First born

I am the firstborn son of a firstborn son, but it wasn’t until my first son was born 21 years ago that I began to understand how little I knew about being a parent.

Carla and I waited until she finished her master of social work degree before having children. It took us a little while to get pregnant. I never liked the phrase “we’re trying to get pregnant” when describing our status as a young couple because everyone knows what causes pregnancy. It seemed a little too revelatory and put visuals in people’s minds I’d rather them not have.

Carla Barron Wallace holds her newborn son, Barron, in the hospital room.
Life changed forever in this moment, 21 years ago.

That summer day I learned we were pregnant is burned into my memory. I returned from a morning run and was stretching on the back deck of our small, brick house on Highpoint Drive in Macon, Georgia. Carla came to the back window of what would become our baby’s room and held up a pregnancy test. It took it a minute to dawn on me what she was saying. She came out the back door and despite my sweat and odor, she hugged me, and through tears said, “It’s positive!”

Telling family and friends was the fun part. In the pre-social media days of the year 2000, there wasn’t as much pressure to be instantaneous. We didn’t have to worry that word would leak out through Facebook or Twitter, and loved ones would find out, offended they hadn’t heard it from us directly. There were considerations, however. We were due to spend a week with my family at a cabin on Lake Eufaula in Alabama. We could not imagine telling my family before Carla broke the news to her parents, who themselves experienced great difficulty in conceiving. An only child, Carla knew how much the news would mean to them and strongly desired to tell them in person. Despite the geographic inconvenience, on the day we were due at Lake Eufaula, we got up early and drove east to Sandersville to surprise Mama and Daddy.

They were down by the lake where Daddy was building a brick barbecue pit when we arrived. Making sure he could hear us, Carla loudly announced our news. Mama squealed with delight, and Daddy issued a laughing “Sho ‘nuf?!?” Tears of joy flowed.

Telling my family proved to be a little more fraught. Buoyed by bringing Mama and Daddy into our little secret, we drove to Eufaula deciding that dinner would be the best time to break the news. When we arrived at the cabin, we learned that my dad had not made the trip because of his health. He had not yet been diagnosed with diabetes, so his absence was confusing and disappointing. Undaunted, we shared the news with my two brothers, my sister-in-law and my mom over combination dinners at the Mexican restaurant in downtown Eufaula. The response was more subdued than when we told Mama and Daddy, but such is the way of things with my family. There was still joy, and they offered sincere congratulations.

Those nine months of preparation were by turns interminable and fleeting. I started a master of business administration program at Mercer University, taking a prerequisite economics class during the day with undergraduate students and a corporate accounting class with the MBA students two nights a week. As diligent as I was in my studies of earnings, asset ratios and debt loads, I was even more intensely studious about childbirth and infancy. I read “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” “Now That You’re a Dad,” and a big medical book, “Conception, Pregnancy and Childbirth.” Knowledge gleaned from books on a subject as experiential and instinctive as having a child is insufficient. It is a classic example of “knowing just enough to be dangerous.”

I was anxious about the health of the baby and Carla’s condition. I worried for her when I thought about the labor and delivery. The minor inconveniences I had to endure were nothing compared to Carla’s adapting to hormones and her ever-changing body. My strongest memory is of our sleeping arrangements. Our first bed was a full-size, perfect for snuggling when it was just the two of us. But when she started growing and needed a body pillow to find a comfortable sleeping position, there was less and less real estate for me. Carla always was a “tuck-and-roll” sleeper, grabbing more and more blanket with each turn throughout the night. That combined with her keeping the air conditioning lower to accommodate her elevated body temperature helped prepare me for the sleepless nights that awaited us once our bundle of joy arrived.

Carla is not into delayed gratification. She is a planner, so knowing the sex of the baby was vital for making decisions on paint colors, window treatments and bedding in the baby’s room. I was fine to know, and I didn’t see any point in going into the big day even less prepared by keeping the sex a secret. We found out at the 20-week ultrasound appointment we were having a boy.

That’s when the name game started in earnest. We knew early on we wanted Carla’s maiden name “Barron” to be the first name. We were committed to having family names only. We also liked pairing “Barron” with my middle name “Elliott,” which was also Dad’s middle name and his mother’s maiden name.

