How I Learn Stuff

July 28, 2009

How to Talk to Your 43 year-old Son When He’s Only 13

Filed under: Uncategorized — james @ 12:38 am

When my dog was killed I saw the school bus coming back up the long dirt road. I saw it coming as I stood over the broken body of my sheltie Astra, who had been running around alive just five minutes earlier. I guess the bus driver never knew he killed her, because he waved at me. And too late I thought to seize a rock and smash his goddamned windshield. Oh the fury I felt in that five seconds. Maybe broken glass in the driver’s face would help him understand what he had done to me. I looked but there were only bits of gravel on the ground, and a moment later the bus was bouncing away and gone. I couldn’t even bring to mind a fitting swear word to shriek after it (all that practice I had at summer camp for nothing.) I seethed and vibrated for a moment, then my stomach dropped away. I couldn’t look at Astra. I walked to the house and went to bed. I later learned that my step-father, Jon Fineman, buried her in the forest.

Astra was the family dog, but I always felt she loved me best.  Everyone knew she belonged to me.

I had never experienced grief before. It was a completely new sensation, like getting drunk would be, a few years later, or making love, a few years after that. But unlike those things it went on and on. I suppose I could compare it with a very high fever that puts you into delirium, but at that time I hadn’t ever been sick like that. So, it was really new for me.

My body and mind were shutting down, as if a bank of fuses had all gone out at once. I went to bed and everyone knew to stay away. Except Jon.

He came in, sat down, and said some things. I don’t recall exactly what he said. I could tell he was trying to comfort me. It wasn’t working. I didn’t want to hear from him, or anyone. I wanted everyone gone. I wanted time to turn back or the world to explode. Neither was going to happen so leave me alone Jon. Leave. Go. Go. Get out of here.

He did go after a little while.

What he said meant nothing to me, and I was embarrassed for him. What could words do for me? Words are nothing. What the hell was he trying to do?

Well, thirty years later…

I’m thinking about Astra, for some reason. Can’t remember what brought her to mind, but she drifts in now and again. Good old dog.

I remember the day she died. I had been playing with her after school: chase, fetch, and all that. We were running near the long dirt road that crossed by the front of our rural Vermont homestead. Then I got tired and went indoors. I should have taken Astra inside, too. It was my responsibility. When you play with Astra outside you don’t leave her. Because she chased cars. She especially loved to chase the high school bus that would be bringing my sister home any moment. I didn’t bring the dog in. I was careless. Then the bus came, she charged into it, and went under the wheels.

The family knew I left her out. Jon knew, and he was big on the philosophy of consequences. But when he came to speak to me later that night– when I ignored him and despised him– he said nothing of that. He chose not to add his voice to the chorus in my mind screaming at me, that I had killed our happy dog. Then this man, Jon Fineman, who loved Astra too, told me how he also had a dog once that died. He offered his friendship, and he forgave me.

So, What?

When you speak to your child, and you feel that he is not listening, maybe he isn’t. When you speak to him and you suspect he’s silently ridiculing you, maybe he is. When the gift of your advice or sympathy fails in every way to touch him, and you believe yourself a failure, maybe you are. For now.

Bide your time.

Just imagine the man he will be, someday. His now subtle and caring mind clambering back through his life, looking for support in the events that shaped him– just imagine how he’ll come upon your words. The gift you tried to give. Faded on the outside, yet vital still inside, it will open like a blossom. Even thirty years later.

Thanks, Jon.

When you speak to your children today, you are also speaking to every day of their future selves. Parenting is outside of time. Take care and take heart in that.


  1. There are some other things I could say, but instead i will say this: thank you for this post.

    Comment by Robert P — July 28, 2009 @ 10:42 am

  2. How happy must Astra be today, to know that the ripples from one second at the end of her Earth-life are gently washing us humans so many years later through her dear James, loving her still.

    As clear and true an image of grief as ever written, and softly linked this startling new idea: despair not when a child turns away, for parenting exists outside of time; children listen decades hence.

    Astra exists outside of time, too, I think, and all of us as well — every expression of life undying, whispering down centuries, no matter what seems to the mortal eye.

