As parents, we've all had to play the 'Why' game. For those of us who have ever had toddlers, we understand what it's like to be the target of a rapid-fire Q&A. You know, something like this...
KID: "Why is there grass in our front yard?"
PARENT: "Because someone planted grass seed there when they built the house."
KID: "Why did they plant the seeds?"
PARENT: "Because they felt it would increase the curb appeal and value of the home."
KID: "But why doesn't it grow on the sidewalk? Why is it green?"
PARENT: "Because that's concrete and chlorophyll and... BAHHH... ask your mom!"
We know that these are endless, innocent questions and the answers serve to quell the curiosity of young minds.
But what happens when your kids are finally old enough to ask tough questions that actually mean something? Questions that stir up emotion and make you wonder if they're mature enough to hear the answer.
This happened to Carter Gaddis and me the other night and we began talking about what we would or should say when put in this position. It went a little something like this...
Carter: So, we're tossing this purple rubber ball back and forth in the family room and my oldest son keeps telling me to make it tougher to catch. Add spin. Make it bounce short. Throw it hard. Harder!
Then, as only an 8-year-old kid can do a minute before bedtime, he hits me with the question:
"Dad, what's the hardest thing you've ever done?"
I pause mid-toss. How do you even answer a question like that? It had the ring of something beyond the usual pre-bedtime stalling tactic. It deserved some actual thought.
"Good question, bud," I say. "Let me think about it."
I'm still thinking.
Adrian: Jeez, man. My kids are only 4½, 2½ and 8 weeks old. The toughest question I've had so far is, "Why don't you poop through your penis?" I don't know what I'd do if I were in your position, but I guess it's not too early to start thinking about it.
The hardest thing you've ever done? And your boy is 8 years old? What am I going to tell my 8-year-old when it comes time? I don't know if they're ready for it.
I'd like to just tell them that I've fallen off my bike a few times and gotten back up -- a vanilla metaphor for growing up -- but that wouldn't be the truth.
Things in life are hard in different ways. They can be physical, mental or the worst of them all, emotional.
I guess I could tell them about how I worked my ass off on a farm in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, in 1988 -- my first job, when I was 12 years old. We used to clean out the cow stalls in the dead of winter, in negative-degree temperatures.
It was me, my best friend Dave and his older brother, Brian. There were a dozen pens and after ten hours with a half-hour sandwich break inside the farmhouse, the monotony wore on us. We got bored and were looking to break loose.
Not only did we lift up the matted-down cow dung with a pitchfork and toss it outside onto the wagon -- we took aim at each other, using our core strength to pitch and whip fifty pounds of steaming shit onto one another.
That's hard. It's hard on the body and hard on the soul. Plus you had feces in your hair while riding your bike home at dusk. But it's probably not the hardest thing I've had to do.
Carter: Cow turd? That all you got? Dude. I used to live on a farm. We used cow turd for soap.
Let me tell you about the spring of 1985. I had just turned 16. It was my first day working at Wendy's in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. I showed up early and the manager took me outside, where it was 95 degrees with 1,000 percent humidity.
He led me to an open-air enclosure, four brick walls eight feet high, accessible only through a small metal door: the grease pit. Leaning against the nearest wall were four new push brooms. Next to them were 10 unopened bottles of bleach.
"Clean this out and come find me inside," he said, and left me there, holding a broom.
It took all my strength to push open the door. It took more strength than I knew I had to keep from hurling all over my new Wendy's uniform when I saw the first dead bird half-buried in the six-inch-thick layer of congealed grease that covered the floor. There were other things in there, too. Bad things. But I grabbed my broom, dumped a full bottle of bleach onto the slop and started to scrub.
Five hours later, covered from head to toe in grease and... other stuff, the back of my neck sunburned bright red, I found the manager looking over the ledger in his office. He looked stunned to see me still there, then wrinkled his nose at the smell of me.
He admitted the first three kids he ordered to clean the grease pit had bailed without even opening the door. Then he promoted me to the grill and let me name my raise.
Adrian: OK Carter, OK. So we've both had some physical obstacles to overcome and maybe our kids will buy into the whole "tough jobs build character" routine, but what happens when they have something that affects them mentally?
I really don't want to coddle them, but there will come a time when I'll have to tell them about the time I lost everything.
1996. I was a junior in college. I had spent the night up the street at a girlfriend's house when her phone rang around 6 a.m. "There's smoke and flames, get down here now..." and then the phone went dead.
My roommate had awoken to the living room of our second-story apartment completely engulfed in flames. She had enough time to call the fire department and then me, wake up the neighbors, pick up her cat and get outside with everyone else.
I raced up to the scene not more than five minutes later, jumped from the cab of my truck, spoke briefly to my roommate and ran upstairs to unlock the door and enter the apartment. I thought maybe it was just a coffee table fire and I'd be able to put it out.
I crawled on my stomach through the kitchen as the smoke began to thicken. I could feel the heat on my face and began to choke, fighting for air. I realized that I was next to an active gas line hooked up to the stove and decided to turn around.
As I ran onto Main Street, the windows of our apartment blew out on top of us.
Multiple fire departments responded -- it was the biggest fire in Mansfield, Pennsylvania, in over 100 years. It took out almost half of a city block. When all was said and done, I had lost everything. Nine of us were left homeless, several businesses lost.
I stood in a phone booth across the street and called my mom, who was working as a nurse in a hospital burn unit. I told the nurse in charge that it was an emergency. At 20 years old, I cried into the receiver with my head pressed against the glass and told my mom that I had lost everything, I was watching everything I owned disintegrate, but I was OK.
