On love, parenthood, and the passage of time

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[Image description: An adult and a child holding hands walking toward a sun setting over a lake. Image obtained from Pixabay.]

Hi everyone. After last week’s post on the shameful state of nonprofit board diversity, a colleague, noting my increasing grumpiness, emailed me to suggest that maybe I should do some more self-care, take a few days off from work to go on a hike or listen to music or something. I thought, Whoa, maybe I should lay off writing about serious stuff for a while and focus on humor and the goodness and joy that exist in the world. So I’m going to try to do that, at least for a few weeks. There are so many things lately that make us lose our faith in humanity. But there are also so many wonderful things, moments of quiet and profound beauty that we all take for granted in our quest to save the world.

Last week, for example, I walked with my four-year-old son and his maternal grandmother to the light rail station. He was heading north to preschool, and I was going South to the airport for a three-day work trip to keynote in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, so we had to separate and be on opposite sides of the track. I stooped down and hugged him tight as we separated. “I love you, Baby,” I whispered to him. 

Across the tracks, holding his grandmother’s hand, he waved at me, beaming. “Hi Daddy!” he said. People on the platforms smiled. I felt a little sheepish as my son called out, “Daddy, I’m over here, Daddy!” For five minutes we waved. I played peek-a-boo with him, knowing that were both too old for it. My train arrived first. As I got on, he shouted, “I love you, Daddy!”

I rushed to the window. He was still standing there, waving one tiny hand. The morning sunlight played in his curly brown hair, and I got this bittersweet feeling that this was one of those memories that I needed to burn into my mind, embed into my being, because my son, my little baby, was growing up, and soon the only remnants of these days will be these few faded, elusive images that I can conjure among other faded images.

At some point, he won’t wave to me like this anymore. He’ll be embarrassed to be seen in public with his dad. Someday, he won’t ask me to help him put on his shoes. He won’t ask to sit on my lap so we could read his favorite book about dragons four or five times. He won’t say “paghetti” and “potsickers”—his favorite foods. Someday soon, he won’t need to stand on his little blue step stool to reach the faucet to brush his teeth. Soon, he will enter kindergarten, then high school. He’ll move out. He’ll call to say he got a new job on the moon colony. By then we’ll have a moon colony. I’ll make a speech at his wedding, reminiscing about when he was four, and I’ll feel proud and sad and old. I’ll wish for him and his partner and kids to visit more often. I’ll suggest we go camping at that new park on Mars. 

I remember only four years ago I held him, filled with so much love and only weirded out a little by his conical, alien-looking head. I held a wrinkly pink foot in one hand, and at that moment I felt as if someone had flipped an hourglass on my time with my son. Looking at my sleeping newborn, I thought, “This is a memory; soon, this day is just something I can only wistfully remember while staring at pictures.” Across the late-nights, the sleeplessness-induced hallucinations, the long days where we smelled like spit up and mashed bananas, I tried to preserve the details. I took thousands of pictures and video clips. I was not going to let Time win without a fight.

But so many moments came too fast for me to capture. The first time he reached out and touched my face. The first time he grasped the edge of the coffee table and pulled himself up. The magical day he first laughed. My wife held him; he peeked over her shoulder at me; we played peek-a-boo while walking; I made a funny face, and his toothless grin burst out with a cascade of chuckles.

Each happy moment was tinged with a slight edge of sadness; I always felt like the sand in our hourglass was running out. I wrote him a letter in case something happened to me. Soon he was crawling, and I chased after him to remove dust bunnies and other things he would cram into his mouth. Then he walked. He became more aware of his world, the good things, and the bad. One day, he was playing a few feet from me in the living room, and a loud noise from our neighbors downstairs startled him. He ran, panicking, into my arms. “Dadda! Dadda! Dadda!” he screamed, completely freaked out. I held him, awed by the complete trust he had in me to keep him safe. He calmed down, and I wondered then how long before we reached the day when he realized that his father was just as scared all the time. Each time he got a fever. Each time he fell. Like other parents, I saw danger everywhere. Every corner of every table. I looked behind every bookshelf to make sure it’s tethered to the wall.  And it’s not just the physical dangers, but the emotional ones as well. “The kids at school make fun of me,” he said one day, “They call me Crazy Hair.” It was like getting stabbed in the heart, thinking of anyone saying this to him, wounding his spirit this way.