    Grief vanishes in a silent bark, in joyful reunion. Turn and turn, one of us bound unto another, no soul lost as we paint our touch and our love on the canvas of spacetime.

    Dog and man and spirit set free, such artists we are!

    [James' Reply: Thanks, Dad.]

    Comment by Richard Bach — July 29, 2009 @ 12:16 am

  3. Beautiful writing, James.

    I was there that day and I do not remember anything after I witnessed it. No matter, I guess, because all I need to remember about it is what you just said.

    [James' Reply: Weird how memory works.]

    Comment by Jon Bach — July 29, 2009 @ 3:11 am

  4. When I talk to my sons, I’ve often wondered if my words lodge in their heads, or if they just nod so they can move on to the next thing, forgetting what they did not hear in the first place. Your post gives me hope that if the original words are not heard at that moment, then perhaps the echos may be heard years from now. Enjoyed it.

    Comment by Christopher Laney — July 30, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

  5. James, you keep rewarding those who follow your writing and wisdom and this one above is a great reward to me.

    Just to paraphrase:

    When you hear from your mentor today, you are also going to hear from them every day in future. Mentoring is outside of time. Those who seek a mentor should actually seek a heart that shall beat forever.

    So is parenting, because the first mentor we are given in life is our own parents.

    Comment by Pradeep Soundararajan — August 1, 2009 @ 7:13 am

  6. This post spoke volumes to me from many different perspectives – it just rang true with every angle I looked at it from, whether as one who also lost a beloved dog beneath the wheels of a car (I was driving), or as the mother and grandmother who has seen this kind of delayed recognition many times over the years. I only just found your blog this afternoon, James, but already I’m as hooked on your writing as I’ve always been on your dad’s.

    [James' Reply: Thanks for finding my blog, Helen!]

    Comment by Helen — August 2, 2009 @ 1:03 am

  7. A good post, James, thanks for sharing that. It is indeed very difficult not to point at the consequences of the child carelessness, even if we still remember ourselves at that age, and how we felt when we were a little bit less forward-thinking than we should have been and it made a lot of difference… And the adolescents are the most alien creatures known to humankind, because they are forced to live in the society while being through their crysalis phase, hence all the tantrums and mood changes and reckless behaviour and you name it. We have to be more understanding and your post is a good remainder.

    Comment by Anna — August 4, 2009 @ 10:15 am

  8. Thank you so much. Tears rolling down my face.

    What a beautiful gift Jon gave you, and what a beautiful gift you’ve given this mama of a three year old boy today. Thank you.

    Comment by Ms. Booty Homemaker — August 4, 2009 @ 11:38 am

  9. Yes, that is a great illustration of a very special way to learn stuff. Including fine didactics and a healthy, responsive mind. I wish all of life was like that but unfortunately my experience is that everybody wants to teach you something else and it seldomly comes together in the end, unless you felt for a particular denomination from an early age on where all these educators received their training as well. Only that consistency guarantees perceptual training without logical or even factual contradictions. But when you did have different teachers from different backgrounds who did not agree and will never agree, even lead by your own curiosity, then you are truly destined to become your own buccaneer and seek out all things for yourself, and only keep what seems right and good and respectful.

    Comment by Ron C. de Weijze — August 4, 2009 @ 7:12 pm

  10. What a beautiful post. My eldest daughter is now 9, followed by 7 year old and 5 year old sisters. I do sometimes feel like not one word I am saying is penetrating their minds, hearts or souls. Thanks for the reminder that there is more to my daughters than meets the eye. Maybe one day, they’ll remember…

    Comment by WordGirl — August 4, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

  11. Excuse me, truly. I meandered my way over here, and enjoyed your post, and remembered Marenina, a husky we had who was killed by a coal truck one summer when I was a kid, and Frisky, the first dead thing I ever touched because I loved her so I could not leave her there despite my dread of dead things, and remember the things that people have said to me that resonated years and years later . . .

    [James' Reply: Ah! Huskies are such huggable dogs, too. I'm sorry.]

    and yet I must confess the thing that led me to actually leave this comment is this: Richard Bach? JSL Richard Bach? Illusions’ Richard Bach? Could it be? I was a young teenager and they’ve spoken to me for years and years. In so many ways now nearing 50 I’m still out there figuring out how to soar. And dive.

