Richard and I made the appropriate amount of conversation for 4:15 a.m. and his Toyota Prius puttered along the Colorado freeway with efficiency. The security line was buzzing as usual at Denver International Airport, and once I was through it, off the train, and seated at my gate, I found myself purposelessly jumping in and out of apps on my phone. When I’d grown tired of this I looked up and noticed a woman across the aisle looking at me. I looked back down in what was likely a normal bit of social awkwardness, but was quick to return another glance when she spoke my name.
“Lesley Speer,” she said. I jolted out of my chair, likely energized by the strange feeling I’d had in Richard’s Prius that I would run in to someone I know, which happens more often than not when flying to Denver from Kansas City, or in this case, the opposite.
I sat with her for the 10 minutes or so until it was my turn to get in to the Southwest Airlines’ numerical-order line, and -- the flight being at capacity -- that was the end of our exchange. I’d already downloaded a podcast that was nearly the exact duration of the flight, and as we prepared to taxi, I snorted at the preview for the upcoming Between Two Ferns. I repeated my out-loud chuckles as I consumed the podcast, and probably made the couple sitting next to me think I was a little bizarre.
As the episode concluded, the pilot mumbled the usual we’re-almost-there bit, and during our descent, my anxiety reappeared with some fits and a few starts. What I think it boiled down to was this: I was coming off of a peculiar high and returning to life. I’d get in my car at Kansas City International airport, drive home, manage a few mindless details, maybe nap, then see my kids after school for a brief moment before dropping them off at their mom’s house. It was the end of a dream week, a challenge to return to the real things, and to return to them with fervor. What I didn’t know was that the source of that anxiety was largely rooted in being a better father to my son.
When I landed in Denver a week ago tonight it was late. I took the A-Line to Union Station, grabbed a cocktail at Terminal Bar, and was dropped off at my buddy Mike’s courtesy of Paul and his Subaru Crosstrek.
The Cannings had all been sound asleep for some time by that point, but they’d left the door unlocked and a couple of lights on. I made my way to their basement haven, got comfortable, and turned in. When the morning bustle above stirred me, I joined the pre-departure-for-school mix with mildly foggy enthusiasm. It was, in essence, a blossoming joy, a throwback to one year ago.
Mike and I have been best friends since sixth grade. If you don’t care for that terminology, that’s okay. Call it closeness. We’ve been close for 33 years. We’ve skateboarded and swam, had late-night Nerf hoop dunk contests, camped as Scouts, learned to drive and discovered girls, changed our dollars into quarters at convenience stores to by smokes from the bowling-alley machine across the street, shoulder-tapped for our first six pack, fastened copper plumbing pieces for our first stone, moved to Colorado, met our wives, lost our fathers, and became dads, all -- in one sense or another -- together.
Today Mike has first chair within the confines of one of Denver’s most charmed households. I could spend a few hours beating myself up mentally, and I could draft an outline, and from that outline I could coin a couple of respect-worthy phrases to attempt to describe Cheresa, but in the end it would all be a great disservice to her. She embodies intelligence and savvy, embraces fun and values. Her beliefs reach every corner of their home and spill out into their community. She works a hard, thankless job in a hospital and captains a tight ship under her own roof. Her infectious laughter and internal/external beauty permeate Meade Street. And because of the life she has created with my best friend, it would appear that I can come in once a year and live in their basement for a week with seemingly zero casualty.
I got my first true taste of it last year over Labor Day. This year was quite possibly the greatest blessing I’ve had since the birth of my children.
One thing rings louder than all of the others in my now 16 months back in the single-man saddle: being in the presence of the families of loved ones. All of the experiences differ greatly but there’s a massive, two-headed common denominator: love and making it work. I’ve heard the awkward laughter from the mouths of the Murphys, sat in the Neth’s back seat while they drove and bickered, hinted to the Davises to be more delicate in the shit they dish one another, silently observed Bleyeart nuances, and ski-swap shopped with the Cannings as they navigated that annual chore. And at the end of the day they’re all doing it. They’re swallowing minute pills of bitterness, tolerating the annoyances of their partners, and loving -- for the most part -- what they have together.
I’d be lying if I said it isn’t hard to be in those moments and not think about my own could’ve-beens, but it’s equally powerful to have a sense of refreshment wash over me with each experience. And a week with Mike and Cheresa might be one of the biggest spoilings I’ve been gifted in many years.
Mike and I can go a week or two months or a chunk of a year without talking; we never seem to miss a beat. I guess 33 years produces industrial-strength adhesive. I have next to no interactions with Cheresa across 12 months, so when I get that stage, when I’m rewarded with the opportunity to sit shotgun in her Acadia and swap glances about her existence, the bounty is plentiful, to say the least.
