What Kind of Father Am I?
by Tim Elhajj
Twenty-some years ago, I took my son to a Pennsylvania amusement park named for a chocolate bar and discovered I had a lot to learn about being a father. He was a chipper boy of about three-and-a-half. It was a bright summer’s day and we were having a good time. He insisted we ride a wild roller coaster that included a loop-the-loop. It seemed like a bad idea to me, but he was relentless: He tugged at my pant leg, screwed up his little sun-baked face and whined. I would have stood a better chance of denying him, had I felt a little more secure in my ability to father him. Or, perhaps, if I had a better sense of the kind of father I wanted to be. As it was, I had neither. Shortly after he was born, his mother had taken him and left me, and my father was dead and gone, leaving me with only the vague notion that I ought to be able to do a better job than he had done with me. It seemed simple enough. But I only had the boy for the afternoon. And more than anything else, I wanted to make him happy.
“You want to ride the SooperDooperLooper?” I asked.
He literally leapt into the air and bounced in a ring around me. His blond crew cut shone, his blue eyes glittered with anticipation.
Part of the SooperDooperLooper’s popularity is its low height requirement. Even so, I had to grab Timmy by his armpit and nudge him half an inch skyward to meet the bar. I nodded to the timid teenager collecting tickets and said, “He’s good.”
Timmy and I snuggled into our seats and drew the security bar across our laps. My boy grinned with palpable excitement. I grinned back. As the car glided away from the platform, my son grew still. Locked into our seats, we started the long, slow pull up that first hill.
“Dad,” Timmy said. His voice had a tremble I had never heard before. “I’m not sure I want to do this anymore.”
“Well, son,” I told him. “It’s too late now.”
We reached the top of the hill, made a shallow left turn, and then plummeted into the loop. I felt the earth give up its hold on me as we lurched into our ride. Timmy screamed. I wanted to put my arm around him, offer him some small bit of comfort, but forces I didn’t quite understand held me firmly in my seat. The best I could muster was a smile through gritted teeth.
Wikipedia tells me this ride lasted for exactly one minute and thirty seconds. When it came to a stop, Timmy was a mess. He was crying so hard his entire head had turned bright red, like an enormous radish, balanced between bony shoulders.
Taking his hand, I helped him from the car. He leaned away from me, gulping for air between loud, pitiful sobs. We stood like that on the exit platform, me holding onto his hand, him straining to keep his distance, as if he were a small pet dog, pulling at its leash.
A sturdy woman with gay yellow shorts strode up to me from the crowd and looked me right in the eye. “You’re a terrible father,” she said.
“I know,” I sighed.
I certainly felt terrible. I had zero experience with children, no partner with which to weigh-out options and strategies, and just enough animosity for my own father to negate any helpful lessons I might have learned from him. In short, I was a new father. And if these limitations were the type many new fathers face, my greatest drawback hasn’t even been listed: I was using heroin on a daily basis. This was why Timmy’s mother had left me.
By the time Timmy turned four, I stopped using drugs for good. The circumstances of exactly how this happened aren’t all that important, except to say that I then had to really struggle to find a place in Timmy’s life beside his stepfather. Whatever other limitations I possess, being a father has always been important to me, something necessary and good, a much-needed piece of who I am, and who I want to be. Eventually I met a new partner, Holly, and started a family with her. Twenty years later, I find myself with ten-year-old twins, a son, Aaron, and a daughter, Kennedy.
Sometimes I think that because I’m not using heroin anymore, I’m automatically a good father. Obviously this isn’t true, but it’s a tempting idea with evident allure, and I find myself falling into this kind of thinking without even realizing it.
Just as the school year began, a teacher’s strike in our Pacific Northwest community caused my children to get an extended vacation before the fifth grade. Summer vacations may seem like lazy days in the shade with frosty glasses of lemonade piled high with ice, but they are actually carefully orchestrated multi-month events that include an extended vacation, the occasional day trip, sport camps, community plays, and a requisite number of ad hoc sleepovers and cookouts. The school year offers a much needed break, but the strike had caught us all off-guard. We struggled to come up with ways to keep the kids entertained.
Holly decided we ought to go to Seattle and rent canoes for a trip through the local arboretum. Although I have never been much of an outdoorsman, it was a crisp, clear day and I wanted to be helpful, especially with the crisis at hand.
