It was 4:30 a.m. on a cold winter day in 2004 in Akron, Ohio when I was awakened by the ring of my phone. “Dad, it’s on its roof, it’s on its roof.” A few questions and a dose of clarity later, I realized it was my 20-year-old son in a panic after having flipped his SUV in the median of I-71 just south of Akron. Like any dad with unconditional love and an insatiable desire to protect his son, I arrived on scene in what seemed like minutes. Sure enough, there sat a Toyota SUV upside down and nearly crushed resting in the middle of the interstate median. How the boy ever got out, much less survived, humbles me to this day.
As I gathered more insight into how such a thing could happen, I began to understand the value of what I felt was a teaching moment and that I couldn’t screw it up with misguided emotion. Unabated anger, as is normally the case, would serve no valuable purpose nor did I want a 20-year-old young man already scared out of his wits feeling more scared because of anything I did. He needed his dad and, frankly, I needed him. Since it’s ridiculously cold in January in the Midwest, Shane sat in the back of a patrol car as I sought to learn more than I already had about how an otherwise dark, empty freeway could lead to such an accident. No other cars were involved, and Shane was the lone occupant. Something was amiss and I was determined to find out what it was.
Shane’s version of the accident was that after a party with friends in the community of Barberton, he gave everyone he could a ride home before heading home himself. My son, despite knowing I knew him like the back of my hand, wanted me to believe he was the designated driver, the teetotaler. Making the story more worthy of scrutiny, Shane stated that an 18-wheeler refused to change lanes as he merged onto the interstate and, as a result, caused him to lose control and end up upside down in the middle of that interstate. As the saying goes, I was born in the morning but not that morning. My son’s version of an accident that could have easily killed him wasn’t true and there was no way I was about to accept it.
In pursuit of the truth, I asked the police officers who had gathered at the scene if Shane had any signs of being intoxicated. They hadn’t done a sobriety test they said because they didn’t detect any signs, nor did they smell any alcohol on Shane. My instincts told me something entirely different. Either Shane had disguised his drinking at the party a couple of hours before or the police were simply being kind to him. It was cold, dark and quiet, after all, and Shane was scared, polite and kind. No harm, no foul it seemed … yet I knew better. Tough love was building, and I wasn’t suppressing it. Shane was 20, soon to enter the Army in pursuit of becoming a Ranger and this could not derail him.
So, I asked that my son be breathalyzed then and there.
As God would have it, the results came back showing Shane to be one tenth of one point over the limit and, thereby, legally drunk. My boy, who I couldn’t love anymore then as I do now, had nearly killed himself because he chose to be Mr. Cool and drink then drive. He had pushed the unconditional part of my love to the max and I was going to make sure he knew it. I told the police officer in charge to arrest Shane and take him to jail like any other person caught driving while drunk.
We headed to the police station where Shane was processed and released to me, and we went home. Weeks later, dressed in an oversized suit of mine, Shane stood before a judge by himself, although he asked me to go to the bench with him, and admitted to what he had done. The judge gave him a strong admonition, an order to perform community service and a $500 fine. Pay the fine, complete the community service and the DWI would be expunged after six months. That was important because Shane was headed for the Army and needed his record to be clean. After riding his bike to work at ACME, a grocer like H-E-B, for months and being on the tightest leash he’d ever known, Shane followed the plan and went into the Army. It was in the Army where he ultimately became an American hero and medically retired Ranger trainee eight years later.
On our way home from the police station as the sun rose on that bitter-cold morning, I asked Shane to explain the reasons behind his choices. I listened as the explanation took on more of a blame-game and victim kind of tone. Once done with the pitiful explanation and failure to accept responsibility, it was my turn … a turn I wasn’t about to waste. Shane sat in the passenger seat as we idled on the shoulder of that same freeway and listened as I told him that while I loved him deeper than he could comprehend and that I was honored to be his dad, he was not going to be a failure, a loser, an under-achiever. He listened as I told him that never had I been angrier and more disappointed in him but that we would travel this journey together and he would walk the line as though his life depended on it. He was going to explain to others why he was riding a bicycle to work, why he couldn’t do things socially and why drinking would cease being a part of his life. I was dead-serious, and he knew it. He also knew he could choose to accept responsibility, quit being an under-achiever and start being a man. By God’s grace and the result of hard work, Shane not only learned, he became an extraordinary young man, as well. Today, he’s a husband, dad, excellent employee, student and contributor to society. Not surprisingly, I am profoundly proud of him.
I often wondered in the years following whether the car speech that early January morning had any life-changing impact. I felt guilty at times for going a bit ballistic, although calm, and for being rather harsh about Shane’s standing as a man. I felt sad thinking maybe I could have done it a different way and prayed that my attempt at loving tough would draw us closer rather than fracturing one of the most important relationships I’ll ever have.
What I came to understand can be found in every letter Shane subsequently sent me from the killing fields of Iraq, Afghanistan and places like Sadr City, better known as ‘Slaughter City.” For in each of those letters, sent by a brave boy fighting evil in the pits of earth’s hell, were the words, “Thank you, Dad, for loving me that morning and for never giving up on me.” Truth is, I’ll never give up on Shane just as I’ll never forget that morning and the powerful lessons we learned. I discovered then that sometimes life calls for tough love – real tough love. Whether at home or in the workplace, at church or in school, in a marriage or in the mirror or when and where, tough love can change a life.
Sometimes, it can even save one.