Parent

You’ll never know: A Father’s Day Tribute

1975. I am six years old and I am riding with my dad in his Buick Skylark. Maybe it’s a Chevy Malibu. Whatever the car, it’s the size of a small tank with an endless front hood, Batman-like tail lights, and bench seats that are equal parts cushion and spring, and 100% bounce.

It is a moment that is forever etched in my mind.

carseatMy dad and I are riding in the car. It is a Saturday morning. I know this because the mood is light–the weekend is here and the day holds much promise and possibility. It is summer because I am wearing shorts and the windows are cranked all the way down. I don’t remember where we are headed. I don’t care. I am riding with my dad–alone. ALONE. Not one of my 6 brothers and sisters to bother me. No one to share the front seat with. Yes, the front seat.  I sit across from my dad in the front seat, my legs dangling over the edge of the embroidered nylon bench. No seat belt to trap me in. Just me and my dad cruising on a weekend morning.

The car glides around a bend and I fly across the seat, toward him. I stay there. My bony leg next to his. My elbow resting on his lap. I watch his hand dance along the steering wheel, a cigarette dangling from his lips. He’s so cool. He’s my dad.

As I bask in this time alone, he starts to sing:

You’ll never know just how much I miss you

You’ll never know just how much I care

And if I tried, I still couldn’t hide my love for you

You ought to know, for haven’t I told you so–a million or more times

You went away and my heart went with you

I speak your name in my every prayer

If there is some other way, to prove that I love you, I swear I don’t know how

You’ll never know if you don’t know now

I am awestruck. “Again!” I cry. “Sing it again!”

He protests, realizing he is vulnerable now.

“Please?” I beg.

He obliges. You’ll never know…

We drive on. A dad serenading his son. I feel like the most important kid in the universe.

**********************

For a while after that, on the rare occasions when my dad and I would be driving alone, I would ask him to sing that song. It turned into our little duet, as I would echo the last part of each line. HOW MUCH I CARE…MY EVERY PRAYER. It always made me happy, and could serve to draw him out of a mood if he was a little brooding that day.

And then, like too many things in childhood, it just stopped. One day, I stopped asking and he stopped feeling comfortable singing it to me. There were many times when we would be driving in the awkward silence of my teenage years, where I would think about that song, where I would wonder what would happen if I requested it, where I would laugh in my mind at the absurdity of my dad singing to his son, now almost an adult. I never asked, though, and as the song implies, now I’ll never know.

**********************

About nine years ago, I heard that song in, of all places, Disney World–the happiest place on Earth. The land of make believe? I was walking down Main Street by myself. It was nighttime and the crowd was thin. I had never heard the song performed by anyone but my dad, yet here I was, being serenaded by the lilting voice of Alice Faye–I checked. My dad had long since passed away, and now I had an infant of my own. I looked up in the night’s sky from the streets of the Magic Kingdom. You went away and my heart went with you…

Yes, a piece of it did. But larger pieces remain behind. Embedded in my first-born son, and soon thereafter, his brother. There are many car rides for us now–smoke free with them tethered safely in the back seat. But I try to remember the glory that can transpire between a father and his son in the more subtle moments of life, on an insignificant car ride, on a random weekend morning.

Car rides that may, in fact, last a lifetime.

 

 

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The Road to Hell, Part Two

Owen and I stared out towards the road. There was no sign of Hayden. I was trying to determine where he had hidden–I did not feel like walking around the entire building. I was tired of playing Hayden’s game and losing.

We walked to the car and got in. My new car. Ha! It could have been a soap box for all I cared now. The cookie mess in the back didn’t matter now. When your world is about to crumble, nothing matters. NO thing.

My reactions felt surreal. Strange. I was not mad. I was not even scared. I was numb. My heart did not race. I did not sweat. I simply felt like I was hanging in the balance. A minute ticked away. Then another. Surely, if Hayden was hiding he would have come out by now. But what if I drove away and he was left here? What if he darted out to the road when he saw my car leaving? I did not want to be in charge anymore. I wanted someone else to take over.

“Dad, are we going to leave him here?” Owen asked.

“NO!”

“Dad, where is he?”

