A warm breeze twisted above the water leaving tiny ripples in its wake. The lake reflected a blue sky speckled with clouds as if designed by Jackson Pollock. The scene stood unnoticed by the boy as he scoured the shoreline for skipping rocks.
His father trailed behind, watching his son with quiet joy. Long ago he had promised himself that he would not let his son grow up the same way he had. These walks to the lake started with that promise in mind, but had eased into a favorite habit between them.
Enthusiasm for one of the few times he was allowed to throw rocks drove the boy to gather a small mountain of stones. His father eyed the growing stack with thoughts of the sore shoulder he would feel tomorrow. He bent down to sort through the puzzle of rocks looking for just the right piece.
“Dad, do you love me?”
The father stopped and looked up to find his son still searching for the final stone to add to his collection.
“Of course I love you. You are my son.”
The boy seemed to accept this easily as he stood over his pile with a combination of satisfaction and anticipation. His look quickly changed to one of curiosity as a new question occurred to him.
“Well, would you still love me if I wasn’t your son?”
Inside his chest, the father’s heart began to beat a little faster. He feared that this would be a defining moment for their relationship and focused on trying to find an answer that his son would understand.
“It’s not possible for you to still be you and be someone else’s son. You have your mother’s eyes and my nose. You laugh like her too.”
His son’s confused stare remained unchanged. He decided to try and explain it a different way.
“You like apples right?”
“When you eat an apple, that apple could only have come from one tree in the whole world. That tree makes an apple that no other tree can ever make. Some apples make look the same or taste alike, but each apple is one of a kind and if it came from a different tree it could not be the same apple. If you came from other parents, you would not be you.”
The father walked over beside his son and rustled his hair. He remembered thinking the same questions as a child, but never dared ask his father.
It did not take long for the pair to find an easy back and forth rhythm to their skipping. Each toss created a line of cascading circles, transforming the reflection of the opposite shore into a Van Gogh painting.
His son flicked his wrist, sending a rock spinning out across the water.
“Why do you love me?”
The question hit him like a sledgehammer, even as his son continued his assault on the placid water.
“You are smart. And funny. And you make your mom smile. You are kind. You…”
“If I wasn’t smart or funny or kind would you still love me?”
“Of course I would.”
“How do you know?”
The fear inside him threatened to give way to frustration. He took a deep breath as he searched for the right words.
“I just do. You are my son. Love is a choice. And I choose to love you. I will always choose to love you no matter what.”
“Well what if someday you stop choosing to love me?”
His son stopped throwing for the first time and turned to look at his dad. It was not quite worry, but curiosity scrunched the area around his emerald eyes that so closely resembled his mothers.
“But how do you know?”
It was clear that simple answers would not clear the doubt that clung to the boy’s mind. His father took another deep breath and rubbed his head. How could he explain something that seemed so obvious? Another slow breath led to an idea.
“I want you to do something for me. Take a deep breath and hold it until I tell you to let it out.”
The boy’s eyes measured the father’s face for a moment before he inhaled all the air he could and held it. A smile slowly pushed back the corners of the father’s mouth as he watched his son’s cheeks progress through deepening shades of red. The silence that hung between them was soon broken by a great exhale and a gasp. The boy bent over to grab his knees and began taking deep breaths. This was the moment the father had waited for and he started speaking immediately, before the experience faded from his son’s mind.
“Why did let it out? I told you to hold it until I said to let it out.”
“I couldn’t hold it anymore.” He replied after letting out a big breath.
“That’s not true. You could have. You could have held until you passed out.”
“It started to hurt.”
“That’s because you body needs oxygen to work. The pain is its way of telling you that if it does not get some, it will stop working. That pain would grow stronger and stronger until you passed out.”
The boy’s breathing had finally resumed a natural rhythm. He stood up straight and rubbed his head trying to figure out why his dad was telling him this. A silly grin on his dad’s face told him that he would explain it if he could not figure it out on his own. The boy rubbed his head and thought about it until his dad decided to end his test.
“Son, my love for you is like breathing. If I ever even tried to stop, it would hurt me more than not breathing hurt you. Do you think you will ever decide to stop breathing?”
Kneeling down in front of his son, the father looked him straight in the eyes.
“And I could never imagine not loving you for even a second. That’s how I know that I will always love you. No matter what you do or who you become, I will love you.”
“What about if I die? I won’t be breathing then.”
A muffled chuckle escaped the father’s lips as he shook his head. He had to admire his son’s thoroughness.
“Son, if you ever stop breathing, I will still love you. If I ever stop breathing I will still love you. As long as there is breath, I will love you.”
His son smiled. They finished skipping the rocks that were gathered just as the sun touched the tops of the trees. There was still enough light left to race up the hill to the back porch. It was a photo finish that both agreed went to the boy.
They sat down on the stairs to watch the sun sink out of view. The father draped his arm around the boys shoulders as they both breathed deeply.
Copyright © 2012 Adam Drake