A father’s joy and lament

by Brian Clarey

We get up like we do every day, a few snooze buttons past 6 a.m., roll from our bed and shuffle to the kitchen, rousting the children from their rooms as we go. I begin the countdown that ticks off every school day, calling off the time before the bus hits curbside like a veiled threat.

“You got 30 minutes,” I growl. “Move it!” They dress amid a flurry of protests while a scavenger hunt of sorts plays out — looking for home-work, for shoes, for a hairbrush, for a school shirt that doesn’t have dried food on it.

“You got 20 minutes! Let’s shake and bake, guys!” My wife assembles lunches while I cobble together breakfast, working around the previous night’s dishes and whatever mess the cats have made throughout the night. Usually one of us fires off a pot of coffee, absolutely necessary, particularly during the bulk of the school year, when this ritual is enacted well before sunrise.

“Ten minutes! Lets go let’s go let’s go!” And so on and so forth, until the three wee ones bumble down to the corner to catch the school bus.

A timed trial with unwilling teammates is a terrible way to start the day. But we think a good breakfast and sensible lunch are important for our children’s health, and for their education. We do it because we’re their parents, and no one else cares about our kids as much as we do, no one loves them, understands them, is as intimately concerned with their well being as we.

We’re doing it, even in these waning days of the school calendar, when everyone is on short time and a day spent at a desk seems like a terrible waste. Still doing it, even after last week when we discovered the boys had been throwing out their lunches each day and charging cafeteria food on a line of credit they established some time after Christmas.

Like so many would-be perpetrators of the short con, the boys never really understood where the end of the line was going to be, nor did they calculate the downside of their little caper.

They got the picture this weekend, spent at hard labor for minimum wage, to be applied against their debt.

But we also went swimming and attended an outdoor festival, and earlier in the week, busting with pride, we rewarded out kids for their spectacular performances in school this year. The oldest got his first electric guitar, and seeing him bent over it, working out the sounds of the strings, his face sharpened with concentration… well I’ve never had a feeling like that in my life.

Fatherhood is full of times like this — at least it has been for me:

moments when disappointment and anger overlap with overwhelming sensations of love and the urgent need to provide.

It is appropriate to mention my oldest child in these weeks before Father’s Day, for it was he who made me a father in the first place, just by showing up.

There’s a day I’ll never forget: an early doctor’s appointment, a mad rush across the street to Touro Hospital, a few moments alone after they whisked my wife away for an emergency C-section, a few moments that felt like forever. And then we were in the operating room, bright lights and red blips, and all of a sudden there was another person in there, howling on his mother’s belly. The doctor called him “magnificent.”

That he is. Hunched over his guitar with his senses attenuated, I get a glimpse of the man he is quickly becoming. It is heartbreaking and exhilarating at the same time.

I see the years adding angles and length to my other two kids as well.

The middle child has grown into his smile, the dimples on his cheeks deepened like parentheses. He’s come to understand his own peculiar charm and how it gives him his place in the world. He remains spiritually clear, confident and free of emotional hang-ups just as he was on the day he was born, another day I remember well: an urgent drive to the Women’s Hospital after a fitful night’s sleep, this one cost my wife 20 hours of labor, a degree of suffering I’ve never witnessed before or since, of which she has no significant memory.

And the little girl… my baby. She finished kindergarten just today, crossing the stage at her school with a graceful whisk of beauty, a smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks. She makes my heart soar.

This is the next stage of parenting: The kids get bigger and smarter as their successes and failures pile up, their problems stickier, their toys more expensive. They understand some of the basic tenets of the world; now they want to know: Why? And I realize the world can sometimes be difficult to explain to these children, who instinctively want everything to make sense.

Fatherhood 202 is less about instruction and more about interpretation. I am watching their personalities develop, seeing them become… and hopefully maintaining a guiding hand in the finished product, though there are no guarantees there.

On the plus side, I haven’t changed a diaper in years. But now these kids are too big for me to sweep up in my arms, too busy to run to the store with me on a Saturday afternoon, to grown-up to sit in my lap.

It makes me sad. And it makes me happy. All at once.