On your own two feet.
Today is Father’s Day, and I wake up alone. I will pick up you and your sister at 9 AM. But as I lie here, just after dawn, it occurs to me: I can’t be a great father. No matter how many hugs I give or letters I write or gifts I give or trips we take together, I am disqualified from the Fathers Hall of Fame by the simple fact that I am not in the lineup every day.
Ironically, the importance of playing every day was the one lesson my own father taught me about fatherhood. Pop was the Cal Ripken, Jr. of dads. He didn’t golf or fish or hunt or hang out with his buddies or go away on business. He was there, every day and every night, physically and in the flesh, even if there were times it seemed his mind was a galaxy away. Later, I came to understand why — that is, why he was always there, and why it seemed like his mind was somewhere else: Pop never got over the sudden death of his own father when he was 13 years old. So he made a promise to himself that, no matter what else, he’d stay alive and be there for his kids. And he kept that promise, and still keeps it today.
I didn’t even make it to your fourth birthday — to my great and everlasting shame and regret. Far from the Iron Man I should be, I am a Dad-DH: the guy who gets his 4 or 5 at-bats every game and otherwise watches helplessly from the dugout.
“You’re being too hard on yourself,” says Danielle, when I call her on the way to pick you up. She was my girlfriend then. She is, of course, your step-mom now. “Stop talking about yourself that way. You gotta pick yourself up. What matters is being truly present when you do have the kids. The present is all there really is anyway, the only time that actually exists. You gotta make it count.”
I want to believe Danielle as I drive my truck on this Sunday morning to your mom and step-dad’s brand new house. I pull into the driveway and text your mom that I have arrived. You come bursting out of the door and into my arms.
“Daddy! I’ve missed you so much!” you say in the sing-song voice of a six year-old. I kiss you and tell you I’ve missed you too. I put you in your booster seat, then I hug and kiss your sister.
“Happy Father’s Day!” she says, with total sincerity.
A couple of weeks before Christmas a couple of years ago, you rode your bike for the first time without training wheels. It was a warm, sunny day for December. You were still in your pajamas. I told you that morning that I thought you were ready to do it, that you already knew how to do it in your heart. At first, you didn’t want to try, so I left you alone. A few minutes later, you came up to me and said, “Daddy, I think I want to try to ride my bike.”
So we started out in the back yard. I unscrewed the training wheels and threw them away. You put on your Ninja Turtles helmet and plopped on the bike. I held the seat and gave you instructions: “Just pedal your legs!” You followed directions and rode through the grass for a few yards. Right then, you knew you had it, so we went to the street, where you took off on your first try.
A few months later, in May, you are a confident rider. Today we are riding from Danielle’s house all the way to the college, to see the lions, and back. Again, it is warm and sunny and you are wearing your Ninja Turtles helmet, and you are happy. You pedal your way down Tuscaloosa Street, up Seminary, and all the way to Leo and Una’s habitat. You ride a hundred circles around the fountain, racing Lydia and me, laughing and hooting.
But on the way back, as we are riding up Walnut Street back to the house, you spot a speed bump in front of you. You slow down and try to steer around it. I am behind you. I can see that you don’t have enough speed to stay upright. I watch you fall, elbows first, over your handlebars, as if in slow-motion. How I want to reach out and break your fall! But I can’t. I can’t possibly get there in time. I have no choice but to watch it happen and be there to help you up.
You hit the pavement, but you don’t scream. You’re in pain, though. I throw down my bike and run to pick you up. Tears well in your eyes. You begin to sob. I hug you and kiss you and ask if you’re ok. At first you let me, then you walk away to be alone on the sidewalk. You do not want to get back on your bike — not at first.
But you collect yourself. You breathe, slowly and deeply. You dry your own tears. You look at your bike lying on the pavement. You peer up the road and estimate the distance to the house. You know what you have to do. Even though I offer to walk you home and come back with the truck to retrieve our bikes, you choose the hard road — literally, for now you know just how hard the road beneath you can be. You climb back on. With fire and moisture in your eyes, you push down on the pedal with your right foot. You start moving, slowly at first.
By the time we turn on to Cherry Street, you are riding faster than I have ever seen you ride.
It is still Father’s Day, at noon. We are driving to the nature preserve. Danielle is in the front seat, and you and your sister are in the back. There are sandwiches and drinks in one backpack, and bathing suits in the other.
We check in at the nature preserve. Ms. Lacefield, the owner of the preserve, recognizes us, or at least you and Lydia and me, but she is confused by Danielle, so she mistakes me for a banker who also has brown hair. I do not tell her this, but her confusion is caused by her memory of the visits we used to make to the preserve when your mom and I were still married. These sorts of things happen a lot, and I wonder how many of them you notice at your age. I hope it is not too many.
We set off on our journey to the waterfall, where we will eat lunch in the cave. As we hike the trail, Danielle whispers my name. I look back, and you are stooped down, admiring a white wildflower. You are inhaling its scent. You linger there for fifteen, then thirty seconds. And then you continue hiking.
We reach the cave. We climb down, carefully, behind the waterfall and claim a large, flat rock as our makeshift table. We eat our sandwiches and listen to the water and the birds. I hold your hand as you walk over to the waterfall to feel its exhilarating pressure on your fingers.
