When I learned on Thursday that Michael, my 17-year-old son who will graduate high school in just a few short months, was going through some significant changes in his life, I called to suggest dinner at Japan Inn. Years past, perhaps a concerned parent would have offered chicken soup, proposed a walk and conversation together beneath the serenity of a quiet moonlit sky, or suggested heading to a basketball court or open field to throw a ball together. Michael is a superstar athlete, making it unlikely he’d find much pleasure in an hour of football or basketball with a father approaching fifty. I’ve never known him to be particularly fond of chicken soup, and although a walk together sounded inviting, I suspected we’d both miss the white sauce.
With my wife, Stephanie, Michael’s stepmother, home nursing our delicious, nine-day-old newborn son, I suggested Michael invite some friends to join us. The invitations were gladly accepted.
By eight, six of us were seated around the table with our favorite chef, Tang, performing acrobatics with eggs and vegetables that he flipped, diced, cracked, shaped, and prepared with precision and humor.
I met Danny, Michael’s expected roommate for his freshman year at the University of Central Florida that begins this summer and his twin brother Jeffrey. Alvaro and Alejandro joined us too, both of whom have been friends since Michael’s elementary school years. During the meal, we casually talked about senior year, their experiences in school, plans and hopes for college, dreams for their futures, families and friendships.
As the last plates were cleared, I invited Alejandro to share an exercise he’d learned almost exactly a year earlier when as a high school junior he attended a PAIRS class and training for new instructors. PAIRS is a relationship skills training program that provides classes for teenagers and marriage education for adults to learn skills for effective communication, emotional understanding, and constructive conflict resolution. I’ve been involved with PAIRS for much of the past 15 years. My sons have grown up coming to classes with me, helping me create teaching, training and promotional materials, and witnessing countless lessons learned as we shared the skills with others and implemented them in our own lives. Quite a few of their friends have become interested in PAIRS as well, including Alejandro and his girlfriend Alyssa.
Alejandro explained that the Daily Temperature Reading begins with being fully present to each other, making eye contact, and freeing ourselves from distractions such as phone calls, text messaging, and the big screen television broadcasting a Thursday night football game.
The boys took their seats and looked intently into Alejandro’s eyes as he continued, doing what many rarely do — truly seeing another person.
“We begin with appreciations,” he said. “Sincere, specific things you appreciate about each other.” One by one, Alejandro went around to each of our dinner guests acknowledging them for something meaningful about them. Each listened carefully to the words shared about themselves and each other. And then they took turns sharing appreciations with each other. Several mentioned recent conversations that mattered, offering gratitude for sharing and listening to one another. Others mentioned how much it meant to know their friends were always looking out for them and that they were there for each other. Each thanked me for the dinner together. Alvaro appreciated me for the years of always welcoming him into our home and lives. Michael thanked me for the conversation we’d had just before dinner about the relationship with his longtime girlfriend that appeared to be fading as the distance between our home in Weston and hers at college on the west coast of Florida became more difficult to navigate.
I went last.
As each of them had done, I paused with each person to offer acknowledgment and words of affirmation. Knowing that three of them had grown up significantly without a father actively involved in their lives, I mentioned how much I admired that they’d been able to develop into extraordinary young men despite the unique challenges each had faced. I said that I’d also grown up very much missing the presence of my father in my own life; that I knew that was painful and difficult and that I admired them for the men they were becoming.
“Next,” Alejandro explained, “is new information — what’s something going on in your life that you can share?”
Danny spoke about his planned weekend trip with friends to northern Florida. Alejandro mentioned the new copier/fax/scanner at the PAIRS office for which he’d developed particular fondness and also a party planned for his house on Saturday. Michael talked about his newborn little brother and also what was going on with his girlfriend, sharing his thoughts and feelings about the challenges they were facing.
After each had shared at least a few words to keep each other up-to-date on what was going on in their lives, Alejandro said the next step was puzzles. “Puzzles are anything you’re wondering about,” he offered. “Any questions you have for each other.”
He began with a question about Danny going away for the weekend and missing his party, allowing Danny the chance to explain that he’d made the commitment to travel to Gainesville long before he knew of Alejandro’s plans. Jeffrey asked how come Michael hadn’t spoken with him earlier about the situation with his girlfriend. Each took turns checking out things they were wondering about with each other and listening carefully to the answers.
As they finished, Alejandro said he would begin first with the next step, complaints with requests for change. Turning to Danny, he said, “I notice that you’re not planning to be at my party.” He went on to share that he was sad about that, disappointed that they wouldn’t get to enjoy that experience together, and asking specifically if Danny could change his plans to stay in Weston for the weekend. Danny listened, acknowledged Alejandro’s words and feelings, and explained that he could not.
Jeffrey said to Michael that in the future, he’d like to know sooner when something significant is going on in Michael’s life, such as the change in the relationship with his girlfriend.
“The last step,” Alejandro said, “is wishes, hopes and dreams. It can be about anything that’s important to you.”
Each took a turn sharing a wish, hope or dream, peering into the future to offer a glimpse of something they hoped would come true. Each had their own unique dreams and each also shared a dream in common: that they’d stay connected to each other, continue to nurture their friendships, and always be there to look after one another.
I shared my dreams for my family, for the healing of my wife still recovering from our son’s delivery, for the health and happiness of each of my three sons, that each of these young men would be safe and protected as they embraced the wonders and miracles of life, that one day they would know the amazing joy of fatherhood with their own sons and daughters, and that as the fathers they would become, they would help bring healing to what had been missing in their own lives.
The young men and I stood up to exchange hugs that acknowledged the meaning of what we’d shared, leaving the restaurant fully present to our celebration of each other.
To learn more about PAIRS, visit PAIRS online at http://www.pairs.com.