    [James' Reply: Yeah, that's the man. I was soaring and diving with him today, in a floatplane. We did side-slip practice, salt water and freshwater landings, and a few stalls. He's still teaching the art of flying.]

    Comment by CG — August 6, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

  12. Life never ceases to freaking amaze me! I had uncles who, well, my mother said her brothers learned to fly planes when they had to use bailing twine and chewing gum to hold them together because scotch tape hadn’t been invented yet. So I got to grow up taking rides now and again. And names one of my sons after one of my uncles. That sort of thing. I hope your dad is still writing too. It would be impossible for me to express to him what his writings have meant to me.

    [James' Reply: He has a book coming out next month, actually.]

    Comment by CG — August 7, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

  13. I was there. I saw it happen. It was in slow motion, nothing I yelled brought her back to me. I remember hopping off the bus, walking up to the house, and seeing Astra out. As the bus started to pull away, she started to run, I yelled, yelled again. The bus driver did not even slow down. I was horrified. Why didn’t he slow down? Did he not even care about my dog? He never stopped either.

    She lay still, from afar, I never went to her, I could not even think about the pain she felt. I was in shock for hours, I cried when I went into my room, I thought about my brother, Jim. What am I going to say, it was my fault, it was my bus, it was my stupid bus driver, I hated him now. To this day, I always thought it was MY fault. If I only…..

    James, I had to get on that bus the very next day. When the door opened, he was smiling, “Good Morning”,he said. I stopped on my way up the steps. “You killed my dog. You never even stopped. You killed her” I continued to the back, sat down and looked out the window for the entire hour bus ride to school. Once at school, getting off, he tried to stop me to talk, “I didnt even see her, this is a big vehicle, I cant see everything…” I didnt care, I hated him now. Getting on after school, he stopped me again, ” I’m sorry Erika, I’m sorry I killed your dog”, and gave me his saddest look. I shook my head, looked down, and never talked to him again. He took something from me, my family, and especially from my brother, that no one could replace.

    James, I will never forget that day, I am so sorry I was on that bus, so sorry it was what took Astra away from you, so sorry I couldnt get her to come back, so sorry I didnt grab her before she took off after the bus, so sorry. I take the blame, always have. I share in your grief. Love you, your sister.

    [James' Reply: It never even occurred to me to blame you. The blame doesn't belong with you. I'm glad to hear that the bus driver felt sorry. Thanks for writing, Ers.]

    Comment by Erika-sister who got off the bus — August 14, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

  14. Grief and guilt go together. Why is it that when death happens of a close one the little things that go wrong take the shape of volcanoes in our minds. We cling to memories and the happenings of the day repeats over and over and over again…. the grief lingers, the guilt does not abate.. the tears from the eyes stops after a point but the heart rends in many pieces.. Long after the body has gone and the soul probably found another abode – the memories of that day remain. But then I console myself with the thought that we will be united someday, surely and that day, even that moment in time will compensate for all the grief suffered over the years. But I will live and wait.

    Your posts on this blog are about another James and they do not fail to impress me just like the other James on the other blog. Thank you.

    [James' Reply: Thank you for your heartfelt words. I have two dogs now, both Shelties. I believe I am reunited with Astra, through their bouncing happy souls.]

    Comment by Sandeep Maher — August 24, 2009 @ 7:47 am

  15. Hello James,

    Heart-touching post!
    Its not just about 13 year old son/daughter. Its about every individual, every adult as well. Just a few hours ago I had a spat with a close friend who was just teasing me. I got irritated & left the place immediately. He kept on convincing me but I didn’t budge instead blamed him for nothing. But after reading your post now I realise ‘Only if I can take time back & re-do the whole scenario again I’ll definitely handle it more responsibly rather than being just a dumb person.
    Thank you so much for this wonderful story.

    Comment by Roshni — September 17, 2009 @ 7:27 am

  16. I needed this right now. I needed to know that I don’t have to fix my problem in this moment. It’s not a dog or a child. It’s a wife. And maybe she won’t be my wife too much longer but if I say what I need to say and do what I need to do then I don’t need to convince her. I don’t need to save anything. She’s angry and sad and has given up. For now.

