Until my own first child was born 12 years ago, fatherhood was just what my dad did, and all I had ever done was take it for granted.
My earliest memories are of sitting on a shrinking lap, a slice of jean-covered thigh quickly losing ground between the random growth spurts of a lanky boy and the constant expansion of an ex-smoker’s belly. I sat there for years sharing tickles, snacks and forgotten conversations. There was a montage of facial hair, and I was captivated by its splendor or the sudden lack of it. Everything was long legs and gangly tussles, and I nestled happy in the swell of my father’s content.
The years stretched and the stories we planted sprouted stories of their own—each blooming with milestones, lessons, and the fragrant sweetness of life in hindsight, fond memories wafting down a timeline, always spinning toward what will be and always remembering what has been. The scent was fantastic and the world somewhat dizzy.
We spent days together that grew into weeks, rolled into months, and segued into years as smooth as you like. I was hanging one arm out the window of a blue and bruised Datsun pickup, home in the welcome give of a worn bench seat, my father popping pistachios in time to an AM radio already out of date. I was bronze and blond, buck-toothed and skinny, and I was glorious against the sinking horizon that we spend our whole lives chasing. My father was a smile in sunglasses, a song on his breath, and he was younger than I ever knew.
The journey also took us through fields of frustration tended with firm hands and cultivated by consequence. There were sidetracks and shortcuts, disappointment, and discipline, but all days ended in sunsets and every morning the sun would rise. There were birds in the distance and a whistle brought them nearer.
At some point our kisses fell from lips to cheeks to hugs masked as handshakes, and the emotions on our sleeves grew heavy and hard to carry. Life has a way of twisting and testing, and it wrings out the innocence with the sweat and the tears, leaving two grown men in the shade of all that we built, awkward with gratitude and loving one another.
I remember the day I called my dad to tell him the news. He was at work in Arizona, and I was states away, sitting in a parking lot with my wife and our giddiness.
“You are going to be a grandfather,” I said into the phone, and his joy was instant and electric.
I spent the next nine months trying to examine the examples he had given, preparing to cross to the other side, the fatherhood side of my experience. My wife and I went on long walks through wet, winding woods, and we talked of the things that we would do when the baby came. We were all things but patient, and we walked around again.
“It’s a boy,” I said through more tears than rain. My father had been sleeping with the phone by his side and had answered before the first ring ended. “You have a grandson.”
And then I rambled about the all of it — the I had no ideas and Now I sees. I got it, suddenly, like a swift kick to the head that I never knew I needed. The road opened wide before me, and the future teased us all with a glimmer orange and bright, warm with promise and paths untaken. Then I returned to my wife and our new baby boy, him bundled tight and her softly sleeping. The room was already spinning with fatherhood and motion.
Then three years later we did it all again, but this time with dimples.
Now I spend all my days on the dad side of the fence, where the grass is always greener and in desperate need of trimming. It is my lap slowly shrinking and my shadows being cast. We are the stories being written and we are living in our memories.
I don’t see my own father often enough, but I see my boys every day, and their eyes are like time machines, always racing toward tomorrow, taking lessons from the past, and making the most of the now well before it passes. And it turns out, my father is here, in all of that, and the next time we meet I will tell him so, and perhaps a small kiss upon the cheek will show him.
Fatherhood isn’t just something that my dad did. It is something that he taught me, and it is a thing that we do together regardless of the miles between us.
And so it goes. The shadows we cast grow longer as the days grow shorter. We wax. We wane. We give love. We take love. That is the way of fatherhood, and I wouldn’t have it any other.
I learned that from my father.