I am standing by the kitchen window on this, one of the first days of real gardening weather here in central Maine. I watch as my 8-year-old son, Anton, works, unbidden, pulling weeds from his small strawberry plot. Every so often he pauses, like the little man he is, and wipes his brow with his shirt sleeve. Then he digs in anew. He is tireless.
I don't know where Anton got his work ethic. He didn't inherit it from me, as I adopted him from a Ukrainian orphanage when he was 5. Perhaps his caretakers seeded his sense of responsibility by requiring that he make his own bed, clear his place at the table, and keep track of the few articles of clothing he "owned." I don't know, but I am not complaining.
Anton doesn't know it, but he was adopted by an inveterate putterer and do-it-yourselfer. As such, I am constantly possessed of the need to do things myself if I want them "done right." Even when it comes to trivial or unskilled tasks, my tendency is to take charge of them, even though I could avail myself of Anton's help or that of his 18-year-old brother, Alyosha.
I realize, in retrospect, that I should have delegated more to Alyosha when he was little. At this point, he is willing to lend a hand with minor chores, but he displays the most subtle resistance when I ask him to wield a screwdriver or hammer a nail. It is as if I am parachuting him into terra incognita - a place he should have visited long ago if only I had taken more pains to get him there.
With Anton I have tried to mend my ways. I still sense a powerful need to do things myself if I want them done right; but I relent whenever Anton approaches me at a task and asks, "Can I help?" Despite my impulse to the contrary, I swallow hard and say, "Why, uh, sure."
When the task is a general one, like sweeping the floor or picking up the backyard, Anton's assistance is welcome, even though I usually have to follow up his efforts to make sure the job is done to completion.
But sometimes the task is complicated or difficult, and I have to be creative to give him an opportunity to satisfy his need to help.
Anton has a knack - a sixth sense - for ferreting me out when I am in the middle of some delicate task. Instantly he is on me like glue. Such was the case recently when I was dissecting the receiver of a cordless phone to find out why the touchpad was so unresponsive.
Now, I have no trouble taking things apart, but putting them together is another story. I am so anxiety-ridden when I get involved with small parts and intricate devices that more often than not I make a bad situation worse. When Anton saw me sitting at the kitchen table, with all those little pieces laid out before me, he was beside himself and immediately made his usual plea: "I want to help!"
At the moment I was holding a screw slightly larger than an atom, balancing it on the tip of the world's smallest screwdriver. Freezing my hand in the middle of a maneuver, I carefully peered up at my son. The words I wanted to say welled up from deep within me and perched on the very tip of my tongue: "Not now, Anton. Please. If I lose this screw I'll be in a real mess."
But some better angel of my nature whispered the words I eventually did say: "Uh, sure, Anton. Just give me a minute."
Having bought myself just enough time to wind the screw into its pinhole, I got up from my deliberations, found an old phone I had put off throwing away, and handed it to my son with a few tools of his own. "Have fun," I told him.
"Am I helping you, Dad?" he asked as he lighted into the useless piece of equipment.
"More than you know," I told him as I returned to my own work.
In this spirit, I have always tried to keep the faith of involving Anton in the world of maintaining things in decent shape. No matter how much a task requires skilled attention, I have managed to find a way to allow him into the picture. When I am staining furniture, I hand him a scrap of board and a paintbrush. When I am changing the oil in my truck, I allow him to pass me the fresh bottles. When I am cleaning the keys on my clarinet, I make sure there are enough cotton swabs for both of us.
The thing is, in Anton's asking to help, and in my providing ways for him to do so, he is helping: he's helping me to be the type of father I aspire to be, day by day.