As hard as it is to believe, June 19th, 2016 marks my third Father’s Day. Or rather, the third Father’s Day during which I’m a father myself. This simple fact might not be hard for you to believe, but for me, having spent the last three years living in my own shoes, I can tell you the time went fast indeed.
Last year, I climbed a mountain in the morning, then my wife and our son and I went to ride a carousel, and then we got Thai food. The year before that, for my first Father’s Day I… think I might have hiked in the morning? Or did we go to the beach? I don’t remember, but surely there are pictures somewhere. Nit sure, time passes and whatnot, y’know?
At any rate, this year, having just relocated from LA to NY, will surely be different, as we don’t yet know the lay of the land, and I have yet to explore the wilderness or much of the local culinary scene. Maybe a trip to the Natural History Museum? A stroll in Central Park? We shall see, but the important thing remains the same: I’ll spend the bulk of the day with my son and my wife, different activities be damned.
This year will be different in one profound way, though: it is the first Father’s Day during which I realize that my son holds holds me accountable.
Is that not what it truly means to be a father? To be a man whose children can count on him? Is that not, in fact, what it means to be a man and indeed a decent person writ large, manhood and gender notwithstanding?
(Yes. Yes, that’s it, FYI.)
Here’s the thing: my kid is smart. Yeah, right, all parents have to say that. But that’s only true about their own kid; not every parent who ever spends a minute or two with our son Benjamin has to remark on his intelligence — his language, his perception, and his memory — but they all do. He is 2 years and 8 months old as of earlier this month, and the lad has been able to memorize and recite books for months already. He counts well past 50 with ease. He remembers our old California address, including the zip code, and knew his new New York address before we even moved in.
And beyond remembering the words of books, the lyrics to songs, and just about everything else he hears, Ben remembers what you tell him; he remembers what you say you are going to do. And he counts on you to have meant it. No idle: “We’ll do that later, just finish your dinner now” bullshit with this child: if you make a promise, you’d better plan to keep it or to hear about it for hours on end. And then again days later. And often weeks. Sometimes months later. I’m not kidding.
On those rare occasions where fate has conspired to make me say something I cannot later fulfill, such as promising a trip to the zoo or park only to find we are too late for said activity, for example, the look in my son’s eyes is as potent a teaching tool as anything I’ve ever experienced. It is a mix of disappointment tinged with mild injustice and rounded out by confusion — confusion not as to why the plans have changed, but as to why they were thus made in the first place.
Now of course all of us (well, those of us worth a damn, anyway) try not to say we’ll do things we won’t. But for some reason as we exit childhood, a time where statement is usually in proximity to intention, it becomes accepted, if not truly acceptable, to break or change plans, to say one thing while thinking another (“Oh, I’d LOVE to come to your hole digging party… until I find some excuse, that is…”), and to generally serve self and convenience. But not when it comes to your kids.
Or least not me to mine.
For when I look into Benjamin’s eyes, and see him looking into mine, I can see (not literally, of course, thus the omission of that oft-bandied word) the raw potential of a wonderful person just waiting to learn, and learn not just the text of Frog and Toad: Down the Hill go, not the driving directions to our new house (which he knows), and not the lyrics to Semisonic’s Singing In My Sleep (which he’s got most of memorized now), but rather to learn how to be a good and reliable person.
I can honestly say I’ve (mostly) done my best in this regard, this accountability thing. But I can also honestly say it never weighed before like it does now. Ben is teaching me more than I’m teaching him, because I have much to unlearn, while he has only to watch us and pay attention.
Some day I hope his own child or children can give him the hand he gives me every day. For now, I’ll keep doing my level best to be the man I want him to grow up proud of; from whom he’ll have little to unlearn.
That’s what I had; it’s what I owe. And so do you. Find a toddler and look in his or her eyes if you need some clarity here. Ideally that kid will be your own.
Photo Credit: Benjamin G. John