At 13, I picked up a 2×4 to smack my dad with.
My 5’3″, 8th grade female form decided that my cross to bear was to go up against all 6’1″ of my dad.
What I learned in that moment stuck with me for more than half my life as lessons on action and empathy.
I don’t recall exactly what triggered it. All I recall is that my dad was being a dick and my mom muttered something back as she headed out to the backyard. My dad followed her and cornered her against the wooden fence. My uncle who was staying with us at the time stood about 6 feet away as my brother and I looked on. My dad was asking my mom rhetorical questions about what she said and poking her in the face as he pushed up closer on her. My uncle called him a couple times but physically did nothing to stop it.
This struck me as odd. Even though he was a super chill dude, I knew that my uncle was the only guy my dad boxed with coming up who could beat my dad. By the reverence with which he spoke about my uncle’s hands, I knew at 13 that my dad would never want to fight him. It seemed like a no-brainer to me that my uncle should jump in on my mom’s behalf.
I remember thinking at the time that my dad’s reaction was totally ridiculous. He was reacting to my mom reacting to his bullshit which meant that if someone didn’t step in, my mom was seriously gonna get it.
I looked at the scene against the fence, to my brother to my uncle — then back from my uncle to my brother. I wondered if my neighbor Tyson could hear what was going on. “Who’s gonna help Mom?” I thought?
An eternity of seconds passed before I realized no one was stepping up. I ran through about a dozen different questions in my head. I looked at a loose piece of 2×4 laying in the grass. I picked it up, unsure. I ran through a dozen more questions. I hoped like hell my dad wouldn’t turn around, before I got my chance to swing. He turned around. I knew from the incredulous fury on his face that I couldn’t stand there. I took off.
To understand what a huge decision this was for me, understand this: my dad at a virile 45 was a lifelong athlete who still regularly beat 18 year old athletic boys in sprints. I knew I would get caught. I took off anyway. I thought he’d get me right away, but I jooked past him, down our alley, down the next alley — and back! He only caught me because I stopped once I reached the back door. I knew he’d catch me one way or the other and I had accomplished by mission of getting him off of my mom.
He was more out of breath than I expected, but not too tired to bloody my nose.
I never did swing that piece of wood. But I did accomplish my task of my mom not getting beat up in the backyard. In the process I learned a few lessons.
1. Silence hurts. My uncle was and remains the only man my dad won’t fuck with and he did nothing. My dad escalated because he was protected by my uncle’s inaction.
2. You can’t wait on other people to do the right thing. If you know in your gut there’s a right course of action to take, take it! Allies are nice, but not necessary.
3. Time waits for no one. What I experienced is not something you can be ready for. It’s also not something any child — or any one — should be put in the position to deal with. Nonetheless, it happened. In that moment I learned exactly why do-or-die moments are called that.
4. People have their own reasons; be kind with them. My brother, like me, was a child. My uncle had just moved to St. Pete from New York and ran the risk of being put out. In the case of my uncle, it’s no excuse, but I get it. In my brother’s case, what was he supposed to do? For a while after that (at least the rest of my 8th grade year), I struggled with resentment toward both of them.
5. Shit your drawers and do it, anyway. I didn’t expect to make it 4 feet past my old man, but I got an alley and a half down and back without being caught. My dad’s surprise was palpable. I’d have never known my dad could be so shook if I hadn’t shaken a leg.
6. Bullies needs to see that someone will stand up to them. I don’t recall all of what happened after my bloody nose, but I do remember a couple things:
(1) My dad had to catch his breath. He was winded.
(2) Because he was tired, shit didn’t escalate as badly as I imagined it was going to. Standing up to a bully can literally take the wind out of them.
7. Finally: consequences are unavoidable. Even doing the right thing can be uncomfortable. There will be repercussions when you’re going up against people and entities that are invested in their own bullshit. Thankfully today, standing up generally doesn’t involve the risk of bodily harm.
I wouldn’t recommend learning these lessons in such a hard knocks fashion, but that’s the hand I was dealt. What I would recommend is thinking beyond the shitstorm when you’re in a situation that’s not ideal. What that means is elevating your values and the outcomes you want above the fear of leaping before you’re ready. The pain of your actions not aligning will make the temporary discomfort of leaping before you’re ready less threatening.
We all have 2×4 moments. We just don’t always realize it as they’re happening. The goal then, is to be able to recognize when it’s your time to swing instead of realizing in hindsight.