The sound of the door closing brought me out of the world of numbers I had entrenched myself in. Not the sound itself, but the particular tone. When your life slips into a steady rhythm and the harmonies blend perfectly, it is easy to notice a single missed note. Although the door did not have the force of a slam, something about its dull note seemed off.
I slid my chair away from my desk and got my head through my office door just in time to see the bottom of my son’s feet disappearing up the stairs.
A familiar, “Yeah?” came floating down from somewhere above. Again, something seemed off. A note slightly off key. I couldn’t say which one, only that I heard something that shouldn’t have been.
I took a few steps away from my door to the foot of stairs. Austin was not in sight, but I knew he had stopped to hear what I wanted.
Another, “Yeah.” Another missed note.
“You wanna throw it out?”
“No. I’m good.”
It is the right of every parent to ignore the words of their child and read the invisible clues that help us know our child’s heart. I couldn’t push Austin. His mother’s soft heart beat in his chest. But I knew he would come to me in his time.
“I’ll be in the back yard.”
I made a quick stop by my computer to save my work before grabbing my cap and glove from the wicker basket by the back door.
Our backyard was long and narrow with a thin row of tulips my wife had planted along the edge of our fence. I stepped into the grass and searched the sky. The great swath of blue was unbroken by any clouds.
I lifted the baseball to my nose and took a deep breath, inhaling the soft mix of leather and must. It was habit I had picked up somewhere along the way, but I couldn’t remember when or where. I squeezed the ball until it popped into the air and floated down into my glove. With a flick of my wrist I sent it back into the air, this time catching it on the back of my fingers. A dip of the elbow sent the ball rolling down my arm and with a quick pop of the arm just before it rolled off sent the ball into the air once more.
I began to toss the ball into the air and thought about how my relationship with my son had evolved over the years. As a young father I thought everything would be easier once my boy was just potty trained. A small breathy laugh pushed it’s way through my smile as I realized how naive I was so many years ago.
Things were simple in the years when I could pull Austin up into my lap and solve most of his problems with tickles, but as he grew so did the space between us. Luckily a mutual love of baseball helped us find the words we had trouble saying. “I’m frustrated,” became a loud pop of a fastball. “I’m sad,” was a lazy arching ball landing softly in the mit.
A slap of the glove ended my game off toss with the sky. I looked over to see Austin pulling at the leather straps of his glove as he flexed it open and closed. He had his mother’s blue eyes and they were locked onto the glove he had gotten for his last birthday. A few punches into the webbing let me know he was ready.
We threw in silence for a while. His throws were a mix of hard and soft as he worked through whatever emotions his day had unearthed in him.
Austin stared at the ball in his hand for a few moments. “I’m a coward.” He said before zipping the ball across the yard to me. The smack in my glove felt good, like we had finally broken through a barrier.
I reached back and sent the ball flying, matching his speed.
“Why do you say that?”
He fished the ball out of his mitt and rotated it in his right hand as he spoke. “I really like this girl, Brooke, at my school. I want to ask her out, but every time I talk to her my mouth gets all dry and I stumble over my words. Now she probably thinks I’m an idiot.”
The ball sailed into my glove, chest-high. We settled into a rhythm of talking when we had the ball and then throwing.
“It took me the better part of 40 years to realize this, but girls are actually much smarter than us. I bet she knows you like her. And that you’re not an idiot.”
I sailed one high but Austin reached up and snagged it.
“I just… I don’t know what to do.”
“You should ask her out. It’s the only way to know if she likes you too.”
“I just told you. I can’t!”
He unleashed one that stung my hand a bit.
“You can. You’re just scared. What are you afraid of?”
“What if she says no?”
“What if she does? Is that the end of the world?”
He snatched the ball out of the air and fired it back at me without saying anything. We continued to throw without saying anything. I searched for some kind of advice or wisdom to give, but was drawing a blank. The muscles in my shoulder started a small rebellion that grew with each throw.
Movement inside the house caught my eye and I looked back to see my beautiful wife watching me through the kitchen window. The smile that had left me speechless so often suddenly filled me with inspiration.
“Do you know why your mom went out with me?”
“She said you guys met in college.”
“That’s where we met, not why we met. I met your mom because of Sydney Aldridge.” Austin looked confused, but didn’t say anything. I rubbed the ball giving my shoulder a rest as I continued.
“When I was a junior in high school there was a new girl at our school. Sydney. She was… She was hot.” Austin smiled and I could see some of the frustration release. “Well I was smitten. Me and about every other guy at the school. Anyway I was terrified to ask her out. I told your grandpa about it and he asked me if I would ask her out if he gave me $100. I said ‘Of course.’ Then he asked me if I would rather have the $100 or a date with the girl. I told him I’d rather have the date. He just laughed at me and told me there were a thousand ways to make $100, but only one way to get that date.”
I tossed the ball over and felt my shoulder protest again.
“So what did you do?”
“I marched right up her the next day and asked if she wanted to go see a movie with me sometime.”
“What did she say?”
“She said no. And I went home and cried. But I got over it. And I realized it wasn’t the end of the world. It’s a lot like getting into a fight. Getting hit is a scary thing until you’ve been hit, then you realize that it’s not as bad as your mind makes it out to be.”
“What does that have to do with mom?”
He was throwing more relaxed. And I knew he was really listening.
“I had a few friends who were shy and never got up the nerve to ask anybody out. The fear of it grew and grew. But after I asked out Sydney, I asked out Grace. And we dated for a few months. Each time I liked a girl it got a little easier to ask them out. So by the time I first saw your mom I didn’t even hesitate.”
“And she said yes just like that?”
“Actually… She said no. The first few times I asked her…”
Austin started laughing.
“But I never would have had the courage to ask your mom if I didn’t conquer my fear with Sydney. And I definitely wouldn’t have been able to ask her again. Some of those guys I knew never got over that fear. They missed out on some great things because they didn’t understand the secret of courage.”
He actually stopped and asked me, “What’s the secret?” I walked over and stood next to him. Even though we had stopped throwing my shoulder continued to voice it’s displeasure with me.
“The lie that fear tells us is that you have to be brave all the time. That wasn’t me. I was scared most of the time. But most of the time is not all of the time. And that’s the secret. You only have to have 3 seconds of courage. Just enough to get through a single moment in time.”
“I’m afraid she’ll say no.”
“She might. But she might say yes. Fear has a secret too. It’s tells us that playing it safe will leave you happy. But that’s a load of crap. Avoiding risks won’t save you from pain. If you don’t ask her, you’ll just torture yourself every day, wondering what could have been. And every time you see her you’ll hate that you never tried.”
He didn’t say anything as weighed my advice. I put my arm around his shoulders and started walking back to the house.
“There are going to come a lot of situations in your life when you’ll have to make a decision. Don’t ever ignore the consequences of your actions, but don’t let fear hold you back either. Whether it’s a job or a relationship or going after a dream, all you need is 3 seconds worth of courage. And I know you have at least that much in you.
He swiveled around and hugged me. I held my boy in my arms for a second and resisted the urge to tussle his hair when he let go.
“I’m gonna go start on my homework. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
He jogged into the house and passed his mom who was leaning against the door watching me.
“Good talk?” She asked with knowing smile.
“I think so.”
“Ice.” I said throwing in a nod for good measure.
Her laugh drifted over her shoulders as she turned toward the freezer. I could hear her half-taunt as I stepped inside and hoped my son would someday enjoy the fruits of courage like I got to every day since she finally said yes.
“That’s my man…”