An alternate universe in each of my sons

The 303 train from Chicago to Blue Island broke down last night, leaving me stranded in Chicago waiting for a later train.

Unfortunately, that meant I’d miss my son’s track meet.

He sent me this text just as my train pulled up to the Vermont Street stop where I park my car.

What’s unique about this text, is that it stems from a conversation we had last night while sitting around a small table at Chipotle.

Text message from my son

It’s been a long two-weeks of sickness around our house, with everyone dealing with a combination of allergies and head colds, with a little strep throat thrown in for good measure. We needed to buy Carson a pair of running shoes for his track meet on Friday, so I made an executive decision to eat out, which is rare for us.

Cole has been running track for about six years now and has a lot of wisdom and experience to hand down to Carson. As I looked across the table at the two tall, handsome boys, who look nothing like me, I felt a mixture of pride and sadness.

Pride in what they have become and sadness at not being able to participate deeply in something they are both so in to.

They are similar in height these days, Cole has maybe an inch on Carson. But Carson has bigger feet and is more wiry and fast twitch.

Cole has developed stamina and endurance, which allows him to be successful when he runs the longer races during track season. The amount of work he’s put in over the years plays a direct role in where he and his team finish in each race. It’s kind of mathematical in a way.

Carson is at an age where he wants to play football, basketball, soccer, baseball, anything where he can be the star. He sees glory and fame in sports. He does not yet see all the hard work behind that glory and fame.

On Wednesday, he left a sheet of paper on the kitchen counter. It listed all of the events for the Friday Independence Middle School track meet.

As I scanned the sheet, I noticed that almost every event had an Akimoff in it.

“High jump,” I said, laughing a little bit inside at the irony of it all. “Have you ever done high jump before.”

Carson smiled, wrung his hands together a little bit, as he does, and said, “No, but I’m the only one who can jump, so they want me to do it.”

Then there was a few minutes of garbled teenager speak, that I didn’t really understand, but I just nodded my head, because it would take too long to figure out everything he said.

He’s young, I thought to myself. Let him push himself as hard as he can.

Cole went over to Carson’s track meet after his practice let out. He watched his brother run and kept times on him.

When I got home, I found Cole standing in the kitchen, just shaking his head.

“What’s wrong?” I asked him.

“That kid,” he began. “He’s got so much natural talent.”

He proceeded to tell me that Carson had gone out too fast in the mile, pulled ahead of the lead runner at one point, but faded just before the finish line.

“He could’ve won, if he just had a little more experience,” Cole said. “He has all the speed he needs.”

The more amazing thing to Cole was his speed in the 400-meter relay, the last race of the meet, in which Carson had already participated in at least six events. “He ran 63 seconds, dad.”

“Is that good?” I said, honestly not knowing.

“Yeah, it’s like four seconds off my time now,” Cole said.

“It’s not fair, dad,” Cole said. He gets all the natural ability, he gets the girls, he got all the social abilities.”

Now any good dad would’ve seized that moment to highlight the special things about the boy that he wasn’t including in his injustice list.

But not me.

No, I just looked at him and said, “Yep, it sucks, son. Some people are born with it, sometimes it just seems to fall on people randomly like rain. Other people have to work hard for it, and still others never even get to taste success.”

I said that, because it wasn’t until this moment that I realized what it all meant. It was at this moment that it dawned on me that I have two sons, both taller than me and more athletic than I ever dreamed of being.

They are smart too, one is good at science and math and all the things I struggled with in school. The other is good at reading and comprehension. He’s good at communicating too.

One has to work hard for the things he wants, while the other one tends to be blessed with some natural abilities that look a lot like luck.

One is ready for college with good grades and a clear vision of his goals. He may not have the popularity or social graces, but he has a sure-footed focus and the ambition to get where he wants to go.

The other struggles with a learning disability and will likely find a more meandering and less deliberate pathway to whatever he decides to do with his life. And things like popularity and even physical prowess diminish over time. And luck, like gas, runs out.

The thing is, I see myself in both boys, and yet they are having different experiences than I did. They are a continuation of my own life, so that if I step back, out of their way and just enjoy what they are and who they become, I get to experience more than I ever dreamed.

Having sons is like looking at alternate realities of your own life. What it might have been like if…

Nobody tells you this when you’re having kids. They try, but it’s not an easy concept to deliver.

I see many dads living vicariously through their children or programming their kids. I see parents who hover over their kids shooing away the bees and mosquitoes from their lives. As if they need a do-over, a mulligan-of-sorts.

And it’s emblematic of what’s wrong today in this country. Our nearsightedness is killing off our ability to experience life differently.

We can’t see the future in our own children, so we try to redo our own lives in theirs, instead of realizing the fullness of ours in them.

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