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A Father Grows Up
Introducing: The Average Father
Raising daughters is an adventure no man can truly appreciate until he has been strapped into the roller coaster for at least a few turns, climbs and drops. I've been on this ride long enough to forget what terra firma feels like. Living the average life while riding the fatherhood roller coaster sometimes requires that a man shed some of his personal identity in order to maintain balance, and in my case that has been a measure of memories that I yearn to recover while I can, and hold onto as I grow old.
So it is my hope to pick up the little treasures one by one as the ride allows, and to ultimately achieve a balance that will sustain me through the continuing twists and turns that men face daily. The very thought of doing it scares me. After all, these memories were shed without pre-planning, and I'll likely recover the tastes of fear, sadness, grief and disappointment along with the courage, happiness, peace and triumph. If I can make something useful of it all, I'll be a better man for it.
A Not-So-Average Day
"Smith Family vehicles have left a significant amount of tread on the length of Interstate 15 from San Diego to Salt Lake City."
That statement could start many tales of family odysseys, but in this case it only relays my location when I received some distressing news about my oldest daughter. My wife and I had driven up to the desert with our youngest daughter and her friend. We walked through Calico Ghost Town that day, shopped for upcoming birthdays, and ate whatever looked good. We and our three daughters had been to Calico on several family camping trips and Girl Scout outings, so there was nothing new or exciting about it. But there's always something to be said for the comfort of a familiar place.
The old minivan rested its weary chassis at home that day, and I enjoyed the comfort of my new Chevy pick-up and its satellite radio while young Kate and her friend took pictures of the huge desert cloud formations. Then came the phone call from our son-in-law with the news that our oldest daughter was in the hospital. This wasn't her first trip to see a doctor during that difficult pregnancy, but it was the first time the doctor had sent her directly to the hospital from a routine exam, and the baby wasn't due for another three months. In the weeks that followed doctors and nurses worked to keep mother and baby together until separation was likely safe.
The oldest Smith daughter left her job as a high school English teacher, and continued her graduate degree studies in a hospital room. Each evening after work, I'd stop in and let her use my work computer. This hospital had no Internet access for patients, so my computer's air card was her link to the outside world. She called it the "miracle antenna", and it allowed her to submit her school work and check her e-mail. On Sundays I'd bring it in so she could watch the church service on-line. Lindsay and her husband had been struggling to make ends meet since marrying before graduating from college. It was hard to watch for a father who took some sense of pride and satisfaction in being able to provide for his family. Now here she was living in a hospital room while her husband lived in their little apartment. I had heard a few details regarding negotiations with their insurance provider, and I began to worry about their ability to pay their share of the growing hospital bill.
From Hospital to Auto Shop
One Friday morning (I wasn't working Fridays at that time) I pulled into the hospital parking lot, happy to find a parking stall a bit closer than I had been able to find in the evenings. I weaved through cars and found my way to the sidewalk. A few steps later, I came upon the old car I had signed over to the kids when they got married. It was the car she had driven while in high school, and now several years later had driven it to the hospital where she had taken up residence. Her husband had continued to drive the other "old clunker" they owned. The old Mazda had many many miles on it. I had bought it as "pre-owned", but I had kept up with the oil changes, and it had never been neglected under my care. That day it looked like a dirt magnet, and I couldn't resist looking inside to see the interior condition. After all, if things worked out well, my first grandchild would be going home in that little car. The passenger's seat was full of books and papers that one might expect a graduate student and high school teacher to carry around. An old soda cup had softened enough to release its contents into the cup holder. Clothes, papers and rubbish filled the back seat. A cardboard box containing, of all things, a bowling ball sat on the floor behind the driver's seat. I determined that I would clean that car for them, and for my grandchild. The elevator was slow at that hospital, so after exchanging my driver's license for a visitor's pass, I took the stairs as I had each day since this ordeal began.
As she checked her e-mail, I explained my plan to take her car back to her apartment for her. It didn't need to sit in the hospital parking lot for who knows how many more weeks. I didn't tell her about my plan to clean it though. I thought that revelation would only be an unnecessary condemnation of her car-care habits. As she dug through her purse for the key, she told me to be careful because the car had been making some "terrible noises" of late. I felt my own countenance starting to fall as my worry for this young family began to build. I tried hard to bury the worry, but the beeping of the monitors and the graphs of the baby's heart rate made it impossible. When my son-in-law came in to join his wife for breakfast, I excused myself; and leaving my own truck in the parking lot, drove the old Mazda down the street listening for the "terrible noise". To me it sounded like the brakes (they were a little soft), and I drove directly to the mechanic to have them checked. When it comes to brakes, I let the professionals do the work.
I sat in the waiting room for about an hour before getting the news about the car. They always give me a choice. Usually it's a "how much do you want to spend?" choice. Yes the brakes needed work; but another component had 3 to 6 months of life left before replacement would be necessary. And so, in my usual penny-pinching way, I opted for just the brakes, and sat down to read my Louis L'Amour book. It wasn't long before my error had made reading impossible. No, this wasn't my car anymore, and yes I was taking care of the brake job for them. But I was also ignoring something that in 3 to 6 months would be a burden to my daughter's young family. I felt my face warming with embarrassment as I got the mechanic's attention and signaled him through the window with a "thumbs-up". When I was sure he knew what I was getting at, I sat back down, and picked up my book, relieved that I had corrected my mistake.
The thought of almost doing something so thoughtless and uncaring, something so incongruous with the Louis L'Amour story I had been reading at the time, gave new meaning to the rest of my day, and direction to my grandfather-hood plans. I took that little car home that morning, and washed it well. I changed the motor oil, and put air in the tires. While my wife sorted and boxed the clutter, I cleaned the interior, tossed the old soda cup, and finished by removing the old steering wheel cover that I had put on a few years before. I replaced it with one of those plush ones that has the feel of a comfortable slipper. I spent a few dollars that day, but I gained far more than a reliable car for my daughter and grandchild. I learned a serious lesson. I learned that fatherhood continues even after the children leave home. They still need my protection. With our economy in the shape it is, they still need money every now and then. It became very clear to me that day that fatherhood wasn't a temporary state-of-being, and I was going to be a father for the rest of my life.
I'm still worrying these days... far too much. But I don't have to worry about not being needed. And as a man who likes responsibility, I'm okay with that.