Lesson from My Sleeping Son


I was certain the lecture would be wasted on my nine-year-old. But I will never forget what I learned from him.

“Dad, why do you have to go to a meeting tonight?” My nine-year-old son followed me to the front door as I adjusted my tie and put on my overcoat.

“Because I’m a teacher, Aaron, and sometimes teachers need teachers, too. I wouldn’t want to run out of things to teach, you know.”

I left the house, running a little late, as usual. As I reached for the ignition to start the car, our porch light went on and the front door opened again. My son stood in the doorway, his nose against the screen.

“Bye, Dad.” It sounded wistful.

I barely heard my wife say: “You can go with Dad if you want, Aaron.”

He bounded out the door and across the lawn. Opening the car’s passenger door, he looked across the seat at me. “Can I go, Dad? What meeting are you going to?”

“Well, it’s a talk, Aaron. A long talk. It will last an hour and a half. Not only that, but it costs. You have to buy a ticket to get in. So maybe it would be better, unless you like long talks, that you didn’t come.”

Immediately, he was in the car, closing the door as he announced, “I like talks, Dad.” In a hurry to be on time, I didn’t question his desire.

Aaron’s ticket was three dollars—the “student rate,” the lady behind the desk said, although there didn’t seem to be any other nine-year-olds in attendance. There were few vacant seats left in the large chapel where the talk was to be presented—except on the front row. A man was just getting up to open the meeting, so we hurried to our seats at the front of the congregation.

“We’d like to welcome you to the ‘Know Your Religion’ lecture this evening, brothers and sisters,” the man said. The pulpit loomed high above us. As we bent our necks sideways and upwards to look at him, I realized why no one else was sitting on the front row.

My son glanced at me from his place at my left and smiled. After a prayer and a musical number, the featured speaker invited us to turn with him to section 50 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Fumbling with a notepad, pen, and standard works, I nearly dropped the Bible as I reached to unzip the cover of my triple combination. A voice at my side said, “I’ll look it up for you, Dad.” Aaron took the book and confidently turned to the right page. He followed along as the speaker read, pointing to each verse so I wouldn’t miss anything.

“Now let’s turn a little further, to section 52,” the speaker said. Beside me, pages shuffled, and again Aaron found the right place.

As the speaker moved deeper into his subject matter, I wrote a little faster, attempting to get it all down. No tape recordings were allowed, and this lecture was a good one.

But it wasn’t aimed at nine-year-olds. There was a slight rustle to my left, and then that boyish smile again as my son held out a newly opened package of candy. With a quiet word of acknowledgment and a piece of candy in my mouth, I went back to my note taking.

A heavy head on my shoulder was my first indication that Aaron had succumbed to sleep. What a waste! He could have taken a nap at home for a whole lot less than three dollars. I knew he wouldn’t get anything out of the lecture. I should have told him to stay home.

Then I looked at his face. His smile had faded into an expression of restfulness. I thought I detected a look of trust, too—an unspoken feeling that everything was all right: My dad is here. Everything is all right. I’m happy to be with my dad.

A wave of fatherly emotion swept through me, as strong as I have ever felt it. I looked up at the chapel ceiling and repented of my pettiness about the nap ticket. Everything is all right, I thought. My son is here. I’m happy to be with my son.

I reached over and put my arm around him, cradling his head against my chest. I gave him a little squeeze, then another.

My eyes on the pulpit again, I settled back into the lecture and resumed taking notes, balancing my pad on my lap and writing with my one free hand.

After a minute or two, or maybe five, I noticed a faint snore from my left. It swelled a bit, then died away, then got louder. I looked behind me to see if anyone had noticed, then squeezed Aaron and jiggled his head. It was all right to nap, but he couldn’t snore. He snored again, and I thought I saw the speaker wince at the pulpit above, though he didn’t look down. Another jiggle, and the snoring stopped. Thank goodness.

A few notes later, I looked at Aaron again. His head was back and his mouth wide open, his jaw dangling listlessly. As I contemplated the picture he made, he coughed, then burst into a sputter of desperate choking. His candy, stowed temporarily in his cheek, had slid backwards, down toward his windpipe.

This time, the speaker looked. Nobody—not even a “Know Your Religion” lecturer—could ignore a choking nine-year-old on the front row. I took Aaron by the shoulders and shook him gently, hoping to dislodge the candy. He sputtered some more, coughed loudly, and swallowed hard. The errant candy found its way down the right place this time. Aaron squirmed a bit and settled back into sleep. I grimaced at the speaker, and the lecture resumed.

Recovering my pen, I found my place on the notepad and tried to reconstruct what I had missed, but my mind wasn’t on the lecture anymore. Everything is all right, I thought. My son is here. I reflected on how precious this boy is to me. I recognized his need to be included—to have a dad who takes him along. I decided that those three dollars had helped me to know my religion after all.

An hour passed, and more, as Aaron slept. I tried to move the arm I had around him and realized I couldn’t feel it; the circulation had been partially cut off. If I moved my arm, I would wake him. I decided not to do it, despite my discomfort. My arm felt too good where it was—even though it couldn’t feel anything at all.

At the sound of people leaving, Aaron awoke. As he put on his coat, my triple combination slid off his lap and fell to the floor. He picked it up and gave it back to me, with that boyish smile again, somewhat sleepier now.

While we were driving home in the car, I told Aaron how much I had enjoyed spending the evening with him. I complimented him on how well he had found the scriptures in the Doctrine and Covenants, and I asked him how he felt about the lecture.

He responded simply, “I like talks, Dad.”

[photo] Photo by Matthew Reier; posed by models

Robert A. Cloward is an instructor at the Cedar City Institute of Religion.