All I Really Want for Father’s Day

Dimly, through my sleepy haze, I heard the “uh, uh” like a car engine trying to turn over in bitter cold. No, my brain screamed. Not tonight. I had tests to grade the next day. Parent teacher conferences. A workshop. A field trip. Then the dreaded words, “Daddy.” I rolled over out of bed and onto the floor where my pajamas were and put them on. I stumbled out of my room and into my son’s. He was sick. If I was lucky, I would get a trash can to him to use before he vomited on his bed or the carpet or both. If not, we invested in a carpet cleaner, and I would use it once again. After cleaning Michael up, giving him some soda, and whatever medicine was appropriate, I lay down with him on his bed. My wife and I always comforted our children in their own bed so they would feel better in their own space. Sometimes, though, Michael and I lay on the couch. Especially when he was very little, he slept on my tummy until the next wave of nausea struck, and we started the process over again.

Michael was a colicky baby. Then as a toddler, he contracted guardia, which he gave to his brother. Fortunately, it was summer, but for six weeks we were up every night with one, the other, or both. Usually, when the boys were frightened or scared, they called for mama. But when they were sick, it was daddy they wanted. Admittedly, I was proud of that fact. It is not typical for fathers to be the go to person for nighttime illness. Exhibit A is my own upbringing. I was sick a lot as a child with never-ending bouts of tonsillitis, pneumonia, and because my parents smoked, asthma attacks. It was always mom who stayed up with me. Often, she rocked me in the chair her grandfather had made on his farm in South Dakota.

Once, when I was nine, I was home alone with my dad. Mom had gotten a part-time job at Katz’s Drugstore in the pet department to help pay for our first house. She worked the swing shift, so my dad got to display his culinary skills three evenings a week. On this particular night, he performed miracles with a can opener and served canned spaghetti. The only problem was that I was coming down with the flu. After dinner, I helped clean up and then went to bed early. I woke up about an hour later and tried unsuccessfully to make it to the bathroom. I was on my hands and knees in the middle of my wooden floor, when my dad opened the door and turned on the light. He surveyed the mess I had made of my bed and the floor. “You know where the mop and bucket is,” he said. I was stunned but too afraid of him to argue. It took me an hour to put my bedding in the washer and clean up the floor. It didn’t help that I threw up a couple more times. Whether it was the flu, the canned spaghetti, or the smell, I don’t know. But cleaning my floor turned into a Sisyphean nightmare. Later when my mother got home, she finished cleaning my room, took my temperature, and gave me children’s aspirin. She also quit her job. My father’s explanation that he couldn’t clean my mess without throwing up himself held no purchase on her maternal instincts. Her son came first.

One of my favorite authors is Robert Fulghum. He has an essay about what it means to be an adult. The thesis is that adults do whatever is necessary to be a father, mother, nurse, doctor, etc. Adults do not panic when their child, who is not quite potty-trained, pees all over them while standing in line at the local hardware store. Adults calmly take the child out of the tub when he has a bowel movement during his bath. Adults deal with backed up toilets, broken sewer lines, incontinent puppies, and any other mess that the universe throws at them without complaint. They hold their noses and take care of business. And they do not expect awards or recognition. Real adults just do what has to be done.

My father, who lives in Florida, often bemoans the fact that I live so far away. He doesn’t understand why he and I are not close like his sister is with her kids. He speaks with envy about his friends whose grandchildren call them every week or so. He wants me, without asking directly, to force my sons to pay as much attention to him as they do their other grandfather. It’s not that I don’t love him or appreciate the things he did do for me when I was growing up. I’ve tried, but I can’t get him to understand the unbridgeable gap he created on that flu ridden night so long ago. It’s not about forgiveness. I have forgiven him for his flaws. The issue is dependability. Who do you trust when the shit literally hits the fan? Who is going to help you clean the mess, and who is going to run away gagging? My sons know which grandparent they can count on, and they respond accordingly.

One of my jobs at the facility where I work is teaching parenting classes to adult male felons. I cover a lot of things, but dependability is foremost. I tell them to quit lying about their kids being important to them when they are locked up for drugs or alcohol. For children to be a priority, one must actually make them a priority. I tell them they should do whatever they are asked to do by staff so they can get paroled and go take care of their family. The offenders who argue and push back against authority remain incarcerated. They cannot take care of their kids while being locked up. And when they get out, I tell them they must do whatever job they can find to provide for their family. I tell them about Luis who works all day cleaning the back of garbage trucks amid horrid smells and unspeakable filth to have the money he needs to raise his two kids. I tell them real men do whatever it takes to care for their children. Any male can make a baby. Only a real man can raise one.

My wife recently asked me, on behalf of my sons, what I want for Father’s Day. I gave her a list of stuff. It’s all fun things. Things I know they can buy without too much effort. And they are things I will enjoy. But what I really want I can’t have. I can’t even tell them about it. But just once more, I’d like to hear that cry in the middle of the night. “Daddy.” And then once more I would get to comfort my sons in their hour of need. That’s what I really want for Father’s Day. But you can’t find that on Amazon.