To celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day, my son's fourth grade class was given an assignment to do community service and create a presentation about how they served. Christian was excited about the project; he said it was worth a lot and would affect his grade. But he was also eager to do something nice for people he never met.
He brainstormed a few different options that he felt would be fun and beneficial. The two of us went through the list and weeded out a couple ideas that might not be the greatest. (Washing cars in sub-freezing temperatures?!?) The winning plan would be to prepare a meal for the fire station around the corner from my apartment. There is a dish that I cook that he says is his favorite food in the whole world: I call it redneck stir-fry. It is nothing more than diced potatoes, seasoned, and mixed with a bunch of vegetables and a protein of some sort.
Friday afternoon, he visited the fire station to make sure we had solid expectations. He found out how many firefighters would be on site for dinner and if they had any allergies. The fireman that was on duty gave him a tour of the building and let him sit in the biggest truck that was parked in the garage. By the time he got home, he was shivering with nervous pride and anticipation. Saturday morning, we went grocery shopping and picked up everything needed. Bacon, bell peppers, bread crumbs, potatoes, carrots, cheese, and some extra bacon so that the chef and his grown-up helper could have a sample. Saturday afternoon, we began preparing the food. Fying bacon, washing and dicing produce, stirring in the breadcrumbs and seasoning, preheating the oven, sautéing the veggies, mixing all of the elements into one pan.
It all came out of the oven at the exact time we needed to leave. Our arrival at the station was perfectly timed as the fire crew had just returned from training exercises. The three kids watched as they parked the fire engine; then we were all invited inside as they changed out of their heavy gear.
Christian explained why we were delivering their dinner and what was being served. He was happy to find out that the firefighters all liked peppers and bacon. (Christian is not a fan of peppers and would have picked them out if he was eating.) But his explanation of why he chose feeding firefighters was poignant and shows a hint of wisdom older than his chronological age would suggest.
"Why did you choose us?" He was asked.
"Because," came his reply, "you spend all your time serving so many people, I wanted to serve you in return."
I cannot express how grateful I am to have a son like him.
But let's rewind a bit back to the food preparation. Part of the project was that he had to participate. He couldn't have a parent do all of the work for him. While there are certain things that I insisted handling, I kept him busy. He scrubbed the potatoes clean, peeled the onion, and removed the seed clusters from the bell peppers. He sautéed the onion and peppers and crumbled the cooked bacon into bits. He stirred the seasoning/crumbs/oil/potatoes mixture and dumped it onto a cooking sheet. After he peeled the onion, I chopped it into four parts. I was hoping to have him cut off the sections of the onion that I don't cook, but he wanted to stay as far away from the onions as possible.
"Why does it burn my eyes?" He asked. I explained the chemical irritant that onions contain; how it's strongest while cutting them and dissipates when cooked. He understood the explanation enough to know he wanted me to handle the dicing. By the time I dumped the chopped up onion into the skillet, my eyes were on fire and swollen with enzyme induced tears.
"Do the onions burn your eyes too?" Another of Christian's questions. I choked out an answer that yes, indeed they do.
He followed that up with another question and some observations. "Are you crying? Your voice sounds like you are. And it looks like you have tears in your eyes."
"Yes, I am."
He at once had to share this news with his siblings. "Guess what! Daddy is crying. The onions made him cry."
With the onions in the pan, I returned to the cutting board and focused on julienning the peppers. "Do you think it's funny that I was crying?" I asked Christian while demonstrating how to slice bell peppers.
His answer was unexpected. "I've never seen you cry before."
Really? Impossible. That can't be true. Surely he has seen me cry at some point in his ten years of life. Even with my stunted emotional vocabulary, I tend to wear my emotions like a merit badge. Heck, the series finale of Psych made me tear up a little. I still cry every time I watch Atreyu's horse Artax drown in the Swamps of Sadness. The right song played at the right time will make me bawl like a baby.
How could my oldest son have made it this far without witnessing one of those tearful moments?
I don't have answer for that question. But I believe him.
I know some parents would think that it's a good thing for him to never see me cry. It shows me to be the big strong dad that he can look up to as if I'm some kind of comic book hero. I disagree though. I'm not superhuman. Real men cry. All humans have emotions.
It is good for him to see that. Even if it is just over onions. However, it could have been the weight of his words that wrecked me. "You serve others so I want to serve you."
But this time, it was the onions.