I was barely six years old and in Kindergarten when I penned my first short story about a dinosaur egg being discovered on a farm. My teacher told my mom that I'd be a writer some day.
Somewhere between my childhood and when life experiences delivered overdoses of disappointment, I've rationalized letting go of fantastic dreams that exist in my creative conscious. It's not so much abandoning hope or the general goal of my dreams, but more like the negotiation I've gone through with my intellect in order to maintain at least a recognizable fraction of their existence. Reality has taken most of them hostage and, sadly, I've learned how to accept their disappearance as the norm in life. I've failed to give the ransom some have required to get them back. I've convinced myself that it's not practical to esteem such fantastic dreams.
I remember Christmas Eve in 1978 when a thank-you note was left next to a pile of crumbs and an empty glass of milk. The black grease pencil used for the cursive words lay next to the empty plate and was the same utensil that was nestled in my dad's work shirt earlier that night. I rushed outside to scan a roof full of fresh snow, wearing only a bathrobe over my pi's with rubber boots slipped over my feet. The street lamps were about to go off for the day at the early morning light, but shown enough illumination to see the glaring absence of reindeer tracks. We were renting a house in the city until our new home could be finished being built that following February. The 19th century abode had the first real chimney I'd seen atop a roof I lived under. I just knew for a fact that Santa would visit that rental house that Christmas Eve. After returning inside, I investigated a large grey paper wrapped package next to the tree that had my name clearly written on the outside. As my mind ripped through the paper and imagine the treasure inside, something ripped through my stomach as I recognized that same black grease pencil scribble of "TO: PATRICK - FROM: SANTA". I can't recall how my mind connected potential dots, but in a moment of truth later that morning, I asked mom whether Santa was real. She paused with a tender look of despair on her face and inquired why I asked. Her look was more one of compassion for "life" and "reality" striking my innocence, than one of me decoding the clues I shared with her. She had undoubtedly experienced the same moment years earlier with each of my siblings, and as her last and youngest child, it had to be difficult.
"No, Patrick, Santa is not real."
She wasn't trying to kill my fantastic dreams. She was shaping my expectations.
As any parent can relate, the bewilderment and oft spoken belief for a future of adventure and excitement that our children share at various ages is something we cherish and reminisce at the same time. Whether it's their enthusiasm and anticipation of watching cartoons after their nap or the carefully laid out plans of a career, almost every age reveals similar fantastic dreams we still hear faintly thumping in our own memory's heart beat. We try with grace and love to teach our children how to temper their dreams because of the boogey-man called disappointment. We can become quite efficient in managing their expectations without crushing their motivation or enthusiasm. Sometimes we go overboard. Sometimes we don't go far enough. Sometimes we flood their fiery passion with buckets of our own regrets until we see theirs extinguished, all in the name of sparing their heart from being hurt. Either way, it's painful and blissful to experience at times.
A recurring memory from American Idol that I always cite when talking to other parents of talented youth is the embarrassing truth shared by Simon Cowell when addressing an auditoner who is clearly tone deaf or horrifically not destined for stardom as a singer. He bluntly asked if their friends and family felt they were good enough to be the next American Idol. Invariably, the contestants would either stay shy or emphatically state their family agreed with their talent level being good enough. Many contestants left the room and show crying and angry because their dream was crushed by the bully called Simon Cowell. Simon may have been truthful, but to those contestants, it was hard nonetheless.
Perhaps not as dramatic, it wasn't long ago that we had a tough conversation with Spencer about a fork in the road he must address regarding his future. He played basketball since the age of 4 and baseball since 7. In the fall of 2012, we were told by the leaders of iShine (based in Franklin Tennessee) that Spencer demonstrated the raw skills and character they felt could earn him a career in music if he continued working hard and allowed them to help him develop. They didn't want any money from us. It's never been a ploy. It was just their industry experience and insight that urged them to encourage us to help Spencer pursue a career in the music business.
After the in-home visit from the iShine president, and a few days to digest what he presented through his two hour fact sharing conversation, we had a family meeting.