The sand in the hourglass kept flowing mercilessly. The days of my comforting him led to days where he tried to comfort me. One evening we were playing with Legos, and I accidentally knocked down the tower I was building. “Oh no!” I said. “What happened?” he asked. “My tower fell down,” I said. He looked at me and my shattered Lego pieces. “It’s OK, Daddy, you can try again.” It was like that one short story I read in high school, where a son finally beats his father at wrestling, and at that moment, they both felt the weight of time and mortality. I readied my phone, rebuilt the tower, and knocked it down again. I was able to capture his response on video. Take that, Time, you relentless bastard!

But Time always wins. My son’s train arrived as soon as mine did. I looked for him as he and his grandmother got on, to wave at him one last time, to get a last glimpse across the windows. But I didn’t see him. Our trains sped off in opposite directions, taking my baby farther and farther away from me. All the fears a parent experiences came rushing to me. What if something happens? What if this is the last time I see him? I didn’t even shout “I love you too” back at him. At the airport, I sat down and tried to contain my thoughts and the mixture of emotions I was feeling: the weight of time, of existence; the paradoxical joys and pain of being a parent and loving someone so much that you are in a constant state of fear and worry. 

Despite how bittersweet they are, I am grateful for these memories, and I know there are many things to look forward to as my son grows. And we get to re-experience many of these memories through our second child, who deserves his own post. But like parents everywhere, I wish for the hourglass to slow down so these days could last a little longer. These days when my four-year-old’s eyes barely peek over the edge of the dining table; when our three-block walk takes over an hour because he needs to stop to look at every rock and bug and twig.

[Image description: A picture of Vu and his son, Viet, who is about one in this picture. They are making silly faces, surrounded by colorful building blocks]

 

In my keynotes, I talked about the urgency of everything going on, the fears gripping our communities. I ended, as usual, with a note of gratitude for the people working to make the world better, safer, more just. The memory of my son waving to me across the train tracks made the speech this time extra poignant for me. We parents say goodbye to our kids each day, and we hope that the world they enter into will love them as much as we do, and will protect them and keep them safe so that they will return home to us whole. Building such a world is what nonprofits do. This, for me, is the biggest reason why I love our sector, and why I love the people in it.

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Donate, or give a grant, to Vu’s organizationRainier Valley Corps, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and getting diverse communities to work together to address systemic issues.

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  • Nikki W Powell

    Love and light to you, Vu. Thanks for being a beacon.

  • LouAnn Lucke

    Yes. Thank you.

  • Chris Paterson

    Brought back so many of my own memories and emotions. Beautiful. Thank you!

  • Meghan McCarthy

    Exactly. Thank you for putting this into words.

  • Amanda K

    This was your more positive post??? I teared up through the whole thing! My 4 year old asked if he could come with me to work today and now I am screaming at myself “Why didn’t I bring him with me?!?!” Why do I ever leave home?! Oh yeah…saving the world and such…

  • Carolyn O’Brien
  • Georg’ann Cattelona

    Thanks for the morning poignancy, tears, and joy. Yep, this is why I hang in there. For your son and mine, and all the children. As one of my favorite organizations once said, “Every baby, our baby.” (h/t HealthConnect One!)

  • Amy Lamborg

    Yup!

  • Jacki Payne

    I sit here in tears,at my desk, at my nonprofit job, thinking about all of our children and their future…this is why we soldier on. But it is also important to enjoy the sweet moments we get, and the time each day with them now. Thanks you Vu for your always timely commentaries.

  • Cassandra Daigle Agredo

    This should be marked NSFW because I had to close my office door so that I could bawl in private! Thank you for the reminder to stop and appreciate each moment with those we love and others around us.

    • Ophelia Hu

      DEFINITELY NSFW.

  • Ophelia Hu

    Goodness Vu, please go back to writing about how the world is going to hell. I don’t think I’m supposed to be crying at work.

