Father’s Day. The first time I really thought about fatherhood was when my older brother, Tom was about to become a father. I saw him transform. He built this cradle for soon-to-be Cate and for my sister-in-law as a surprise. He’d never built a cradle, and I think he may not have been clear about the approximate size of newborns because the cradle could have fit a family of four. (It later held a family of Cate’s stuffed animals). I was struck by the cradle itself and my brother’s experience of building the cradle. I burst out in song. “Cate’s Cradle” landed on my first CD, Wind at Your Back, and garnered me a few songwriting awards. The song celebrates a dad’s love, a willingness to do anything for his child. (You can listen to “Cate’s Cradle” here.) One line keeps coming back to me: “Now, your daddy’s no carpenter, little Cate, but he would do anything to keep you safe…” I think you could replace the word “safe” with anything the child might need, and the word “carpenter” with anything the dad might do to meet the child’s need and that would represent fatherhood.
When I was 16 my father was newly solo-parenting. Let me be clear that my mother was actively parenting, but my parents were parenting separately. I was in the front yard raking leaves and my dad called to me outside: “Sweetiegirl, don’t you have to get ready for your dance? You’ve got to leave in 30 minutes.” See, I didn’t like to spend a lot of time on unimportant things like my appearance – so much so that when my dad pressed me weeks before to go buy a prom dress, I just didn’t have the time. I was busy. Class President, performing in a play…. blah, blah, blah… Who had the time to go buy a stupid dress. (Some things never change.) But with 30 minutes to go until my date arrived, it suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t know what I would wear. “Hmmm, I’ll look through my closet.” It’s not like I had prom dresses hanging around, but maybe I could figure something out. I opened the closet door and the light switched on. There, shining in front of me was a silky ruby red spaghetti strap prom dress parading on a hanger that jutted out so the entire dress was displayed. Surprise isn’t quite the word. A combination of awe and love, and awareness that this had to be my dad and my dad knew nothing about dresses (This is the same man who bought me a white robe for Christmas because the saleslady told him white would “go with anything”). But he did this for me, because he loved me, as he always said “more than the world,” and he knew I needed this dress before I did. And… it was just perfect. My favorite dress of all time, really – up there with my wedding dress. (I believe I may have thrown up on the red dress later in the evening, but that’s not part of this story.) I’m holding this dress and picturing my dad gripping the dress in Hecht’s or Macy’s or Woodies and asking women who looked about my size if he could hold it up to them.
“Now, your daddy’s no – fashionista, little Allison, but he would do anything to – make you feel beautiful…”
These last 9 months my husband, John, has not only done the lion’s share of parenting, he’s done the animal kingdom’s share. He has had a few things on his plate. Running his own business. A wife with a very rare cancer that requires him to stay on top of the research, ahead of the doctors, and caring for a very stubborn patient. Then there’s the groceries, and cooking, and the house, and, of course – our child. John has a pretty good excuse to phone it in at times, to plop our 6 year old in front of the TV so daddy can catch up on email or put his feet up. But he doesn’t. He fills his role AND my role. He is father/mother. Of course, I’m still here and relishing every bit of mothering juju I can, but I am not reliably available to be everything Michael needs right now. It devastates me. But then, I see John with him and my heart swells, like the Grinch, 3 times its size so it feels like my chest will burst.
John says, “We should really be reading to Michael more and having him read to us.” So he gets up in the morning and reads with Michael before school. He wants him excited about adventure, so they are reading The Hobbit and John pauses for reading comprehension questions. They needed a coach for Michael’s baseball team and John explained why it’s not the best time for him. The other coaches pleaded. John stayed up reading the coaching manual and “Coach Michael’s Dad” is out there adjusting elbows for swings. The first game Michael swung 17 times before hitting the ball. The switch from t-ball is hard. After-school coaching sessions in the backyard tightened that swing right up. These are all things that amaze me, but they are things that John knows how to do.
It’s the other things that give me a catch in my throat. For 13 months I made Michael muffins every week for his baked egg challenge to wean him from his egg allergy. John made the last batch of egg muffins measuring so precisely it looked like a science experiment in the kitchen. And then there was the castle. The morning I stumbled out and there were John and Michael on the floor of the living room with our paper recycling duct taped together to form some sort of contraption. “It’s a recycled art castle,” John announced. I have been painting and creating art with Michael since he was a baby and now it is not uncommon for me to find the two of them drawing together.
“Now, your daddy’s no – baker/artist, Little Michael, but he would do anything to – make you feel like you’re just fine – even when mommy’s sick.”
When did you or your dad surprise you with something you and/or they didn’t know they could do?