Holly sat in the back of the canoe. Aaron was in the bow and one of his little friends was in the middle. They boys were giggling behind dark sunglasses, using their paddles to flick water on one another. Holly shielded her eyes from the glare on the water and shouted directions at me.
“Watch,” she shouted. “Careful.”
My daughter and I were on the dock, trying to get our canoe into the water. Holly had once owned a sailboat and now, like anyone who has once owned a sailboat, she felt compelled to get all nautical, barking out commands every chance she got.
I held the boat to the dock for my daughter, then clambered in behind her myself.
To get to the peaceful arboretum waterways, we had to first navigate a narrow shipping lane and then go under a busy overpass. From the dock, it didn’t seem like that big a deal. I could see Mount Rainier’s snow-covered summit looming beyond the Route 520 overpass. To my left, the glassy expanse of Lake Washington stretched out in the distance. To the right was the Lake Washington Ship Canal, a narrow channel that is the last link in a longer water passage that ultimately connects the Puget Sound with Lake Washington.
Navigating the shipping lane turned into a challenge. I didn’t even realize it was a shipping lane until Kennedy and I were well into the middle of it and a large sightseeing boat came bearing down on us. “Holy shit,” I thought. I still hadn’t quite figured out how to make the canoe go straight.
Holly hollered, “Hurry.”
Kennedy and I were paddling against one another, so I asked her to stop. I paddled hard, remembering to stroke the water on alternate sides of the boat. Years earlier at a company picnic, I had taken Kennedy in a canoe and she had been terrified by Jet Skis roaring past and sending us bobbing in their wake. I didn’t want to appear scared, but wasn’t sure how well I was pulling off my stoic veneer. Kennedy tried to offer me paddling guidance, but in all the excitement, I didn’t hear much of what she said.
When I caught up with Holly under the overpass, I gave her a look, like, “Jesus. That was scary.” But she just grinned and waved to a few passengers on the deck of the sightseeing boat. She reminded me that the small boats always have the right of way. This observation gave me little comfort.
Kennedy wanted badly to be with her brother and his friend, a boy from her class, for whom she may have entertained a small crush. The three of them were too young to go by themselves and the canoes weren’t big enough for four. I tried to entertain her by pointing out turtles and birds, and interesting shapes that appeared in lichen and branch. Kennedy just sighed.
I could feel a strong wind building, but we were mostly sheltered by the trees in the park and the overpass behind us. Once, though, as we navigated through a small clearing, a strong gust of wind howled through the trees and in seconds turned our boat 180 degrees from the direction in which we were headed. I marveled at how easily our course had changed. As the gust slowed, I quickly got us back on course.
We decided to head back.
Coming out from the overpass, we found ourselves exiting the arboretum much farther from the dock than where we entered. There was a strong wind at our backs. Holly suggested we cross the shipping lane immediately, pointing with her head to a wide gap in the number of small yachts and motorboats navigating the lane. She had enough seafaring acumen to suggest our guest hold onto the hull of my canoe, creating a sort of homemade-pontoon boat, which enabled us to stay together as we crossed the shipping lane.
On the other side of the lane, though, the wind changed direction and grew more intense, making it more difficult to reach the dock. With the wind blowing against us, only Holly and Aaron could row. We were making little progress and decided our best bet was to split up. Holly gave the order to let go the hull.
Almost immediately Kennedy and I started to drift with the wind. I put my head down and paddled as hard as I could. Kennedy paddled too. I could feel a slick sheen of sweat growing under my shirt and on my brow. I knew we were not going in the right direction. I paddled harder. I felt certain I could bully my way over to the dock. Splitting up had sent a rift of competitive fever through all the children, but now Kennedy grew still in the bow. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Holly and the boys were still heading in the right direction. The life vest was chaffing my neck, but I dug my oar into the dark water. I was getting winded, my arms and chest were beginning to throb. I now had to turn fully in my seat to get a glimpse of the other canoe. All my hard work was getting us absolutely nowhere. Kennedy and I were heading God knows where—out to sea I imagined.
“Daddy,” Kennedy said. Her voice was tight, but not panicked.
“I got it, sweetie. I got it.”