Going into the holidays, it was nice to know that swelling in Carla’s belly was our son, Barron. I even on occasion did that awkward thing new parents do of reading to him in utero. It added to the expectation and joy. Traditionally, we spent Christmas day with Carla’s parents and then traveled to Florida see my family the days immediately following. With the due date coming so close to Christmas, we didn’t feel we should travel 8-10 hours away, and with Carla’s growing discomfort and frequent restroom visits, a car trip was out of the question. My Dad and youngest brother came up with presents from my side of the family after Christmas while Mom stayed behind in Lake Wales to look after her mother. It was a quick trip, but at least it allowed us to keep connected with my family as we anticipated the arrival of the first grandchild for both sides of the family.

One of my favorite parts of the preparation time was the childbirth class. Beyond eye-opening, he weekly sessions for couples helped expand my knowledge in ways the books couldn’t have. To this day I am grateful for the father-to-be who asked all the questions I wanted answers to but was too embarrassed to ask. I never got his name, but I knew he drove a Snap-On Tools truck, so he became “the Snap-On Tools guy” to us.

We have always been creatures of habit, so it was no surprise that on the night of Monday, February 5, 2000, a day past the due date, we were in bed watching one of our favorite TV shows, “7th Heaven.” The idealized family drama about a minister’s brood of seven children in many ways affected my view of having children. It was silly, I now know, but I really did think parenting was all about having deep, meaningful conversations with your children the way Rev. Camden and Annie did with their children on “7th Heaven.” When that night’s episode ended, exhausted from a day of work, I turned off the lamp and told Carla, “Please don’t go into labor tonight. I’m too tired for us to have the baby.” Less than a half hour later, we were up with the onset of labor.

Like all first-time parents, we probably went to the hospital too soon. Trying not to be stereotypically over-anxious, we waited at home as long as we could, timing contractions and getting our stuff together for a hospital stay. We went on to Coliseum Hospital when the contractions were consistently eight minutes apart believing Barron’s arrival would come before daybreak. It was a busy night for labor and delivery. We were well taken care of, but after medications were administered, Carla’s labor slowed way down. She labored through the night and into the next day. I felt more than a little guilt at slipping away and grabbing lunch at Nu Way with my buddy, Mitch, before returning for the main event.

Juggling our video camera, and doing my best to preserve Carla’s modesty and dignity, I experienced sensory overload. The room was dimly lit except for a spotlight on the “area of interest.” Barron glistened in the light when the doctor delivered him, and in seconds the nurse had him at a table in the corner, taking his vitals and cleaning him up. I felt a rush of emotions – relief that Carla’s suffering was over, joy that Barron was healthy, anxious about what was coming next, and eager to share the news with the world.

The next couple of days in the hospital started the sleep deprivation with hourly checks by the attentive nursing staff. I slept in the pull-out sleeper chair as we kept Barron in the room as much as possible to change his first diapers, cuddle and bond with him, and work on the tricky but necessary latching on required for breast feeding. Visitors lifted our spirits, and there were many, many pictures.

The experience, though, is probably best summed up in our car ride home. Always fastidious about vehicle safety, Carla ensured we had properly installed the car seat in her Honda Accord. We tucked Barron in and headed toward our house. We didn’t get far before he started crying, as infants do. At a loss for what was causing it, we pulled over to make sure he wasn’t being pinched by the straps or was suffering in some less-than-obvious way. Ultimately, we buckled him back in and made it the rest of the way without incident.

That’s how I felt about having our first child. I was nervous. I wanted an explanation for every whimper and reaction. I worried about doing the right thing in caring for his physical needs. I loved holding him. I got a rush every time I read to him. I was happy to have a healthy son and watch his every reaction. I was caught up in the day-to-day, subtle changes; so much so that it was hard to imagine what his journey to adulthood would be like.

Looking back 21 years later, I can’t believe how little I understood about life and being a parent back then, but I’m profoundly grateful for the experience and for the intense bond I now have with Carla and all three of our boys. I may not know much more about parenting a young adult and two teenagers, but I am comforted by the knowledge that we’ll get through it together.

