I gulped down the last of my coffee. It was late in the day for me to be drinking coffee, but I had worked a full ten-hour day and still had five hours in the car until I reached my daughter’s campus. We’d probably grab some fast-food and then start our drive back home. My daughter was coming home for Thanksgiving.
My wife and I had planned to make the trip the following week. We would leave after work on Tuesday and both take the next day off from work and had already reserved a hotel room to help cut up the trip. Two of my daughter’s professors though decided to cancel class, in exchange for extra project work, and she saw an opportunity to bail campus early.
When she called us, our daughter hesitated in telling us the good news. She knew that we might not be able to get off work on such short notice. However, when I asked spontaneously if she wanted me to pick her up, she lit up like it was Christmas morning. My wife looked at me like I had lost my mind. I would have to make the long drive on my own since my wife wouldn’t be able to get off work in time, but I remembered my own college experience and how I couldn’t wait to leave during the holidays, if only for a few days, to clear my head.
In the end, the trip was pretty uneventful. I picked my daughter up and we turned right around, getting home early in the morning. I got two hours sleep and went straight to work. I worked the rest of the day, admittedly dragging the entire time, and then rested up over the weekend. My daughter enjoyed her extended fall break and we had a wonderful Thanksgiving.
The good father
Despite the routine nature of the trip, I’ve been thinking about it thanks in part to something I saw on social media. Poet and educator Taylor Mali posted his short poem on the moments that he’s at his best as a father.
When I think of myself at my best, I’m quick to think of me coming to save the day. Dad helping out in a pinch to save the semester; fighting my middle son’s teachers to see past his challenges with dyslexia to see the smart, intelligent boy that he was and the strong student he could become; and providing the dollars and the know-how so that my youngest son could “build” his own PC gaming system.
In each of these stories, I may as well be wearing a cape and a bright red Superman logo on my chest. In my mind’s eye, I hear a loud radio announcer in the background proclaiming á la Mighty Mouse: “Here I come to save the day!”
However, Mali states in his poem that he’s “no one’s hero. And I didn’t save the world, but I was here and a witness to joy.” And with those simple lines, I come crashing back to Earth with a painful, ego-deflating thud.
Living in the present
I find the poem profound, but I found something he wrote introducing it, even more powerful. Mali wrote that the moments that he’s at his best as a father are likely not the ones he thinks, but the ones where he’s present and in the moment.
Okay, now instead of the loud positive, Mighty Mouse hero music, I hear a buzzer and a womp, womp, womp trombone, like I’ve answered the wrong answer in some make-believe, highly-produced game show. When I stop trying to be a hero and let Mali’s words sink-in, I find that he’s probably right.
I suspect that if you were to ask my kids what has meant the most to them, it wouldn’t be the hero moments. It wouldn’t be any Super Dad memories. They probably only really exist in my mind. I suspect that in real life each of my three kids, two grown and one in high school, would tell you that I’ve been at my best when I’ve been there, by their side; happy when they’re happy, sad when they’re sad; present, in the moment.
It’s just taken me a lifetime of figure it out.