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For Paw

Courtesy of the author

The sun broke like an egg yolk across the horizon, spilling molten orange light from our backyard all the way to the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. This was the state of the day when my dad woke me up and asked me to get dressed, quick. We were heading out to the barn.

I bundled up in sweats and a parque. My dad was wearing his typical Saturday gear: jeans, flannel shirt, and a jacket with a diamond-stitched insulated layer that zizzed when he walked. We hustled out the door and up our property’s main road, white breath trailing past our cheeks. 

When we reached the stall at the back of the barn, I saw a mama cow lying on her side. She wasn’t making much noise, just breathing heavily. It was only a matter of minutes before she started pushing the baby out. It didn’t take very long – maybe I had slept through most of this – before the calf slid out onto a stall floor peppered with dirt, feed and alfalfa. How quickly those four legs, as thin and rubbery as birch branches, fought to get upright. But life was only 60 seconds old. Too early for that, I guess. My dad didn't say anything. There were no remarks, no explanation. We simply went back home and had breakfast.

That’s how life lessons went with my father. They arrived like Navy SEALs: you never saw them coming. When my parents felt my middle-school-aged brother was acting a little too spoiled, he came from school to find his room empty. Like empty empty. Dad had moved everything out into the barn. Aaron slept on a sleeping bag for several days. Ask him today, and Aaron will tell you it was the most memorable lesson he ever got. But there was no talk, you see. The empty room was full of messages.

Paw (which is what I call him, a silly byproduct of growing up on a rural farm) treats words like manhole covers. He doesn’t say “I love you,” but he always says it back. He doesn't do long explanations, but asks the kind of inquisitive questions that inspire other people to. Back in the formative years, my mom would stop by my room to ask about something I was struggling with (geometry, football, college applications). But I knew they weren’t her words. They were his. Talks weren’t his thing. Maybe he knew that moving us to a farm would allow his sons to live through the lessons that young men needed. Things were born, things died, things fell apart, things were built.

His propensity for quiet is probably why I punish my boys with a nonstop monologue of hypothetical questions, recited movie lines, silly voices, and poorly sung pop songs. They must think, this guy will not shut up. (Benjamin Franklin said, “Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools talk because they have to say something.”) Maybe it’s easy to talk frivolously and incessantly when you didn’t grow up in a home with too much drinking, when you’ve never been drafted and been through war. I can barely handle losing my BlackBerry charger. In an age of iPhone pings and IM, Facebook updates and FourSquare check-ins, stillness has become extinct.

I write this in defense of Paw, who still lives on the farm, who still loves stillness. The experts say, Talk to your children. Our website has cheat sheets for so many potential conversations: how to explain Santa Claus, natural disasters, Osama bin Laden’s death. The quiet forced me to imagine, to wonder, to invent, to figure it out myself. And now, I get paid to invent, imagine and wonder.

Thank you so much, Paw, for teaching me to always be present, but not always be heard. I will share this with my sons, if I can shut up long enough for them to learn it.