Thoughts on Lanny

On Nov. 1, 2013, my father-in-law, Lanny Barron, was in an automobile accident on his way to his house in Sandersville from his family’s farm outside of town. He died on Thanksgiving, Nov. 28. Today’s essay is the eulogy I had the honor of delivering at Lanny’s funeral. He and Cynthia would have been married 49 years on March 28. He would have turned 72 on April 2. To help remember him during this significant week, Carla asked that I post this eulogy. I hope you get a glimpse of what made him special.

Lanny and Barron on the front porch several years ago. This smile is how I remember him.
Lanny and Barron on the front porch several years ago. This smile is how I remember him.

Lanny Carl Barron lived his life between the farm and town.

He spent his formative years on the family farm on the Sparta-Davisboro Road a few miles outside of town in what is known as the Downs Community. There he learned the ways of planting, harvesting, hunting, preparing food and generally occupying himself with practical pursuits ultimately meant to provide sustenance for his family.

His family moved into town as his father worked in law enforcement. He developed a love of sports and cars and other pursuits hot-blooded males of his generation appreciated. But he was never far from the farm and the woods.

In high school he met and fell in love with Cynthia Goodman. Though she went off to Georgia Southern and he to the U.S. Navy, his intense love only grew in their separation. Not one to put on much of a show or engage in what he referred to as “that kissy, kissy mess,” Lanny was smitten in a way that affected him to his core. And when Cynthia turned down his original proposal of marriage, the iron will and determination – some might call it stubbornness – that those who knew him well recognized as a central part of his character helped him woo her past the point of refusal.

They were married, and he spent his shifts, both days and nights, operating heavy equipment in the kaolin mines of Washington County, an honorable occupation many of you know well. As Cynthia went into the classroom to put her training and gifts of teaching and nurturing to use with the children of Tennille, Lanny had all he wanted out of life. Except for a child.

It was nearly a decade before Carla was born, and though he was, perhaps, better suited to teach a boy the importance of the land, honest character, the intricacies of the forward pass and the sacrifice bunt, Lanny was challenged to develop his more tender side as he learned to love and show affection to a daughter.

This wasn’t always easy for him, and for a time he struggled with his role as husband and father. But in her patience, love, and resolve, Cynthia helped him decide what was worth giving his life to and what was not. Lanny made up his mind that the woman who had been worth pursuing in his youth and the daughter they had so desperately wanted were worth spending time with, and once again through his will and determination he made the kind of life change that many are never able to accomplish.

Still, Lanny was not much of a churchman for many years. He could clearly recall his days as a young boy at the church at Downs, but his distaste for pretense and his ability to sniff out hypocrisy kept him from darkening the church door, though Cynthia and Carla were at church every time those doors were open.

In his 50s after suffering a heart attack, Lanny recommitted himself to the faith of his childhood. As he described it to me one day while driving from town out to the farm, he realized it was the church folk who visited him in the hospital and looked after Cynthia and Carla while he recovered. After that, Lanny was in church the first Sunday he was able, and he became a faithful member and servant. He was eventually named a deacon, a title to which he had not aspired in his earlier days. It was yet another example of him making up his mind and making a 180-degree turn, never to look back.

His lifestyle changes included a new commitment to physical fitness. He walked all over Washington County, mostly in the backwoods of his family’s land. By the time I met Lanny in 1996, he had shifted to riding a bike, and he could often be seen out on the Fall Line pedaling along with his little Pekingnese named Bossy, in the front basket.  He was a man who was nearly always in the company of a dog, and among those who grieve his passing now the most is his little buddy and constant companion, Jack.

Among the first occasions I had to spend an extended amount of time with Lanny was at Carla’s graduation from Mercer. His pride in the accomplishments of his daughter helped him overcome his distaste of pomp and circumstance. He put on a tie and made the drive over to Macon and along with about 10,000 other folks, he applauded his daughter achieving her college degree.

And when I went from being the boyfriend to the son-in-law, he put on a tuxedo to escort his beautiful Carla down the aisle.