Looking at his face of angst as he listened to our parenting advice about what his 15 year old life was entering, we could see him grasping reality. He spent (we spent) his whole youth preparing him for the goal of earning a college degree as a student-athlete playing either basketball or baseball, or both. We shared that while he desired to maintain playing school team sports and travel AAU sports for both, he couldn't pursue a serious career in music at the same time. He simply would not be able to attend all practices and games and maintain his spot on a roster and travel and tour with music and acting. It was not right to his team and coaches and it would leave him both exhausted and unable to give his all to each one. Plus, he would need to maintain his academics in school. We frankly stated that he must make a choice based on what we knew at that moment and that we didn't have the ability to see the future. No matter what his choice, there would be no guarantees in sports or music about his vision for the best case scenario in either. We simply would support and love him no matter what he chose.
He was silent. We were silent. It was a screaming silence that allowed our staggered breathing to be easily heard in the living room.
Then, he clenched his eyes with his fingers and we heard a gentle whimper. It casually evolved into a quiet crying and tears flowed.
Spencer never cried about Santa. He never struggled with most life disappointments for long. He'd been resilient and emotionally secure. But we never saw him experience reality like that. While he was not being asked to never play sports again, his intellect began negotiating how to keep hold of his fantastic dream of being on a college team while pursuing what was quickly becoming a passion in music. We saw his heart wrench with real life disappointment setting in. It's as vivid a memory for me as I'm sure it was for him. I'd been beside him every step of his young athletic career. Nearly every practice, every game and every training session I was there with him. And at that moment in the living room, we all choked up at the same time.
It was ironic.
We had just been told about an amazing opportunity to pursue a life in music with trusted mentors and a faith based organization that wouldn't attempt to exploit his youth in an industry that is known for doing just that. My wife was told face-to-face that my son's youth and his heart were more important to them than any skills they could develop. It could have been formulaic, but hindsight says it has been everything they assured us it would be. But in that moment, the pain of watching him let go of every All-American boy's dream of being the star player on a winning team was hard to witness.
Spencer wasn't a little boy anymore.
He was a young man learning that life is mainly about free-will and choices amidst circumstances. I intentionally shared the statistical probability of him earning a scholarship and the realities of mom and dad not being able to afford to pay for his college ourselves. (A result of our own life dreams being hit with disappointment). We told him he could earn academic scholarships since he is a great student with a strong GPA and aptitude for learning. We shared that general physiological issues would play a part on his ability to earn a sports scholarship and those were the facts he'd have to consider to make a decision about his future at such a young age.
He eventually exhaled and formed a smile as he said okay about pursuing music.
That conversation occurred nearly 18 short months ago and in the midst of our logic, emotion and careful planning, God has revealed to Spencer what He has always shown my wife and I in our lifetime. No matter what the circumstance or opportunity, if we believe God is our shepherd and leading us, we can trust that the scenery and experiences along the path aren't ever the total picture. In this year and half span, we've witnessed a young man become a man in his independence and relationships. We've seen God grow his personal faith through his learning patience and adjusting expectations while staying motivated. We've watched him grow in his skills and talent, but more importantly heard the affirmations from many of those who experience time with Spencer outside our presence. We've seen him learn how to embrace a new dream, a fantastic dream, yet staying grounded in the process. We've watched him understand that he hasn't arrived, but he's making his way there.
Spencer still plays basketball as much as he can and still awes me with his skills and instinct on the court. He's 6'3" and more competitive against the big boys now than he was 18 months ago. But when I look back at that moment of his weeping on the couch, I reflect on my own life of crossroads and restructuring dreams to limit my discouragement. I am faced with a truth I can't deny.
Spencer's braveness to set aside team sports to pursue music brought about a whole new fruitful passion in his life, and it has certainly led to the unearthing of a near fossilized passion of writing in my own.
"Yes, Patrick, it's still ok to have fantastic dreams."
* Spencer Kane is the teen recording artist and TV sitcom actor son of Patrick Hess.