When I get to sit at her kitchen island and watch her meal prep, deal with kids, fire off texts and e-mail messages about her 19 different things, when I’m humbled by the ease with which she shrugs off both my and her husband’s inability to wirelessly print a document, I find myself exhibiting the proper patience necessary to have her ear and her attention. I never want my stay in their home to end so I find myself walking a fascinating tightrope. I can literally come and go as I please. I am dirtying their sheets and towels, eating their groceries, shuttling my habits from one end of their property to the next, and being another human under their roof. I find myself drawn to contribution, minimizing my burden, wanting to be an uncle, a friend, a faint presence, and a loved one.
I got my standard handful of Cheresa time, though. It’s almost always never enough and the perfect amount. I also got in a fair amount of time with each of their kids. I held Beckett’s hand on another school walk and dished out a few rib tickles across my week. I played a little bit of soccer and basketball with Charlie. I got a couple of real good-morning hugs out of Lettie and fielded a few of her Star Wars questions. We all swapped peach-and-pit tales at the outdoor dinner table one evening, listened to “Baby Shark” about 15 too many times, and spent a portion of Labor Day together at their neighborhood pool.
I also got my daily coffee/breakfast-burrito fix at Novo, worked out twice at the Rude Center, saw my favorite band for three straight nights, and, for the first time in a long time, really enjoyed every moment of every day. It was the most stress-free, gratitude-generating vacation I have ever had. And I have my friends and family to thank for it.
I didn’t have to hire rides to any of the shows as my good buddy Jake was in town and staying at a nearby hotel. He graciously picked me up and dropped me off Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. His presence in my life has been a gift for over a decade now. Never in a million years could I have imagined that the perfect ice-hockey teammate could also be the perfect show-seeing pal. We’ve been doing this Colorado run for almost a decade now. We’ll see December shows in Charleston together, and by this point I’d be shocked if I’ve seen more shows with anyone not named Jake.
In between my Ubers with Paul and Richard, though, Harry drove me in his Audi to the Canning’s pool. We talked football, neighborhoods, and hatred in America. Roody drove me back in his Honda Odyssey and was kind enough to let me stop for Red Bull. Roody’s the kind of fellow whose compass needle always points to the bright side, and it was nothing shy of fitting that he hollered “One Love” to me when I exited his minivan.
Anyway, having been shut up in the K.C.I. airport parking lot for a week, my car smelled like Midwest heat and kid spills. And as I drove south on MO 71, I thought of Lesley Speer and her trip home to see her mom, how her struggling father was hopefully picking her up at the terminal. I thought of the fortune of having the entire day off and salivated over the possibility of a post-unpacking nap. I thought of the next day’s chores, the fact that I would again have to reincorporate with the mother of my children (starting, in fact, immediately with a let-the-plumber-in-to-her-house request) on a daily basis. I thought about my city and my dog and my house. And of course, having been gone from them for a full week, I thought about my kids, especially my son.
My biggest struggle in life seems to be my inability to let go of my lackings and failings as a parent. If my to-date grade were on a curve it’s either an ‘F’ or an ‘A,’ entirely dependent upon what other students are in the classroom. And I don’t mean entirely let go of. The seeds of those tainted crops need to remain in my pocket so that their descendants are tended to with larger consideration, gentler hands. I need to grow from those failures: the times my temper got the best of me, the moments I eroded any possibility of validation before the experience had had its first drop of water, the occasions in which a resonating “no” was followed by a redacted yes and affiliated explanation.
My son is an explosion of life, and at some point I found myself cursed with the burden of trying to make sure every single raindrop hits the umbrella. No shoe-tip drops, no elbow splashes, no nothing. He is a real-life Tasmanian Devil straight off of the Warner Bros. screen just as much as he is every bit of emotion inside the D.N.A. of both is mother and father. He is tears and appetite, injuries and goofiness, ornery and love. I cherish him so much that I find myself staked to a minimalist ground; my opportunities to try and pour that affection down his gullet are either so naturally limited or ruined by my impatience that I find myself littered in an itchy rash of my own creation.
I almost never pick up my kids from school when the kids are dismissed. Our schedules mean that I’m typically retrieving them from after-school care, but on this day, the final day of my vacation, I would be deviating from the norm. Being a kindergartner this year, my boy gets out first. We spotted each other at almost the exact same time. I felt myself light up as I watched his smile form; he could barely pause long enough to tell his teacher he’d seen his father and request permission to walk in my direction.
My daughter will turn nine in December and I don’t know if I could calculate how many times I’ve had legit snuggles, powerful hugs, and heart-melting cuddles with her in a week or a month or a year, let alone most of a decade. She has my love both directly and genetically. My son, however, was cut largely from the cloth of his mother, which isn’t a dig. She’d agree, too, for the most part. She’s just, by nature, colder and less affectionate. That, coupled with the liquefied pop-rock candy coursing through his veins, makes it so that he’s simply never still long enough for a good, solid embrace.