    [James' Reply: I hope that's what you will do-- say the truth of your heart and hope she'll hear it someday. Good luck, man. I've been there.]

    Comment by MAHolm — October 12, 2009 @ 1:41 am

  17. This brought a tear to my eye. I wish my step father would have read something like this when I was growing up.

    Comment by Michelle — October 12, 2009 @ 8:58 am

  18. This post spoke to me. I loved it and I thank you for writing it.

    Comment by Y — October 12, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

  19. this is the worst writing i have ever read. it makes no sense whatsoever.

    [James' Reply: And here I was trying to write something really good. Where did I go wrong?]

    Comment by Matt — October 12, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

  20. “Then this man, Jon Fineman, who loved Astra too, told me how he also had a dog once that died. He offered his friendship, and he forgave me.”

    Your son told you he had a dog that died but you didn’t know about it??? WHAT?

    [James' Reply: Try reading again, a little more slowly. Jon Fineman is not my son, he's my step-father.]

    Comment by Matt — October 12, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

  21. Thanks for your compassion. My heart is breaking as I relate your story and conclusion on parenting to my own parenting of my 3 beautiful children.

    “When you speak to your children today, you are also speaking to every day of their future selves. Parenting is outside of time.”

    I’m very grateful for your insight so well articulated here. Thank you xxoo

    Comment by Sarah Slattery — October 14, 2009 @ 9:20 am

  22. I needed to hear this today.

    Comment by Justjill — October 14, 2009 @ 10:01 am

  23. This was an awesome post. :D

    Comment by Just Jennifer — October 19, 2009 @ 5:55 am

  24. This is beautifully written. Thank you. What you said at the end resonated with me. Thank you.

    “When you speak to your children today, you are also speaking to every day of their future selves. Parenting is outside of time. Take care and take heart in that.”

    Comment by Jeanette — October 20, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

  25. Beautiful post. Thank you for the final words, I will remember them.

    Comment by Jennifer — October 21, 2009 @ 9:48 pm

  26. Powerful stuff. Thanks for posting.

    Comment by little bit — October 22, 2009 @ 8:44 am

  27. Wonderful, heartwrenching story. That Matt guy obviously has issues with comprehension. It was beautifully written and from the heart. Thank you for sharing it with us

    Comment by Luci — October 22, 2009 @ 11:08 pm

  28. Thanks for this wonderful post!

    Comment by Sherry — November 3, 2009 @ 5:53 pm

  29. beautiful writing jim its so strange i just read the story abt ur dog astra in above the clouds and i suddenly found ur blog …its like a completion, sometimes u really need to grow up and have kids to understand ur parents ….when my kids grow up they will probably be more understanding of us

    Comment by jyotsna — November 9, 2009 @ 11:04 am

  30. Loved it! It’s great to have perspective and this is certainly a way to get it.

    Also, I often let consequences teach my kids, especially when they won’t be harsh but they will be clear. It saves so much talking…

    Tiny site comment: I stumbled here from StumbleUpon and didn’t know where I was until I made an effort to find out. It may be good to put some identifying details and perhaps your photo at the top.

    [James' Reply: You mean, at the top of the blog?]

    Comment by Family Matters — November 13, 2009 @ 12:54 am

  31. James

    I love your book, and I have become a promotorof it. It has helped me so much, and it is helping a friend of mine trying to learn a lot for a court case. I am surprised at your Apatheism though, given your love of meaning – such as “intelligence is a tool, love is the point” and your right of passage where you realise there is a point to low IQ beings (dogs) because they love others… But there is so much religious nonsense around that I can understand you giving it a wide birth.


    [James' Reply: Hi Ed. Thanks!

    Apatheism just means I don't care whether there's a god, or gods, or if there were god/gods what would he/they/it want me to do. I can't know the answer to that question, and whatever the answers I might speculate about wouldn't change how I think or feel.

    I would be an atheist, except that the flaw with atheism is that it wastes its time denying something that ought never have been proposed in the first place. Whereas I just ignore the question.

    None of this is incompatible with loving other people, and feeling kinship with my fellow creatures.

    Comment by Ed Harnett — June 28, 2010 @ 8:52 am

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