For the past 16 years, the Lanny I have known has been a fan of the Golden Hawks, Bulldogs and Braves; quick with a joke (not many of which I would dare retell in this solemn gathering) and full of wisdom from his uncomplicated but principled upbringing. His mischievous smile was never brighter than when he picked at those he had fondness for, including Cynthia, his co-workers, church friends and, of course, his sister-in-law, Linda Goodman, who has always been able to give it back as good as she got it.

And at least a hand full of times I have been with him as he rode out to the farm to the Red House to find his nephew, Johnny, sitting on the back porch in the autumn, mid-morning sun. Better than any program on the Outdoor Channel, he loved to hear Johnny tell of the morning’s hunt. Lanny listened as Johnny with characteristic exaggeration and good humor described how the big one got away or humbly submit how his superior hunting skills led him to take a prized buck.

In those years Lanny and Cynthia together were wonderful caregivers to his mother, Ruth, who lived with them. He looked after his mother as dutifully and as conscientiously as I hope our boys will look after theirs. He was a model son, and an inspiration to Carla who has tried to be with him and her mama through every step of this journey.

I have seen firsthand his love for Cynthia in her recent years of illness. He was attentive to her every need and relished proving to her that he could cook, clean up and even do laundry.

In my experience with Lanny, he has been at his very best as a grandfather, or as my boys have known him, Poppy. Never too fond of hospital rooms, three times he made his way to be with us after the birth of our boys and every time, he held a new grandson, he would beam and pronounce them “handsome young men, just like their grandfather.”

He loved grilling for them and preparing their favorite foods. He absolutely loved seeing them devour a bowl of ice cream, even before their infant digestive tracks could handle it. He always asked them how they were doing in school and if they were chasing the little girls. He loved taking them out to the farm, letting them drive his camouflaged golf cart and feed and chase the goats.

He came to their performances at school and at church, and even adopted the new tradition of waiting out Santa’s arrival at our house in Lilburn. No visit with Poppy ever concluded without him reaching into his wallet and giving each of them a $20 bill. He pulled them close, hugged them, said “Love you, Buddy. Make your mama and daddy buy you some ice cream.”

I asked my boys what I should say today to let you know how much he meant to them. Carlton, in all the eloquence his five years could muster, said: “Poppy was really nice, and I loved his hamburgers and hotdogs.”

Harris, who three weeks ago sat down in his Poppy’s hospital room in Augusta and refused to leave until Poppy got better, said: “He taught me to drive a golf cart, and I could never beat him at checkers.”

Barron, his first-born grandson and the benefactor of his generous excesses of grandfatherly affection, said: “Poppy always wanted to hear me play my trumpet and my guitar, and I had fun last summer working with him on his old car.”

And if given the chance to stand here and offer words of your memories, you would no doubt mention many more traits that made Lanny Carl Barron the unique individual that he was. In the last three days I have heard stories from you that were familiar and part of the lore that was his life story. I have heard new stories that I had never known but were completely consistent with the man I have come to love and admire.

Let this not be the last days those stories escape your lips. Lanny lives on in each telling. Cynthia is comforted by the sound of his name and the knowledge that you miss him right along with her. Carla needs to be reminded often of the kind of person her daddy was, so she can know where she came from and what’s important in life. And these grandsons need to know their Poppy in fuller and richer ways than the perspective of their youth can afford them now.

If you have loved Lanny in life, I ask you to speak these stories with joy and laughter and with frequency. Lanny always enjoyed a laugh and a good story, grounded in timeless truths, even those tales that pointed out his own foibles. He will enjoy hearing you tell them from his new vantage point.

Perhaps no one has more stories than you, James. You are above all others, a man held in high esteem by Lanny. You have gone farther than the formal relationship of brother-in-law would obligate a man. You have been the sidekick in many of Lanny’s misadventures, always the voice of caution, always offering a word of reason, but all too often dismissed to Lanny’s detriment. Still, you went with him to the farm each morning to tend the goats. And you went with him to auctions and sales and wide-ranging quests for tractor parts or purchases of hay. Too many times you had to be the one to call 911 or worse, your sister, when things went badly. Lanny probably pushed you too far outside of your comfort zone too many times, but in his boldness and disregard for safety, he was comforted by your presence. There is no telling how many disasters you helped avert, how many inconveniences you prevented from becoming full-blown fiascoes. Lanny was fortunate to have you as a brother, and he knew it.

