When my son Jonah was born I would look at his pudgy little face with the wisps of brown hair over his head and feel how deeply the world had changed for me. When he cried, I felt his hunger, and when he smiled, I felt his pleasure. To be honest, the experience was little frightening: I wasn’t sure I wanted to be that open to anyone, even my own child. But now that he was here, I didn’t seem to have a choice.
Not long after his birth I was walking down the street when I saw a homeless man rattling a cup. I’d lived my entire life in New York, and stepping around hungry, dirty people was second nature to me, but for some reason I couldn’t pretend that I didn’t see him. Suddenly my mind started to tilt. He’s somebody’s Jonah, I thought.
I stood in front of him, unable to move. I wanted to speak to him, wanted to give him my wallet, but instead I ran back to my apartment and hid for the next couple of weeks. I went out only when I absolutely had to, and kept my head down when I did, because whenever I looked at anyone I had the same sort of wrenching feeling: He’s somebody’s Jonah.
Years have passed since then; Jonah is seven and we no longer live in New York. I’ve tucked that moment away somewhere inside of myself, never quite facing the implications, but not quite forgetting them, either. The troubling mystery of my connection to others hasn’t gone away, but it plays out mostly in the realm of parenting.
Basketball camp, for example.
Picture a gigantic high school gymnasium with eight basketball goals, a three-story tall ceiling and bleachers that could hold a thousand rabid, screaming parents. It is not yet nine a.m. and about fifty kids are dribbling and taking shots, waiting for basketball camp to begin. Some of the teenagers are taller than I am, but the littlest kids—first and second graders—barely reach my waist. They stagger around under the weight of their basketballs, clutching them to their chests with both arms, and when they get tired they sit on them. They don’t shoot because if they do a big kid will snag the rebound and take the ball.
I’m standing on the sidelines, unable to leave, because Jonah is one of those using a basketball for a chair. How do I get him shooting? Do I need to stand here and make sure he gets the ball back?
I can’t do that; I’ve got a meeting at nine-fifteen.
It looks like I have my solution when his friend Ryan comes running in. Ryan is also seven, a sweet-natured giant about twice Jonah’s size. “Come on, Jonah, let’s go!” he yells, and the next moment the two of them are playing one-on-one. It lasts only a minute, though; Ryan starts driving past Jonah, shooting, rebounding, then shooting again. Jonah, who can’t get a hand on the ball, turns it into a wrestling match; the two of them end up pulling at the ball like it was the last life vest on the Titanic.
I swoop in. “Hey, hey, you guys are friends, right?” I kneel down to make eye contact, first with Jonah and then with Ryan. “So I want you to take turns. One of you shoots, and then the other one shoots. Got it?”
Jonah nods okay, and though Ryan glowers, I know that he will follow instructions. They start to play again, warily taking turns. I move toward the door, hoping that the peace holds. On the way I pass Ryan’s dad, Eric—a man I know only as the extremely tall, silent figure watching sports on TV when I pick Jonah up at Ryan’s after a play date. He doesn’t acknowledge me, but then he never does. There’s a whole class of Dads that seem to watch sports and brood in silence, on the periphery of their children’s lives.
Ryan yells to him, “Jonah’s not playing right.”
Jonah counters, “We’re supposed to take turns.”
I stop where I am, torn between the need to make my meeting and my sense of unease. Maybe it’s the sight of Eric towering over the two bickering kids, or maybe it’s the weird smirk that suddenly appears on his face—smirk is the only word for that particular curling of the lips. “There’s no sharing basketballs,” he says to them. “You want the ball, then you get the rebound.”
Standing there, a story unspools in my mind: Eric already six feet tall in high school, playing on the varsity team, simply assuming that he would end up in the NBA—and becoming instead an automotive parts salesman in the same small Southeastern city he grew up in, but with a son who’s already a foot taller than anyone else in his first grade class…
Jonah gets a stubborn look and Eric seems to think a bit. “You know what? Ryan, you go over there and play with the big kids.” He points to a group of third graders across the gym, and Ryan runs off, taking the ball with him. “And you,” he says to Jonah, still with that odd smirk, “You can take turns—” his voice actually has the smirk in it now, “with him.” He waves toward another little kid who has sidled up, carrying a basketball as if it were a prize watermelon.
At this point it occurs to me that Eric must know that I am standing by the door, that to some extent this demonstration may even be aimed at me—not because he knows anything about me, really, or because I mean anything in particular to him, but because middle-age men are full of competitive fury, which they have to release in sly and furtive ways—all too often through their children.
I start walking back toward Jonah, even as Eric turns and heads toward the basket where Ryan is now playing. It’s just as well that he’s going; I’m old enough to mistrust the effects of my anger. Instead, I get on my knees in front of Jonah. “Hey, you okay?”
“Ryan’s being bossy,” he says, looking furious. Ryan’s father doesn’t matter to him; it’s Ryan, his friend, that matters.
“Well forget Ryan, there are plenty of other kids to play with today.” I get him started with the kid next to us, and a moment later a couple of his other friends show up and they’re all playing happily. The incident is over.
Later, driving to the campus where I teach, I feel the delayed symptoms of my anger—my chest rises up and down, my head buzzes. Am I angry because Jonah was slighted, or because I was slighted? Am I angry because I should have intervened, instead of watching from the door? But there’s nothing to gain from tangling with a jerk like that…I go back and forth, around and around, and by the time I pull into the parking lot my fury hasn’t so much abated as begun to mix with a kind of sorrow: for Jonah, who will sometimes be disappointed by his friends; for Ryan, who will have to live out his father’s competitive frustrations; and even for Eric, who must be going through life feeling very small.
I think about the moment of Jonah’s birth, and how the world busted open for one brief period and I could see that all the differences between us were illusionary—that we are all Jonah, all Jonah’s dad, all one. Even if we insist on living like this isn’t true.
And then I get out of the car and run to my meeting.