It’s Father’s Day today. Kind of an odd holiday, really. When you think about it, it’s a holiday with an identity crisis. By comparison, Mother’s Day has its identity down pat. The stereotypically warm, nurturing relationship between many, if not all, mothers and their children lends itself, at least in our mind’s eye, to an emotional, almost maudlin celebration of sentimentality.
With fathers, not so much. There’s a distance there, a coolness. Or maybe that’s just me and my Dad. One thing I do know, though, is that when I was growing up, the cliché thing to do was give your Dad a bad tie, bad cologne, or a badly spelled Father’s Day card. I suppose nowadays the way to go is some kind of gift card to Home Depot or Lowe’s or some other “guy” store.
The family then dutifully takes Dad out to lunch, or brunch, or, if his kids are grown up and Dad is lucky, out for a few beers at the local sports bar. I know this because I saw families, dozens of them, doing just this when I went out to grab some bagels earlier this morning.
Last Father’s Day I was homeless. This Father’s Day I’m living with my family again. This is how I spent it.
I started out by getting up early for a walk. A walk with my son. To McDonald’s for breakfast. Just like I’ve been doing every Saturday and Sunday morning, weather permitting, since I started working as a Peer Mentor at the Healing Place back in February.
You see, when I came on as a Peer Mentor, I started receiving a stipend of $60 a week. Doesn’t sound like much, I know, but compared to the big fat zero I’d been earning for what had previously seemed like forever, it was a fortune worthy of a prince.
Well, it turns out that in Richmond you can get a Big Breakfast and a small drink for $4.49. The Big Breakfast includes scrambled eggs, a sausage patty, hash browns, and a biscuit. The refills on the sodas are free. So for Saturday and Sunday together, I could take John Tyler (that’s my son) out for breakfast for something a little shy of $9.00.
Or about 15% of my entire weekly Peer Mentor pay. Best money I ever spent.
In the four months or so since this ritual began, these walks to McDonald’s have become most precious to me. The walk to the restaurant is about two miles, give or take, with me pushing John Tyler in his trusted BabyJogger, talking with him, answering questions, playing games.
Letting him let me come back into his life again.
There’s a church along the way. Sometime in March or so, a wrecked car inexplicably appeared in the church parking lot. It had been in some sort of front-end collision, and its front bumper and driver’s side front wheel were hopelessly damaged.
This traumatized John Tyler. One of his favorite movies is, of course, Cars, and he personalizes all manner of cars, trucks, motorcycles . . . anything with wheels, really. So to him, this little car –- a white Toyota Tercel –- was hurt and in pain.
I have to admit, the wreckage did look pretty devastating. For a few days after he first saw it, John Tyler had terrifying nightmares, prompting my wife to call me to ask if we’d actually seen the accident itself.
No, I said, but, as in life, the wreckage and aftermath was probably worse.
In the following weeks, though, something wonderful began to happen. Damaged pieces started coming off the car. Slowly at first, broken piece by broken piece. Then in the next few weeks, we would see new pieces start to show up on the car. A new bumper, a new mirror. Most miraculously, a new front tire. Clearly, someone was trying to put this seemingly hopeless ruin back together.
John Tyler was delighted. I explained to him about mechanics, how they were like doctors for cars, and how someone like that must be trying to take care of this car.
“To make it all better, Daddy?”
“Yes, John Tyler.”
Then, a few weeks ago, a miracle. As we walked by the church, John Tyler shouted and pointed.
“Daddy, the white car is gone!”
And it was. All that stood to show the car had ever been there, had ever been wounded, was a crippled wheel and crushed front bumper. Grim reminders, yes, but they spoke of something brighter, too.
“Where did it go, Daddy?”
“It went home, John Tyler. It went home. The car’s all better now, and it went back home.”
As we approached the parking spot, my son gazed intently at the last remaining pieces of wreckage, pondering my words. He paused, silent, for what seemed like an eternity. Then he said
“Like the Healing Place, Daddy?”
My breath left me for a moment. John Tyler knew about the Healing Place. We told him that Daddy was sick, and trying to get better. But this?
They tell me kids can sometimes come up with things that catch you by surprise. I suppose this was one of those times.
I looked down at his upturned face and smiled.
“Yes, John Tyler. Just like the Healing Place.”
After we got our order and sat down today, John Tyler and I did this little thing we do. Just like we do every weekend. But before I get there, I’ve got to set the stage a little for those of you who may never have gotten a Big Breakfast before.
The meal, eggs, sausage, and biscuit, comes on a white Styrofoam tray. On top of that sits a yellow Styrofoam top, hooked into the bottom tray with two yellow tabs sticking out of each end. To get to the food, you have to unhook the yellow top and take it off.
Sounds simple, I know. And it is. But it’s also fun. Here’s how.
After the two of us sit down, I spread out the knife, fork and napkins and put the tray in front of John Tyler. He smiles this big old grin of his and holds his hands up over the tray for a few dramatic moments. When he’s sure the timing is right, he’ll reach down and pull the top away, lifting his hands up over his head as he sings out “Surprise!!”
Then we eat.
Maybe you have to be there. Or maybe not. All I know is that I have to be there. And I have been, letting little things like "Surprise!!" seep back into my bones, helping me feel more like a father again.
Quality time? No such thing. That’s just a word busy parents use to ease their guilt. The only quality time you get with your kids comes by making sure there’s enough quantity to be there when it counts. It’s kind of like they say in AA. “I only need one meeting a week. I just don’t know which one it is, so I’ve got to go every day.”
After we finished our breakfast, the biscuit for me, the rest for John Tyler, we headed back home. On our way we passed the local library, a magnificent, bustling affair most days, but closed this Sunday morning. As 9:00 approached, I veered towards the library’s outside pay phone, fishing a couple of quarters out of my pocket.
I call my sponsor every Sunday morning at this time. He suggested it, so it’s what I do. I can’t afford to ask questions at this point in my sobriety. The reason I found myself using the pay phone, rather than my cell, was because even though I have a cell phone now, I’m actually very bad at keeping it with me. I’ve been used to going without for so long.
This morning, I just left it on the dresser as we walked out the door. Maybe I did it on purpose, I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I kind of liked not having a cell phone for so long. Life slowed down a bit, got a little quieter. The convenience comes at a price.
I put the quarters in, dialing my sponsor’s number. As we chatted away for fifteen minutes or so, I amusedly watched John Tyler grow increasingly impatient. He soon managed to extricate himself from the stroller’s straps, standing up to his full height in the stroller as he reached for any and every button on the phone.
Laughing, my sponsor and I ended our conversation. When I put the receiver down, John Tyler retrieved it, holding it up to his ear. As he turned to look up at me, he smiled broadly and said
“Look Daddy, I’m calling my sponsor.”
I was torn. The boy was cute beyond words. His obvious desire to be “just like Daddy” was sweet, even touching, but it still chilled me to the quick.
I’m sure I looked as though someone had just walked across my grave.
My son is sleeping now, the sleep of a child loved and cared for. If all goes as planned, I will take him to his favorite park, the "Sandy Park," later this evening. There, children from all over come to play, and families leave toys no longer needed for others to play with.
And I will kiss his forehead when I put him to bed this Father's Day.