ANYONE who knows me knows how hard I work.
In fact, people often joke that I'm Jamaican - slang for someone who works hard at several jobs. Since my grandfather was from St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Jamaican thing is not far off the mark. That's why I usually just smile and say, "Thank you."
But my propensity for working hard is not just genetic. Nor is it simply cultural. My attachment to work is who I am.
As a writer, my work is about sharing little pieces of myself. Those who read carefully get a peek inside my mind, where words orbit thoughts like worlds circling the sun. One day that sun is Ferguson. The next it's Philadelphia. The next, it's my home. But always, the universe is fatherhood. That much stays the same.
It hasn't always been that way. Before I had a wife and children, I was at the center of my universe, and everything I sought to do was about my own pleasure. In those dark times, I chased women, or possessions, or alcohol, or drugs. And even when I managed to take hold of what I was seeking, trouble often took hold of me.
But marriage changes a man. At least it should. It should make him realize that his universe is bigger than himself, that there is more to life than his own whims. It should tell him that he must take care of himself in order to meet the needs of his wife and children.
For the past 14 years, I've done that through my work. I've provided and protected, giving all that I could to assure that my family's needs were met. At the same time, I met my own overwhelming need to work hard.
At the time, that seemed to be more than enough, but this past weekend something strange happened, and in an instant I saw things differently.
It's funny how a seemingly mundane moment can bring things into focus. A word, or a gesture, can suddenly sharpen the blurry images in the back of one's mind, changing everything you thought you knew.
That's what happened last Friday. I'd taken a much-needed day off from hosting my morning radio show, and my plan was to use that day to catch up on some other work. But my family had other plans. They were going to the mall, and they asked me to come along.
"I'm busy," I said gruffly. "I've got work to do."
My son glanced at me. Then he turned and walked upstairs. He never said a word, but his pained expression spoke volumes. It said, "You didn't go to the office today, but that doesn't matter. Your work still comes before us."
I attempted to write after that, but the look on my son's face overshadowed every thought I tried to form. My conscience shouted things it had only whispered before: "Your son needs you now! You'll never get this time back! He won't remember how hard you worked, but he'll remember you weren't there!"
I suspect I'm not the only father who's rationalized his absence by leaning on his work. But fatherhood is so much more than providing things. It's providing presence. It's spending time. It's truly taking a day off from work.
It's easy to forget that sometimes. I've probably forgotten it too often.
So, Friday afternoon I put away my laptop, got dressed quickly, and drove my family to the mall. While my wife and daughter shopped, my son and I sat in a Tesla and pretended to drive. We played Madden at a Microsoft kiosk. We played games on phones at the Apple store. We bonded.
In those few hours with my son, I lived my first simple lesson of the new year: The work I love sustains my family, but my love for my family must always come before work.