The anger was back. “I don’t know, Owen. I’m here with you. I don’t know where Hayden is.” I felt bad for saying this, but I was at a loss.

WE got out of the car, and walked towards the road. It was useless. The place was hidden with large pine trees.

“HAYDEN!” I screamed. “HAYYYYYYYDENNNNN!”

Owen and I walked around the building. With every turn we made, part of me expected to find him. To see his devilish grin. To hear his high-pitched laugh.

An elderly couple was strolling the grounds, looking at us oddly. I was in no mood to explain what we were doing. They tried to make small talk. I pretended to not hear them.

We circled the building, and still no sign of Hayden. I contemplated calling 9-1-1. The panic started to rise in me. How did things get out of my control so quickly? I waited to hear the screeching of brakes on the road, or the whir of an ambulance siren, or the scream of a driver who had just hit a little boy. My boy.

And the moments stretched out infinitely. The whole thing transpired over ten minutes, but it felt like hours. And within each minute, my mind toyed with me. My thoughts became desperate:

Well, here it is. The tragedy that will define the rest of your existence.

Why do people have kids? Why did I think I could do this job? I’m not good at it. I’m not the right man for it.

We bring these creatures into the world and we fool ourselves into thinking we are in charge, yet we have no control. They are their own keepers, we just bear witness. Yet, from the moment they enter this world, our primary goal is to keep them alive. We hover and they push us away. Hover/Push…

I thought about human nature, and our inclination to judge others. I thought about how I used to read stories and judge. How could someone forget their child in a car? Well, if you’ve ever been a sleep-deprived parent, then you know. How could a child just disappear? It happens. IT HAPPENS. It happened to me moments ago. When you become a parent, you stop asking how something could happen.

“Get back in the car, Owen. We have to go home.”

“He didn’t walk home, did he, Dad?”

My answer was silent.

I sped home, conscious of the hazards that lined the road. The uneven shoulder. The horrible intersection. The speeding MACK Trucks. I expected to see a crumpled mass of orange. We passed the cemetery, and I felt the tombstones looking at me–“We know,” they said. “We know what it feels like to leave that world.”

It took little time to get home, but when I pulled in the driveway, I did not want to get out of the car. If he’s not here, my life is over. If he’s not here, I am a terrible parent. If he’s not here, I will lose my shit and just run away and hide. I can’t do this job. I can’t.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++

There is a scene in the movie House of Sand and Fog where Ben Kingsley‘s character charges up the steps of a building, knowing that his son is dead, but hoping beyond hope he’s not. As he races to find out, he repeats “I want only for my son. I want only for my son.” I saw that film before I had children, yet the scene haunted me for days. It haunts me still. I fear, like every parent fears, that one day I will lose my child. I think of those I know who have faced this unbearable pain, and I wonder if I could do so. I shudder to think.

I turn the door knob and am met by quiet. Owen is on my heels. “Hayden?” My heart pauses.

“Yeah?” he answers.

“Did you walk home?”

“Yeah,” he says, matter-of-factly.

There are tears. Many from Owen and not nearly enough from Hayden, as far as I’m concerned. I want to hug him, but I am afraid I will throttle him. I send him to his room and add on to his punishment from earlier. I yell at him, A LOT. And the one thing I keep repeating is “Why would you do that?” I did not give him room to answer.

I know why. Now, at least. He did it because he’s seven! He has little concept of danger and consequences and death. But that answer has been small consolation for me since.

Did you ever date someone you cared about–loved even–and then they do something so out of the ordinary and bizarre that you become completely freaked out by them and end the relationship soon after? I have. And that’s how I’ve felt these past few days: Freaked out. But you can’t break up with your child. This union is for better or worse, for richer or poorer…

Each day, though, I feel a little more normal. The amount of times I replay his walk home in my mind gets fewer. I have finally stopped hearing the screech of brakes and a thud in my mind. Last night, at dinner, when we were talking about how many more days he has “without screen” I finally got up the nerve to ask him where he crossed the street–it took me five days to get up the courage to ask that question.