We descend from the cave down to the creek below the waterfall, where there is a swimming hole. We take turns changing into our bathing suits behind a boulder. The water is brisk. You don’t care. In fact, you prefer it. You barrel down into the swimming hole with abandon. You splash me and your sister and Danielle.
We play and bathe and swim around for half an hour, until we hear some thunder in the far distance. As I am getting dressed, you give me a smooth stone you found in the creek bed.
“This is your worry stone, Daddy,” you tell me.
I ask you what a worry stone is.
“You carry it in your pocket so that when you feel scared, you feel it and you’re not worried anymore,” you say.
I put the stone in my pocket.
You are barely tall enough to ride Space Mountain. The teenaged kid at the entrance makes you take off your Alabama cap and stand against the ruler. The wisps of your curly hair just clear the top of the inverted “L”. OK, he says, and waves us through. I grab your hand and tug you along as Lydia jubilantly offers to everyone in earshot, “We padded his socks!”
The waiting queue inside Space Mountain is dark, computerized, robotic. We wind around until we enter the Star Tunnel, a long, blacklit hallway of soft blue. New Age music of beeps and boops and slide whistles that sound like shooting stars envelops us. It’s like a spaceship hangar from a science-fiction movie. You feel like an astronaut, preparing to blast off into the vast, unknown emptiness of the cosmos. Your grip on my hand tightens with each step.
We finally reach the loading dock. My heart sinks when the worker splits us into three separate stalls. I see the confusion and then the terror in your eyes as you assess your situation. Our train car pulls up: we can’t ride next to each other. Each car is three seats, one behind the other. I will ride in the middle, between you and Lydia.
You are scared. I know it. But you are also tough and brave. You don’t cry and you don’t run away. When the gate opens, you set your jaw and make your legs walk you to the seat behind me. You climb in and sit down. I reach back and touch your left leg.
“I’m right here, Wesley,” I reassure you.
“I know, Daddy,” you say with a nervous sigh.
The car moves forward into a holding station. The safety bar drops into your lap. You pull it snug against your thighs. The ride attendant, another teenager, scurries down the line, giving a quick yank on each rider’s bar.
I pull my hand back to my lap. You are on your own for the next three minutes.
There is a countdown. I can almost feel your heartbeat behind me.
You can’t see the track in front of you. There are steep climbs, sharp turns, and sudden drops. Your stomach feels like it is going to pop out of your mouth. You hear Lydia and me whooping and screaming. You don’t make a peep.
But you dance among the stars. You streak across the sky with the comets. You pass through the wormhole into another dimension.
The ride comes to an end — too soon, or not a moment too soon? Perhaps it is just right, you seem to decide. I look at you. You don’t smile– but your eyes shine brightly.
We emerge into the bright Florida sunlight. I check the app on my phone for our action photo from the ride. Lydia is in the front seat, her hair blowing in the wind. I am in the middle, whooping. And there you are in the back seat. You are slumped down, almost hiding, with the safety bar against your chest and your brow furrowed.
It is the most inspirational photo I think I have ever seen.
We have hiked from the creek, back up past the waterfall and cave and all the way to the overlook, where we can see hills and trees for miles. You and your sister admire the view for a moment, then play in the dirt with sticks. Danielle and I rest, enjoying the breeze.
Thunder rumbles, closer this time.
“We should probably head on back,” Danielle says.
We gather our backpacks and hiking sticks and head back on the trail. Thunder rumbles again, then claps, as if directly overhead.
We hear rain hitting the leaves above us. The wind picks up. There is a portentous stirring in the woods. It is suddenly much darker.
A few drops of rain make their way through the canopy to our necks. We quicken our pace. I tell you to keep moving, everything is fine. Then more than a few.
Then, a deluge.
No one says anything at first. We continue hiking, quickly, making our way back down the steep trail towards the top of the waterfall and footbridge.
Then you speak. “I’m a little scared, but it’s ok,” you say, matter-of-factly.
“Daddy! I want you to hold me!” your sister cries.
I look back at you and your sister.
“I can hold your hand, but I can’t hold you right now,” I say. “I will lead you but you have to carry yourself on your own two feet.”
You and your sister look at me and nod. You grasp my hand. Your sister finds Danielle’s hand.
We reach the waterfall and cave. “Should we take shelter in the cave and wait it out?” I wonder aloud.
Danielle shakes her head. “I think we should keep moving, babe.”
I feel something in my pocket. I reach in with my other hand. I rub my worry stone. I feel better.
We walk confidently, even playfully, through the driving rain and rivulets of muddy water, lightning crashing far enough away that we know we will be ok.
We reach the clearing and see my truck two hundred yards away. We give a victorious whoop and pick up our pace ever more.
We run to return our hiking poles and pile in the truck. Just as we close the doors, we hear the pelting of hail.
“That was the funnest day I have ever had!” you say.
We drive home, soaked to the bone, laughing all the way.
Last fall, Edgar Martinez, who played 72% of his games as a designated hitter, became the first player in Major League Baseball history to earn induction to the Hall of Fame as a true DH.