The Price of Presence

I discovered food five years ago. Not good food, I grew up with a true Southern cuisine chef for a mom that shaped my pallet. We sat down at the dinner table nearly every night of my childhood and ate good food. I discovered food that you go out and want to pay for. Up to that point, I thought that you just went out because you didn’t want to cook and clean, or that you couldn’t cook- I never had an issue with the latter. I don’t remember ever going out and thinking the food that I was eating was any better than what we had at home.

Once, Tiff and I had only been married two years, a guy in the church showed up with a “hawg” already butchered and packaged. We stuffed our freezer and had to send some back home with him. He raised a pig just for us and we ate like kings for months. Ham, bacon, pork loins, ribs, chops, shoulder, butt- you name it, we ate it.

Tiffanni and I took our last trip to New York City five years ago. We were visiting great friends who invited us up for a getaway in the middle of our reeling. Tiff was diagnosed six months before and the denial had worn off for a number of reasons, not the least of which, Tiffanni couldn’t stay still. As fortune would have it, our friends Matt and Nicole had made City friends that made the trip unforgettable. Nicole was friends with several actors in two different Broadway plays that afforded us great seats and backstage passes to the most magical performance art that I had ever witnessed. Also, they had made friends with a Food Network producer. I should say, they made friends with a fabulous lady that just happened to produce Chopped.

She invited us to eat at Scarpetta, a Scott Conant restaurant. The first course began with a wild mushroom polenta that is etched into my memory. It was then that my eyes opened and I thought, “Oh, so that’s what the fuss is all about. This is what people pay for.” All of my life, eating at restaurants was less about good food and more about avoiding dishes. This was different. Very different.

Last week my baby girl turned thirteen. Beautiful, spunky, creative, dramatic, artistic, talented, and full of life- she crossed the threshold of childhood into the land of insanity. The only good thing about the last several years passing by so quickly is that I know that her teenage, crazy years won’t last forever.

The saddest part about discovering food five years ago is that I haven’t gotten to take advantage of it very often. But this night, I decided to take Addyson to a fancy dinner with good food. She dressed up, make-up upped, and rode with me into downtown Birmingham for a fabulous evening.

I have worked on this evening for years.

By personality, I am distracted easily. I erratically move from one thought to the next, sometimes interrupting stories, situations, and discussions. If ADD was the thing that it is now when I was a kid, I would have mainlined ritalin or had an adderall IV. Luckily, I discovered it and have intentionally fought it. It’s not an easy fight, but one I’ve purposed to win.

I decided four years ago when Tiffanni and I starting going to Dairy Queen, which would turn into a standing date, that I would sit, stare, and engage with her the whole time, no distractions. My phone never comes out, I sit with my back to televisions and people so that I am only facing Tiffanni and a wall, and I work at presence. Eugene Peterson says, “The men and women who are going to be most valuable to us in spiritual formation are most likely going to be people at the edge of respectability: the poor, minorities, the suffering, the rejected, the poets, and children.” My objective was always just to give her the dignity that she deserved, even if she couldn’t communicate well anymore. Some days we sit and stare, for an hour, and I make silly faces just to see if I can make the corners of her eyes shift. It usually feels like at least an hour, but I follow the self-imposed rules nonetheless. Dignity was my aim, but her response, her reciprocation was unexpected.

Addyson and I sat there, talking, eating, smiling, and enjoying each others’ company. Two hours passed and not a second was lost. It was a tapas restaurant and we set a goal to order ten dishes to share. Each dish, cooked over an open wood fire, and I can name and describe all nine- barely missing our goal. I know what she wore, a dozen conversations that we had, every plate, but can’t remember much about the restaurant. Toward the end of our meal, I told her, “I sure wish we could watch them cooking the food and see how they do it.”

She laughed. “Dad, look right beside you.” Ten feet away, we sat next to the wood flame grill. Like a massive pizza oven, the chefs placed dishes on large plates, inserted them into and then out of the oven. All beside us, the whole time.

But I missed it. And yet saw everything that mattered that night. Tiff, once again my tutor, I treated our daughter to a beautiful night that probably meant more to me than it did to her- maybe not. She had my full attention- I noticed details and nuances, outfits and dishes, conversations and laughs, even concerns and dilemmas- all because I was there. Not just physically, I was there.

My presence cost a lot.

I’ll never believe that the outcome was worth the price, but I was there still. Completely there. I don’t believe in an “everything happens for a reason” world. That’s dangerous when we’re talking about real people. But that night, after years of work, after thousands of French Fries, hundreds of blizzards, and endless hours of silence, I sat back and enjoyed every minute of my daughter’s time. Her life, her laugh, her love, her momma’s eyes, and I didn’t miss much. That time cost a lot, but that night, for a moment, it was almost worth it.