But I am changed. This event changed me. And my sadness feels profound, because I think it marks the beginning of many more betrayals that are inherent in the parent/child relationship. This daring walk home marks the first of many possible betrayals: There will be other dangerous jaunts: on foot, bike, skateboard, and eventually, car. There will be parties where he’ll have to confront drinking and drugs. There will be lies about curfew and who he was with. There will be many times I’ll want him to go in one direction, and he’ll defy me and go another.

But for now, I am trying to appreciate the fact that my life did not turn upside down that day. I looked down the road to Hell, but thankfully turned off before I arrived there. I realize other obstacles await, and someday tragedy may strike. I hope I’ll be better prepared, but I doubt it. That’s the constant reminder a parent must face. There is very little in my control. Too damn little.

EPILOGUE

The day after Hayden’s long walk home, I had to take our puppy, Rosie, to the vet. She threw up all over my front seat when we were seconds from arriving home. I had had the new car exactly one week.

Tag, I’m It

My son, Owen, has been excited for his friend’s birthday party for over a month. It was held today at this cool place called Arnold’s thatRackMultipart20121011-28295-3i406n_grid_6 has laser tag, go karts, and a million other attractions–all with blinking lights and raucous music. Earlier this week, Owen asked me who was taking him to the party. I said I wasn’t sure. “We’re going to play laser tag and it’s kids versus parents! I hope it’s you, cause I told all my friend how you are really athletic.” Anyone reading this post who knows me is probably laughing right now. Even I would consider myself “active” but certainly not “athletic”. Gotta love the mind of an eight-year-old boy.

When Pam arrived home from work that night, the first thing out of Owen’s mouth was “Who’s taking me to Greg’s birthday party (same breath)I WANT DAD TO!” Pam laughed and said,”Why doesn’t dad take you?” The rest of the week, Owen was bursting with anticipation for both of us: “Are you excited, Dad?” “Now it’s kids versus parents so I’m not going to be on your team–which means I may have to shoot you–but not in the face. Plus, it’s just a laser so it won’t hurt.” “Hey, Dad, the party’s tomorrow. Are you ready?”

Today, we began counting down at 7 a.m.–five hours til the party. Before we knew it, we were pulling in to the giant warehouse parking lot that housed Arnold’s Fun Center–a facility larger than some countries. Once inside, it was sheer mayhem. There were a dozen birthdays going on simultaneously. Owen was anxious to find his friends, and once he did, he left me in the dust. I watched them bounce from video games, to bumper cars, to junior go karts, to laser tag. And I noticed that most of the parents seemed to have disappeared, claiming these two hours as a chance to shop or catch up on work or listen to a game on the car radio. So much for parents versus kids.

I was relieved that my physical prowess would not be up for inspection. But then, Greg’s mom saw me walking around and (felt sorry for me?) offered me a card for the amusements. So, I asked Greg’s dad if he was going to play laser tag. He was reluctant, but my look convinced him. We rounded up the boys for another game of tag. As we waited in the darkened vestibule to be suited up, I said to Owen and his friends, “You know, I was a laser tag major in college.” Their eyes widened. Someone shouted, “Kill Owen’s dad first!” Me and my big mouth. Once inside the neon labyrinth, I ran around like I was just another kid at the party. I was terrible, though. Everyone shot me. Including strangers. But no one was interested in my athletic ability, just my ability to be here at a kid’s party and join in the fun. When our game was over, I was proud of my 2,640 points, until I realized that every kid scored double or triple that. Oh, well.

As I once again sunk back into my role as spectator, Greg’s dad now urged me on: “You have to try the Go Karts.” “Really? I’ve never done it. I’m not sure.” He was giving me the same look I had given him pre-laser tag. “Okay, I’ll try it.” I’m glad I did. Talk about a rush. I can’t wait to do it again someday.

After another hour of games then cake, we thanked Greg’s parents and wished him a happy birthday. As we walked out into the parking lot, the glaring sun reminded us that it was, in fact, a beautiful day outside. I grabbed Owen’s hand to walk to the car. “So, did you have fun, Dad?” “I sure did, Owen. I sure did.” Yeah, the mind of an eight-year-old boy. Gotta love it.

 

To Owen On His Eighth Birthday

Dear Owen,

Today is your eighth birthday, and I  just wanted to share some observations with you about your life.