There are others of you here who were important to him whom I have not mentioned: Martha and Ann, Edna and Steve, Jason, Emily, Amy and all the extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.

I never had the opportunity to meet Lanny’s older brother, John, but I know for a fact how much he looked up to him, and how important John’s family was to him. He treasured visits with Lois, Sherri, Johnny and Jonathan because they helped him feel connected to his roots, especially in the days after his daddy and mama had passed.

Lanny, today we lay your body to rest, knowing that you are not in this casket. Our faith leads us to anticipate a glorious reunion someday, and we are comforted by the idea that you sit with your mother and father, your brothers and your friends who have gone before you.

We have made a little bit of a fuss over you. I hope it’s OK and you don’t mind. You’ll have to forgive us, because you are worth it.

Somewhere between the farm and town, we lost you. May we never forget all that you have taught us from traveling that road back and forth. We are all better for knowing you.

A 10-minute conversation

When was the last time you had 10 minutes with nothing to do?

Think about it.

Let’s take it one step further: When was the last time you had 10 minutes with nothing to do and you did nothing?

Umm-hmm. That’s what I thought.

I’ve been doing a lot of weekend travel for my day job recently, so my boss forced me to take Tuesday off. It’s a sad commentary on my mental status that he had to twist my arm. Seriously, I argued with him about taking the day off. He finally just told me not to come in on Tuesday and muttered something about “gift horses.”

My off day began with sleep – something I get very little of most nights because I’m an early riser. Carla believes I am perpetually sleep deprived, but how else am I going to fit everything in that I need to keep me sane: spiritual disciplines, running and working out and writing.

So when I slept until 8:30 Tuesday morning, it was the latest I had slept in months, including vacations. Rest. What a concept.

Carlton reads "Pete the Cat."
Carlton "reads" his current favorite book, "Pete the Cat."

The morning was great. Carlton and I spent time together before he went to preschool, reading his favorite book “Pete the Cat,” which he basically recited to me. Then it was off to the gym before volunteering in Harris’ first grade class with Carla.

When I entered the classroom, the kids were all in groups working on math centers. Not waiting for an orientation or instructions, I dived in, helping kids with math facts, counting dimes and reading clocks. It was a whirlwind 30 minutes, but every time Harris looked my way, a big smile took over his face. We even stayed for his lunch, preferring not to partake in the cafeteria food but still enjoying Harris’ company.

Lunch was a rare treat. Carla and I enjoyed the special at Always Fresh, the place to go in Lilburn when you have a hankerin’ for some traditional Southern meat and three. We talked about plans for her birthday over baked chicken, pork loin, sweet potato casserole, field peas, mashed potatoes and gravy and cornbread muffins. We skipped dessert on account of the sweet potato casserole.

And that’s when it happened.

We were 10 minutes early to pick Carlton up from preschool. We just sat in our minivan in the parking lot. I turned off the radio. I resisted the urge to pick up my smart phone and allow my burgeoning inbox to rob me of serenity. I looked at my watch. I looked at Carla. We sat still. It was quiet.

“When was the last time we didn’t do anything?” I asked.

Carla then proceeded to give me a summary of a book or something she had read online
about white space and filling our lives up with too much activity.

She held out about another two minutes before her ever-present iPhone was back at her face. She put it down when I mocked her for only being able to be still and converse for five minutes.

Ten-Minute-Pillowcase-Apron
And you thought I was making this up. Go ahead, you can "pin it."

The rest of the day was just as restful, but what stuck out to me was how rare those 10 minutes were. We didn’t have any relational breakthroughs or resolve any of life’s big quandaries. We were warmed by sunshine. We noticed the changing colors of the leaves. We sat still and talked.

More was accomplished in that 10 minutes than in a thousand “to-do” list-filled hours.

In a world where everything from ab workouts to manicures to turning a pillowcase into an apron is advertised as taking “just 10 minutes,” sometimes the best use of that time is to do nothing.

So go ahead. Do nothing. You have 10 minutes. Starting… now.