I didn’t want her to get alarmed but was close to panic myself. We were at least 1000 yards from the nearest shore and perhaps half that distance from the shipping lane where we separated from Holly only minutes ago. Although the lane had lots of boats coming and going, our current position was deserted. I tried to use the paddle as a rudder, but that was hopeless. And without me paddling against the wind, we raced toward… what? I had no idea, the wilderness. More desolation. I twisted my trunk and threw up my hands to signal Holly. Her canoe was now only a speck in the distance. Fuck. It was all I could do not to toss the paddle into the water. All I could think was, Fuck. This is fucked. We’re fucked. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Kennedy twisted in her seat. She could tell I was falling apart. I tried to put a good face on it, but the best I could do was smile at her through gritted teeth.
She said, “Don’t let a little wind spoil your day.”
I totally lost it. Instead of thinking fuck, I started to say it. Over and over in a quiet hiss, like a demented chicken clucking. I clenched my paddle and twisted my eyes shut. When I opened my eyes, Kennedy was a mess. Her lip was pouted and she was close to tears. I apologized immediately but felt utter shame. I wanted to hold her, offer her some small comfort, but moving toward the front of the canoe only made us pitch wildly in the water.
“Daddy, Daddy!” she said. She wasn’t calling for comfort, but chastising me for jiggling the boat.
Holly and the boys had changed direction and were now heading toward us. I couldn’t console Kennedy, so I started paddling again, if only to slow our progress against the wind and allow the others to catch up. I cooed something encouraging to Kennedy, but she was already taking care of herself. She sat quietly in the bow with a neutral expression, her hands in her lap.
Holly and the boys quickly caught up with us. We held the hulls together and paddled to the nearest shore, ending up far north of the dock but close enough to land and trees to receive shelter from the wind. Now that we were safe, I felt awful.
I was a terrible father.
As we waited in line to return our paddles and vests, I tried to talk to Kennedy about what had happened on the water, but she quickly changed the subject. She wasn’t angry but completely uninterested in processing what had happened. On the walk to the car, I tried to talk to Holly, but she also seemed cool, even a little defensive of our entire canoe adventure.
Here I was, twenty years later, utterly sober, the father of three, yet still buffeted by my own inexperience and limitations, trying to figure out on my own where I had gone wrong and how to do better. You get an idea of the kind of father you think you ought to be. You realize there are some things you can do—you can stop using drugs, for example. You can go to work and you can come home for dinner every night. But what you don’t count on are all of the intangibles, the invisible forces that conspire to keep you from fulfilling your dream: your own inexperience, the fears and needs that can suddenly come howling down on you like a summer squall, or the centrifugal force from the relationship you had with your own father, pinning you to your seat, when clearly it’s time to act. Being a father is the most satisfying and fulfilling experience of a lifetime, but it feels terrible when you fail, and failure seems almost a guarantee.
The next day, we took my son to a soccer tournament, which lasted all day. Between games, Kennedy and I explored the grounds. I felt like I needed to say something, so I apologized for my language on the lake, my lack of composure. I didn’t think Kennedy was going to acknowledge me and that would have been okay. I had said my piece, cleaned up my side of the street. I was ready to let it go. She tucked her hair behind her ear, as she studied the ground at her feet.
“I could have done it differently,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I could have explained how to row a canoe,” she said. “They taught us in Girl Scouts. I actually did try to explain a couple of times, but you didn’t listen to me.” She looked at me pointedly. I remembered her trying to explain something as we first crossed the shipping lane. “Next time,” she said, “I’ll just bang my paddle on the side of the boat until you listen to me.”
She was grinning.
I had no idea Kennedy had known how to row a canoe, but I had to admit that having her pulling alongside me couldn’t have hurt. I assumed that the extra boy in Holly’s canoe had made all the difference: He added extra weight and another paddle in the water. But even if Kennedy and I hadn’t been able to overcome the wind and current, we might have been able to share the burden of getting to shore. No small weight, indeed.
Perhaps the greatest progress I can make as a father also comes from the intangibles, the invisible forces that work on my child despite my mistakes. Maybe all I have to do is show up, bringing all my inadequacies, fears, and limitations with me. Just show up. What kind of father does that? The kind of father I want to be.
What Kind of Father Am I? first appeared in Sweet
Tim Elhajj writes creative nonfiction. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Brevity and other places. You can find out more about him on his blog, Present Tense (past imperfect), at http://telhajj.com.