My Number One Priority
By Ben Stein
Condensed From Washingtonian
as printed in Readers Digest November 1996
It's a Sunday afternoon. My son and I are in the basement of our decidedly lived-in, toy-littered house. He's playing a computer game, while I file retirement-plan statements. After a few minutes he looks up and asks, "Daddy, will you teach me how to file?"
"But why, my boy,?" I ask him. "It's not particularly interesting."
Tommy, age eight, says, "Well you do it all the time. That's why."
A little later, when Mommy and I are getting ready to go out, Tommy's baby-sitter hasn't yet arrived. "Hmm, Kailani seems to have vanished," I say.
"No, Daddy," Tommy replies, looking up from filing papers. "She doesn't seem to have vanished. She's vanished."
"That is a fine correction of my use of the language my boy. You're right. As far as we know now, she has vanished. I'm impressed."
"You shouldn't be, Daddy," he says, "After all, you're a writer."
Still later, Tommy and I lie in bed together, watching a television documentary about the Battle of Britain. Tommy asks me dozens of questions, most of which I can barely answer. Then, without a word, he lays his head on my chest. After ten minutes he says, "I'm tired, Daddy," and falls asleep, breathing lightly on my pajamas. It's like being in heaven, like being a god, only the place is here and now.
One spring afternoon, Tommy and I are wandering around the little town of Oxford, Md. We pass by the Academy House. “My high-school Latin teacher was from the family who owned that house,” I tell him. “She was a great teacher. She used to make us dress in togas to recite the Catilinarian Orations.”
After I tell him about Cicero, Catiline and ancient Rome, Tommy emerges from his hotel bedroom wrapped in a sheet. “Like you, Daddy, a long time ago,” he says, while I look out the window so he won’t see me crying with happiness.
The next day I show him the route I used to take across Sligo Creek on a footbridge. “I got into a fistfight with a boy here,” I say.
“I bet you killed him, huh Daddy,” Tommy replied.
“I doubt it; I don’t think either of us landed a punch.”
“But you’re so strong!”
The only one on earth who thinks so, I tell myself. I pat him on his towhead and thank him and God.
When Tommy entered our lives in 1987 I was not a very good father. I had been conflicted about adopting and was constantly in fear about my career. I also felt neglected, as many fathers do when life revolves around the new baby and Mommy. I sulked, spending little time with infant Tommy. But three events changed that and, in a way, redeemed my life.
First, a close friend spoke about fathers who are too obsessed with their careers to spend time with their children. This was not just bad for the kids, but was also a waste for the parents. Children are a bottomless well of love and esteem for their parents, he said, if parents use only a little effort to tap it. To the rest of the world you’re just a worker; to your kids you can be an idol. For me, who suffered constant humiliation in my work, this philosophy had great appeal.
Second, another friend told me I should be paying attention to the years Tommy was young and wanted to be with me. “The time will soon come when he doesn’t want to be seen with his mother and father. Make your bond now when you can.” Since I could recall when I had stopped wanting to be seen with my parents, that comment, too, made sense.
The capper came when my son was about 18 months old. I stood by his crib, reading a nursery rhyme. “Good-night, Tommy.” I said. In a composed voice he answered, “Good-night, Daddy.” I hadn’t even known he could talk, except to say “dog” or “Da-da.” Yet here he was using an entire phrase, and saying “Daddy” with far more affection and warmth than I deserved. I was shaken when I left his room, and he’s been my No. 1 priority in life ever since.
We’re together a lot. Because my work schedule is flexible, I pick him up from school most days. I make him do his homework - and redo it, if necessary. Usually I prepare dinner and tell him his bedtime stories.
Time with Tommy has been my biggest investment success. We have an extraordinary relationship of sharing. For example, his third-grade teacher had the kids read a book about a historic figure and dress up as that person and tell about his or her accomplishments. Two girls were Amelia Earhart a boy was Thomas Jefferson. My son was Richard M. Nixon, for whom I was a speechwriter.
“Tommy,” I said, my heart bursting with pride, “I’m deeply touched by this, but some kids may make fun of you because a lot of people didn’t like Nixon.”
“Well, they’re wrong then. You worked for him so he must have done good things.” Tommy said, making me the happiest I’ve ever been.
He assumes I know everything. (“Daddy, why did the Germans develop a jet plane before we did?”) He also assumes I can do anything. Once when we were late for a movie, he said, “Daddy, call and tell them to hold the picture until we get there.” Until very recently, when he scraped his knee he believed I could make it better by kissing it.
I notice that when I pick Tommy up at school, or when we’re shopping on a weekday afternoon, I am the only father there. All the other dads are working and I assume, earning much more money than I am.
This makes me envious at times, but never for more than a few seconds. I mostly feel I’ve learned something others have missed: If you’re a hard-working American, you can usually make enough money to put bread on the table and keep a roof over your head. If you don’t get promoted this month, there’s always another chance. But the few years between five and 15, when your child is articulate, insightful and boundlessly affectionate, these years go by astonishingly fast.
No billionaire can turn his surly 16-year-old into a devoted, hold-your-hand youngster. No corporate title can replace the times when your son leaned his head on your chest and fell asleep. No limousine or private jet makes up for being there when your son is growing from a child into a young man. Time spent with Tommy isn’t a distraction from the main event. It is the main event.