they bring.

I tried to settle into a book, but found myself overhearing the conversation of three or four young people outside my bedroom window. One young man seemed very troubled. At first it sounded like the usual rebellious talk, about parents not understanding the kids today, but as I listened, hoping I was not actually eavesdropping, I found myself fascinated by the desperation of this particular young man.

It was true; his father didn'tm understand him, but the boy wanted to know why. He was not content to use the rift to move further away. ''I do my best,'' he said, ''but it never turns out right. My father always wants to be the boss; always wants to show me that he's the grown up and that he has more experience than me. He's always telling me what to do, but never asks me anything. Doesn't he understand that I only want to be his son, not his servant?''

His son, not his servant - there's the rub! All the young man wanted to be was his father's son. I wanted to throw up the window and tell him that I have a whole warehouseful of father/son relationships beating away under my chest. Instead, I listened quietly, my heart reaching out for a son that belonged to someone else. I moved quietly to the window to see if I could see the boy, but he was invisible.

Despite my intention to keep out of the way, I found myself wandering out to the kitchen for a glass of milk, then to check if the refrigerator needed restocking, or to inquire if Nicky, our German shepherd, was underfoot. Sharon came into the kitchen with a young man, independently unkempt, and obviously admiring Sharon.

''Dad, this is John,'' she said. I shook hands with him. I noticed immediately how strong his grip was, how his skin was rougher, and the energetic shake. I noticed the difference immediately. Not that my two girls are weaklings or limp-wristed - it was just a difference I was not used to.

John spoke first. ''You know, Mr. Barnacle, that oak tree at the bottom of your yard will have to come down soon. There's water seeping out from the base of the trunk, and it'll turn rotten.'' I was quite startled. The voice was the young man's outside my window earlier. I was amazed. I had overheard him: had hem overheard mym thoughts?

I told John that I had been thinking of the same thing. ''Need any help?'' he said. I appeared casual as I told him that he needn't bother; that I was sure I could get one of the neighbors to help. ''I'll do it for nothing,'' he said. ''It won't cost you a thing.''

I agreed and he asked me if I had ever taken down such a large tree before. No, I said, I hadn't. Did I have a big enough chain saw for such a large tree? No, I said again, could he bring one? He said he would. (I had a feeling that his father probably never let him use it around the house himself.) And so we set a date for the following weekend.

Throughout that weekend we worked together. We lifted, sweated, and rested together. I deferred to his lithe strength as he moved huge pieces of trunk for cutting, and he patiently listened as I explained the geometry of cutting to avoid wastage. Together, we gave enthusiasm and experience. We sat down to lunch and supper together, and I watched him eat, noting how much larger his bites were than my two daughters', and how he held the sandwich with both hands. Sharon uses only one, and Kate tears tiny pieces off her sandwich, then pops them into her mouth. John took large bites, chewing them well, before swallowing.

John refused any money. But I knew he had often eyed a leather jacket hanging in the hall from my motorcycling days, and I offered it to him. When he put it on, he asked how it looked. ''Just fine,''I said, adding silently, ''Like a boy, just like a boy.''

John filled two sweat-filled afternoons with a lot of joy and comradeship. With the tree finally cut up and stacked, we sat and talked, bringing our breath back to normal. I told him how much I appreciated his strength and his help. I saw no point in telling him that I had not quite told the truth when I told him that I hadn't taken such a large tree down before, or that I had a suitable chain saw. He wanted to be of service; to be free, I thought, to express his sonship. For myself, it was as though the long-held desire to have a son was met for a brief time. It was a concept that one holds, but without the active demonstration of it in our lives occasionally, it grows stagnant.

I thought about the earlier remark that he only wanted to be a son, not a servant. It's not much to ask for in our daily service to doing good, for it is our sonship, - and daughtership - that points to our true worth, not servitude. For a short span of time, this young man and I reached inside of each other and brought out the need to be something long denied.

Without papers and interviews, we adopted each other for a weekend, satisifed a need within, and parted, content that nothing was missing.

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