I had to work out of town for my first Father’s Day, but fortunately I was able to Face Time on my iPhone with Ava and her mom. I’m sure it’s embarrassing for others to watch me video chat. I’m like an Amish kid on Rumspringa: “you mean, I can actually see you…on my phone? What kind of crazy future-world do we live in, anyway?”
In my defense, this wasn’t the only epiphany I had while chatting with my girls. Having Skyped with friends and family before, I realize (with no offense to other family and friends intended) there is NO ONE I want to video chat with except for my daughter and her mom. Only a relationship as intimate as the one between your partner and young child could sustain something that is at once both mundane and intrusive. The other revelation was, as good as Face Time may be, it still isn’t enough - at least until Apple comes up with an app that can let me smell my daughter’s head (baby cocaine) or feel the softness of her fat little feet, or accurately capture the frailty of seeing her alone in her crib (I’m certain Apple has a team of engineers working on this right now, along with the app for Joy and Fulfilled Dreams). Those things linger too vividly in my memory to make any video chat truly satisfying.
So, while I’m happy to see them at the time, once it’s over I’m left with a kind of muted, low-level melancholy. It’s not loneliness per se – just a very vivid awareness I’m not where I should be, and I can’t be there Right. Fucking. Now. As someone whose spent much of his life in semi-permanent grass-is-greener mode, I’m familiar with the feeling, but rarely have I felt it so acutely. Once the call is over I will literally ache for several minutes afterwards. A few veteran fathers I know have told me not to worry – with any luck Ava will grow to be as irritating as their kids, and then traveling for work will be a deliverance. A small part of me hopes they’re right.
But until that glorious day when I can abandon my offspring with no thought for their wellbeing, I’m stuck with the Here and Now: it’s my first Father’s Day, I’m working all day but chatting with my family over my breaks, it’s wonderful and dissatisfying at the same time, and I have this compulsive need to feel more connected to them.
So what’s the best idea I have overcome this? Writing a letter, of course. I know – it sounds hopelessly anemic. But in twenty years or so I figure Ava will read this letter, and it’ll will be like my hand is reaching through time to tap her on the shoulder. And then I thought that’s actually not such a bad idea – why not write her a letter every Father’s Day?
Here, then, is the first of my Father’s Day letters to my daughter.
You’re a little shy of eleven months as I write this, and Mom just sent me a video of you scrolling through the apps on her iPad*, finding the Peakaboo Barn game, and playing with it. I wept with pride as I watched, and then realized that based on your intuitive display of intelligence if you don’t end up solving cold fusion or performing liver transplants as a career it may be due to some failure on my part. Because you got mad skills, girl.
Which is not to say I’m terrified about the myriad ways I might warp your character, but as mortal responsibilities go, I firmly believe raising a child is not an area where you should just ‘wing it.” So while I’m making sure you don’t strangle yourself with the curtain cord or drown in the tub diving for your ducky, I’m also planning ahead.
Among the currently unnecessary parenting strategies I’m devising are what I might tell you when you ask me what I was like as a child. Naturally, I want you to be proud of me, and at least until you’re fifteen you may actually find me worth respecting. The question is how to achieve that magic combination of respect/awe/fear. Saying that I was exactly like I am today but with less chest hair somehow seems inadequate, but at the same time there really isn’t much to report. My life as a child was relatively unremarkable, except in one regard: I was a spectacularly un-gifted hockey player.
I was so bad I’ve actually considered lying about my hockey abilities, and it’d be a pretty easy lie to pull off, since the only person who could discredit my story is your grandfather, and he’s no longer with us. If he was still around, however, he would tell you I was uniquely terrible – I stick-handled poorly, I never kept my head up, and my skating was only marginally competent.
In spite of the indignity of having to watch me play hockey, my dad always came to the games, and (as far as I know) he never once denied me. Not even Jesus can say that. And grandpa did this FOR YEARS. That, sweetie, is true love. It’s choosing to cheer on your kid no matter excruciatingly embarrassing his performance may be. It’s always being there and never betraying the feeling that you’d rather dematerialize on the spot than watch another shameful performance. It’s finding the right combination of words needed to encourage without outright lying, all the while hoping I develop the self-possession necessary to realize I suck and choose to move onto another pastime.
The irony of all this is that for years I was a little peeved with your grandpa. He was uncomfortable sharing his emotions, and it took me a while to realize he was trying to speak through his actions. Every trip to the rink, every minute he sat in those bleachers shaking his head in amusement and horror was his way of saying “I love you with all my heart, and my life is richer because you’re in it. That’s what makes the tragedy of your performance bearable.”
This nonverbal reliability wasn’t limited to hockey. When I finally recognized my own limitations and switched to skiing, dad made no judgment – he simply started taking me to the hill instead. On my first date with the first girlfriend I ever had, he drove me to her house while commenting on how hard it is to dislike polite boys who look you in the eye when they say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’
Your grandpa pretty much created a cone of safety around me and your uncles and aunts, leaving us with the impression there was no problem, no crisis, no world-ending apocalypse he couldn’t somehow get us through. And he was so low key about it that for a time it actually backfired – I became an ingrate, thinking it wasn’t enough. It’s only recently (roughly the time since you’ve been born) I’ve really started to appreciate the time, commitment, and consistency required to persuade your kids you’re like air: that dependable, that necessary, and that unnoticed.
So I suppose I’m hoping to win your respect by pulling off some of the same sorcery for you that your grandpa did for me. With enough time, I hope you can think of me as someone who doesn’t just give my word but backs it up with action. Until you and I get to that place, you’ll just have to settle for words, such as this: before you came along, I didn’t think I had it in me to love anyone as much as I love you you and your mom. Respect.
Happy First Father’s Day, sweetie.