It seems like just yesterday I held your little body in my hands—my two hands!  Time DOES fly. It travels by leaps and bounds. You are eight today, and soon enough you will be in high school, med school, law school, then NASA…maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The point is, life is fleeting. That’s why I make every effort to capture as much of this time that you and I have together. I am constantly saying to myself, “Remember this…remember this.” And I try.

I have certainly enjoyed the milestones with you– from teeth, to walking, to monkey bars, to bike riding. But it’s the small things that I love the most. Like the time I was putting you to bed and you discovered your shadow. You ran back and forth from the night light to the closet for a half hour straight. Or how you became our little TV junky from the moment I plopped you in front of Baby Einstein at a few weeks old. Or how you make up all these crazy rap song rhymes and sing them over and over; or how we tease you for staring in the mirror of the hutch in the dining room when we have dinner; or how you still carry a wooby to bed and suck your fingers (I know, we’re working on it); or how,  sometimes, when I’m driving, I’ll reach back to hold your hand (I’ve done this since you were a toddler) and you still let me hold it; or how you create all these amazing abstract drawings out of your imagination. But what I love best about you is your sense of wonder. You have such a cool perspective on the world, and I am humbled and privileged to be able to see this world through your eyes. Through your lens, my world is brighter, more magnified.

Your fresh perspective prompted me to begin a journal a few years ago of quotes you and Hayden say.  Here are some examples to help you appreciate what I mean about your viewpoint:

“Daddy—even when I grow up and I become a daddy, you’ll still take care of me right?” “I sure will, Owen.” It was this question from you that prompted me to keep a quote journal. We were driving in the car. You were five. And out of the blue, you just asked me this. Tears instantly shot into my eyes. Hearing you ask this made me realize the magnitude of bringing another person into this world. And even though you will grow up and find your independence, I will always take care of you, and you of me. Family takes care of each other. Always.

“Daddy, watch this. I’m gonna run faster than the rain drops.” What I love about this quote is that your 6 year old self believed it could really outrun the rain. Nothing is impossible when you are young. It is because of this belief, that I have been able to steal a little magic from you. Nothing is impossible if you believe in yourself. Thank you for reminding me of this.

“You have to eat your breakfast or you won’t be strong and brave.” Owen, you are a true first born—you have such a sense of duty and responsibility. You said this to Hayden, who was refusing to eat his breakfast. And you said it with such conviction. You do try to be so brave. You always have. I remember one of your first haircuts. We went to an unfamiliar barber shop (since bald daddy hadn’t needed a barber in years:) There was one old man and he was kindof scary, and the place reeked of his cigarette smoke. You were the only customer. He was pretty gruff, but was trying to be gentle. You kept looking at me for reassurance, and you held it together until the very end. When he whipped out the clippers and started buzzing your neck, you began to bawl. I was so impressed that you hung in there for as long as you did–don’t worry, we never went back there. My brave boy. Keep eating your breakfast, buddy.

Owen: And when I’m 900, I’ll go up to heaven so I can come back down as a puppy dog.

Mommy: And maybe I’ll come back as a kitty cat so you can chase me.

Owen: No! I don’t want to chase Mommy.

Mommy: Maybe I’ll be a dog, too, so we can snuggle.

Owen: Yeah, you’ll be one, too, and Daddy and Hayden and Rufus (our actual dog). Pause. What do we look like in heaven?

Mommy: Some people think we look like angels, you know, with wings.

Owen: Cool!

What I find so moving about this conversation is that kids are simply matter of fact about death. When you said this, I laughed at the thought that you would live to be 900 years old, and then I was sad that we won’t be together forever. That is a sad reality. But I promise you this. For all the time we have left, I will always love you, and I will always be here for you. Mommy and I are so lucky to have found each
other, and then to have had you and Hayden.

I hope someday you will read this. And you won’t hate me for embarrassing you, or roll your eyes at how corny I am. Remember, life is short. And we only get so much time to say the things we want to say. I am so excited to share this day with you, and the year ahead, and as much time as we will have. You will always be my little Owee. I love you, buddy. I hope you continue to find life to be very captivating, as you have captivated us for these past eight years.

Love always,

Daddy