So when he hollered “Daddy!” and ran to me from the Narthex front door I could feel the tank water go in to spillover mode. Sitting on the stair wall, I caught him as he leaped in to my arms and he stayed there long enough for a good squeeze and a few rocks. By the time I’d peppered his sweaty neck with kisses and he was ready to begin assaulting me with itinerary questions, I needed to remove my sunglasses for a few shoulder-to-eye mop swabs. We had a couple hours to kill until his sister got out of her Brownie meeting, so we just did our own thing. I broke our school-week rule and played some Mario with him and let him indulge in a few snacks and a Peach Nehi.
I also honored his dinner request, which is either the largest failure or greatest accomplishment on my fatherhood watch: Corner Cocktails.
Where I have succeeded is in loving him; where I have failed is in knowing that he feels it.
To put it another way, I’m a good dad that fathered two children. Gun to her head, my first-born wouldn’t waiver if asked did her dad love her. I can’t say the same is true for my son, and in saying that two adages come to mind: 1) God never gives you more than you can handle; 2) Actions speak louder than words.
In point one, my son is my litmus test. In point two, I feel occasionally propelled to start a GoFundMe in which I ask for patience and pause in place of dollars and cents. I want to litter my social-media channels with ElihuStrong hash tags. I want to put my head through one wall picking up the pieces of his spastic life and another to forget about my reactions to his tornados.
I painfully recall a pair of evening settings in which life was inundated with the newborn Bs: Bumbos and Boppies and bottles and Bjorns and BumGeniuses and Baby Bullets and Bobas. The timing of everything was awful: He’d fall asleep in the car en route to pick up his sister, then again once she was buckled and we were moving. He’d again stir getting in to the house, need to continue napping while I prepared dinner, but simply could not. He wouldn’t snooze (in those circumstances) in the Bjorn (or Moby, but I’m sticking with the ‘b’ theme here under the excuse of literary liberties) while I ran water and rattled pots and pans. I had a toddler underfoot, work stress on the brain, and all of the other personal catastrophes of my first-world, white-person-privileged life clanging around like an addition was being framed out in my brain’s attic.
And I almost shook him. Twice.
Like, shaken-baby-syndrome shook him, which, if you’re unfamiliar I imagine you can Google the videos they make you watch in Missouri and probably elsewhere when you’re about to bring a baby in to the world. Imagine the ice cubes in the stainless-steel cocktail vessel rattling with fervor in the held-high, clutched hands of your favorite mixologist. Now imagine those ice cubes are tiny eggs. And now, imagine that those tiny eggs are the brains of newborn babies and instead of the walls of that vessel, those eggs are hitting the inside of their skull like a hockey player getting checked into the boards. Those babies might have a happy ending. They might. But mostly they’re like in wheelchairs and shit. Or dead before their second birthday.
So I think of that and I think of his circumcision, which was the most barbarically necessary-and-important thing I may ever experience, and I think of my role in both (and by role I mean executive-producer-and-director credits that roll before the cast listing). That is, I played the leading part in probably the most intense and catastrophic events in his life between birth and age six months.
And here we are, a month from his sixth birthday. And I’ve hardly learned a thing. I’ve taken the A.C.T. of fatherhood six times. I debuted with a 17 and every year I enter the test center with entire study days, cram sessions, and tips and tidbits from manuals wedged that I didn’t have last year stuffed in my head like that person that’s convinced their carry-on will fit in the overhead compartment even though they feel the collective nope from the audience of passengers around them. And every year my score drops. Like, every fall, more and more universities offer a Pulp Fiction “Prank caller! Prank caller!” when I get their admissions office on the phone.
So I left my weeklong life in paradise in Denver and returned home refreshed with vigor, hope, and anticipation. And every morning I get on the mental scale to check my grade in the class called Fathers Raising Sons. Picture that space between 175 pounds and 174 pounds. You’re not awake yet. You haven’t had any coffee and you don’t even have your glasses on. Some mornings you wake up positive it has moved. Squinting be damned; you haven’t moved that needle. Some mornings shit feels easily like yesterday’s work moved you to 163 and, Nope!: same spot. Other mornings a fat, honking 182’s wishing you Good day, sir, and you’re like, Yup. Totally fucked that up. Saw that one coming.
The point is that I have ridiculous children. They are absurd because they are so sweet and so smart and so kind (most of the time) and so loving and they are bat-shit crazy because of the adult perspectives I force upon their actual-child brains. Whatever damage I’ve caused my daughter I’ll get back 10-fold in about four years. Guaranteed. So, I’ve got that goin’ for me, which is nice. My son, though, could be an insanely bigger deal. He might actually pulverize your token teenage-daughter stuff and come at his mother and I with some fucking mic-drop shit.
I pray that he doesn’t. I pray that we can continue to instill enough love in him to foster confidence and security.
And so if you’re reading this and I’m in your life somehow, maybe you could throw a second of energy into the universe for my boy. Maybe you could love him, too. Maybe you could help us love him better.
May my audience be my village.