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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Lessons Other Dads Taught Me

As I look back at the oddness of what used to be "some day in June" now being My Day, I marvel at how amazing the feeling of carrying my two year old son a mile and a half into the ball park (and then back) will stick with me. Having my five year old whispering "Happy Father's Day" into my ear every time there was a lull in the conversation made me realize that this, more than anything else, is what my life needs to mean anything.

Honestly, for most of my life seeing the words "Father's Day" on a random Sunday in June had about as much meaning to me as "Arbor Day" or "Thanksgiving (Canada)". I was that guy who found it easier to espouse the old "Hallmark Holiday" cynicism that masked the fact that it was just something I had missed out on so much.

My dad passed away when I was four years old and I am sure that I probably colored something or pasted something together for him every Father's Day. I just have no memory of doing that. I never made the conscious decision that Father's Day was just another day but it truly was just something I heard about when other kids at church would say, "We're taking Dad to Roy's Taco House for Father's Day."

The perfect symbol of how that thought has been blown out of my life is that I actually had to stop writing this to go up and get my two year old out of bed, bring him downstairs, change his diaper and then help him pretend to fix my daughter's bicycle helmet.

As a Dad, I really am guessing every day. My main strategy is to wait for a question to answer or an emergency to avoid. Follow that up with a goofy face or noise and asking if the kids want cereal or pancakes and I am Super Dad!

I heard stories of my Dad being someone who drove a milk route before the sun came up and then did other jobs around town while still finding time to coach Little League Baseball and make sure that my five older brothers knew that he saw EVERYTHING. He put them in their places but those were just stories. For me, he was a character in stories more than anything else.

So, as my brothers were preparing to be grandfathers, I received two tiny packages.  I had as much perspective on, "What do I do now?" as I would have if I had become a Dad at 18 as I did at 43.  Then, I started to pay attention to what the Dads around me did.

The first person who taught me anything was a neighbor named Roger Miller. He and his wife had named their kids Kent, Kyle, Kraig, Karri and Kelly. We had a constant game of wiffle ball going in the Millers' back yard. Mr. Miller was that guy who was always there. I am sure that he had some sort of job but none of us knew what it could be. He coached Little League and was just constantly finding ways to be around. Even if it was swinging home to watch ten minutes of our games or to drive his kids and me to bowling, he was the first that I saw who probably did not actually have the time to be there for his kids, but somehow he was there for his kids.

For the most part, because my brothers were so much older than I was, they were more like uncles to me than brothers. My oldest brother Dave went to college the year I was born. Aside from the obligatory family holidays, Dave and I did not actually "hang out" until I was in my late Thirties. 

Dave actually had one son in his first marriage and later married into being a Dad. His amazing wife Linda brought with her two kids and Dave took on the challenge of raising them while still knowing that their Real Dads had all the power. He just plugged away and kept listening and through those challenges he became a Go-To Grown-up. When he and Linda had a son together, he knew that twelve-hour work days are no excuse for not listening and hearing what these people needed from him. 

Again, this lesson did not come to me until I got to hear some of the things Dave did for these kids. "Supporting the Family" does not just mean making a living.

Then, there is my brother Den (who I believe renamed himself 'Denny' when he turned 50 because he thought it made him seem younger.) Den's world got yanked around with job changes and transfers from our home town to Chicago to Nebraska and back to Chicago. He spent days and weeks at a time on the road for work but somehow gave his two kids the constant message that even after a 12 hour drive he was not going to miss what was important to them.  His two kids seem to be polar opposites but because they got to see how Den saw them as amazing people in their own ways. Therefore,they see it in each other. 

That is huge.

Before I get to more brotherly lessons in fatherly forays, I also look at another dad who had no idea that he was providing me a class in Fatherhood 101. He was a man named Norm Carbiener. Mr. Carbiener (every Dad is a "Mr."!)  really did not say a lot but I remember that the Carbieners would let me come out to their house and even let me stay with them when I came home from college. My biggest memory is that no matter what the story he was hearing from any of his three kids, it seemed to be the most interesting thing he had heard that day.

By the way, I had to stop writing this little essay for a few minutes because of the greatest Father's Day moment of all came when five-year-old Parker Pearson sprinted down the stairs and shouted, "Happy Father's Day!" and jumped on me. The fact that she runs to me like this every day in the morning and when school lets out is the ultimate daily affirmation of joy.

Then, there is my brother Paul. He is that "Cool Dad" most of us want to be. He did not just listen to his two amazing daughters talk about bands they liked and things they were doing, he went with them and participated.  I think he probably only embarrassed them in doing this every once in a while. Of course, I envision that he has a box full of "New Kids on the Block" concert shirts with the sleeves cut off but I think his daughters had much hipper taste in music than that.

Until I started paying attention to what other dads did, my only fatherly memories involved Andy Taylor and Opie and Ward Cleaver with Wally and the Beaver on reruns. It seemed like being a Dad involved a sit-down conversation after twenty minutes of the kids getting in trouble. That works right up until the next time my kids shove each other off the couch or attempt to knock each other off the slide in our back yard.

I honestly did not know I was missing out until the, "Dad, you wanna have a catch?" scene in "Field of Dreams". 

This Dad thing may seem conventional. My brother Dan has a great wife and two kids. He showed me creativity in Dad-dom. His job took him all over the area where he lived and he would map out the stops in his work so he could find thirty minutes here, twenty minutes there to see the endless barrage of games, concerts, recitals, church events and cookouts that having two daughters who seemed to be the social epicenter of our little home town brought.

Sorry, we interrupt this essay to answer Parker Pearson's question, "Daddy, did the Cardinals win last night?"   Yes. They did.  "YAYYYYYYY"

As late in life as I came to being a Dad, my brother Mark had another challenge in this Fatherhood Challenge. He married a woman who was the perfect fit for him but her kids were pretty much all grown-up. This means you have no chance of being called, "Dad" and they have seen it all and the old "You're not my Daddy" Concept could have made life pretty miserable. He had the instinct of just being someone they could count on as a friend and not just as some guy in the house.

The uncomfortable Land of the Step Dad could have been miserable had he not had the sense to just be there and come through for them.

That seems to be the biggest lesson I have learned. Nothing with kids will go exactly the way you draw it up. Finding ways to be around and be the one they jump on, giggle with, fear (just a little) and they trust that when you throw them in the air, you will catch them is what I have learned.

Now after all that wisdom, I need to go tell my daughter to get her fingers out of her mouth and tell my son to stop pulling on the dog's tail.

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