I would later find the silver lining in this tragedy and realize that people aren't defined by their possessions. Always be yourself and treat others as you would want to be treated. People will love you for it... and that's all you'll ever need.
Are my kids ready for that?
Carter: Holy crap, Adrian. That's brutal. I suppose I could counter with the time I got laid off from my newspaper job of 16 years, or something similarly devastating and life-altering. Instead... let me tell you about this thing that happened when I used to write about baseball for a newspaper.
Sometimes you don't even know what you're doing is hard until you've done it. Then you look back and you're like, "What the hell was I thinking?" That's what happened to me at the 2006 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh.
We had one Tampa Bay Devil Rays player in the game, a lefty starter with a big arm named Scott Kazmir. We had to wait and see if Kaz got into the game, then write something about how he did. He did pretty well: a scoreless sixth inning in the American League's 3-2 victory.
When it was over, all we needed was a quick quote or two from Kazmir and we could file our stories. Deadline was fast approaching, so the other writer and I sprinted down to the AL clubhouse -- only to find no sign of Kazmir. His locker was empty. I asked a clubhouse attendant if he'd seen Kaz, and he told us the pitcher had bolted after his shower.
No way would this stand. Kazmir knew we needed him, but he had forgotten. Understandable, but irritating. With deadline 15 minutes off, I left the clubhouse and turned toward the staging area where the buses waited to carry the players and their family members back to the hotel or to the airport. With the writer from the other newspaper trailing closely behind, I blasted through two security checkpoints like I was somebody (ha!) and found the bus with the sign that said, "American League."
Ignoring protocol and the sign that read, "Players and Family Only," I stepped onto the bus. A hundred sets of eyes turned toward me. I began to move down the aisle, looking side to side for my player. I passed Vladimir Guerrero, Kenny Rogers, Vernon Wells, none of whom had any idea who I was or why I was there. I ignored the glares and zeroed in on Kazmir, who sat on my left mid-way back, next to his brother. He looked up and jumped a little just as I leaned over and said, "Kaz, got a minute?"
He apologized for forgetting and followed me off the bus. It wasn't easy, but we got our interview.
Adrian: Dang, you were determined to follow through on your commitment -- anyone can respect that. So we've both been beat up and had our heads twisted inside and out. But what happens when our kids have an emotional battle to contend with?
I'd think about telling them about the time that my best friend, Carmen, died in his sleep at 25 and I gave a eulogy at his funeral in front of his family and our closest friends, but it's not the hardest emotional battle that I've fought.
2011. The day after my wife and I drove ourselves and our two kids across the country to Washington D.C. from Los Angeles, to start a new life. We got a call that our 1-year-old niece had been killed. She had been struck by a car.
Our family had been twisted up emotionally and we spent the better portion of the next month down south, grieving.
This is the night we remembered Olivia in the park where she was killed. We launched balloons into the air for her to see. As Ava and I stood there, she said, "Daddy, it's Tangled!" in my ear.
I knew what she meant.
She was talking about her favorite Disney movie, where the King and Queen, who had their daughter stolen from them, launched lanterns into the night, every year, on the same day... her birthday. They were meant for Rapunzel to see, and in our case, for Liv to see.
I told Ava that Olivia was our lost princess. I struggled, knowing that her cousin was gone.
This is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. To watch my brother-in-law speak in front of the church congregation without skipping a beat, only to nearly collapse into my sister-in-law's arms in the pew ahead of us.
I still can't make any sense of this, why someone so young and innocent would be taken from us so early. How do I tell my kids about that? How do I tell my kids what happened to their cousin?
THAT might actually be the hardest thing I'll ever have to do.
Carter: Yeah. Man, that's the nightmare.
As dads, as parents, the randomness of it all just might be the cruelest part. There really is no way to explain it to a child. Even if it happens to them. Maybe especially if it happens to them.
And that makes me think about this: The hardest thing I've done. The thing that nearly wrecked me. The thing my wife and I still have nightmares about, and probably always will.
I sat in the front passenger seat of the ambulance with my head in my hands, rocking back and forth, afraid to look back, afraid that if I did, I would see my son die. It happened on a Friday night, the start of what was supposed to be a birthday celebration for my wife at Walt Disney World.
Without getting into the details, something completely unexpected happened while we all slept. After a terrifying 10 minutes waiting for the paramedics, my wife and I found ourselves in that ambulance with our suddenly, inexplicably ailing son, then in a hospital emergency room with nurses and physicians and other strangers surrounding a table where the skinny form of our son lay, his eyes glazed, his body inert, IV tubes trailing off the side of the table, machines beeping and blinking and my head in my hands.
He's completely healthy now. In fact, he's the one who asked me the question that got this whole thing started, the one I was playing catch with before bedtime the other night. I think I know now what the answer is, but I still don't know how to tell him that the hardest thing I've ever done is to confront the very real possibility that he was going to die right there in front of us, and that there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop it.
I hope it's the hardest thing I ever have to do, because I don't know how I'd handle anything tougher than that.
The reality is that life is full of hard moments. We look into the eyes of our innocent children and don't want to ever see them hurt or suffer, whether it be physically, mentally or emotionally. We want them to lead a perfect Norman Rockwell existence, but that's just not reality.
We can't protect them from everything. Thing is, just because they're old enough to ask the question, it doesn't necessarily mean they're ready for the answer. Yet, to keep stories like these a secret from them would be doing them a disservice.
It might be that all we can do is to use our best judgment to know when they're ready. And when they are, there might be no better way to teach them about the trials of life than by sharing our own hardships. Not for pity, not to impress. But to serve as guide posts for our children to navigate their own difficult times. To prove that even after all of the hard things, there is more. Then more. And better. Even better.
Follow Adrian Kulp on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@dad_or_alive