  • Susanna Laurenti

    Thank you Vu – so well put. Mine are 7 and 4, and I feel EXACTLY the same way.

  • Danielle Kempe

    I’m 25 weeks pregnant with my 1st child. Can I blame crying at this on pregnancy hormones?! It’s even my second time reading the train story since I follow you on Facebook too.

    Beautiful story telling Vu and I hope you can record as many moments as you want.

  • Sheri Simonsen

    Beautiful…weeping. You, sir, are a writer, a poet, a parent…

  • Beautiful. Poignant. True.

    Beautiful. Poignant. True.

  • Tim Page

    It’s my son’s 8th Birthday. This was a lovely way to start the work day; thinking about him. Thanks!

  • Luke Tolley

    I’m smiling and bawling like a baby right now.

  • Ginny Lang

    Gratitude for the gratitude reminder, Vu. We all need to take time to enjoy the beauty, else why do we do any of it? It’s a great way to start the week and just what I needed. Thank you.

  • Julie Cooper

    What a beautiful piece, Vu. 

I may have good news for you: the best is yet to come. I have 4 teenage sons… 2 adopted from Chicago and 2 from Ethiopia. Memory-making is ongoing, as you stated, and I think you will be surprised that you will make tons more of those “train” type memories; they simply will take on a different narrative. 



    The parenting “wins” during their middle school and high school years are far sweeter than the ones during their younger years, I think, because the struggles are harder when they’re older making those breakthroughs so dang rewarding.



    My oldest son is 19 and has been in Marines’ boot camp for nearly three months now. No phone calls, no texting. Just handwritten letters. I know he can handle the struggle as he knows what it’s like to be a hungry orphan in a third world country, and my husband and I have done our best to raise him since he was 8. But needless to say, I can’t wait to hug my son soon. There’s never enough time… or enough hugs.

    I always try to remember that our children are not “ours” really. They are their own. Children are like balloons, light as air and nudging you until one day they float right past you as they ascend.

    

It’s certainly bittersweet.

  • Laurie Dean Torrell

    From perspective of years now lived as nonprofit ED with kids grown, but still, amazingly, under my roof for just a bit longer…listen not only to what you’re saying, but what you’re doing while you’re saying it. Say this not as guilt-trip: no. As working ED mother — no guilt. You share you’re leaving this little kid for 3 week speaking gig on the road. One example we provide is of people loving our work and trying to “show what happiness looks like.” Yet always along the way ask yourself if it’s worth it & where your heart is. Your kid will never regret any extra time you found to stay close & spend with them. Go when you need to. But don’t go more than you need to and always try and err on the side of being right there for them.

  • sarahRmoore

    As luck would have it, today is my son’s 20th birthday. The feelings of wanting to keep waving to the train are equal, if not amplified, when the birthday wishes are wished via Facetime to a college campus far from home. Thanks for the post. You’re a good man, Vu, and the work we do is something of which I know our kids will one day be proud.

  • Seth Ehrlich

    Thank you Vu for getting real about your family and what matters most. Continue to be an awesome dad, and you will generate memories for a lifetime.

  • Deb Holmgren

    Thank you from another parent whose sons are now 29 and 33. First day of school, first day of college, off to the Peace Corps, and then a job out of state or out of the country. But you will continue to see and love the child that they once were.

  • Susan Yang

    Thanks Vu and great to see you last week. Was thinking a bit about what to say at upcoming auction and I realize ending on a positive note is so important since we are all about kids and how we can positively educate the next generation. Viet is such a mini you. Hugs to your boys and wife too.

  • David Tucker

    Such a life-affirming message, Vu! Thank you – for your true heart and your ability to write what you feel. Give your son a hug for me – I’ll hug my daughters for your!

  • Liz Gray

    You’ve finally done it Vu— you’ve made me cry at work. #noregrets reading this, though. Time flies so fast, as I’m seeing with my parents as they age and become less of the people I remember from when I was young. You are a gentleman and a poet.

  • Kim

    Love this! Thank you, Vu!

  • Rachel Ezzo

    Thank you! It’s easy to get overwhelmed as a working parent but especially when your work requires so much of your time & energy. And, as someone who works in bereavement, I find this post to be especially poignant.