The sun cracks the horizon on my 23rd canvas of our tent. Curled in my sleeping bag, I notice I’m cold. It’s mid-June, and I am cold! Later today it will be a billion degrees in the Mojave Desert. But right now, camped on the shores of Navajo Lake in Kane County, Utah, the thermometer registers 36 degrees.
As I do every Father’s Day, I inventory memories and rehearse my gratitude. My eldest, Jonathan, was born on Father’s Day 1991. He’ll be 23 this year. He’s flown the nest, and is finding his way in Colorado. I miss him.
Next was Aaron, who turned the most ghastly and terrifying shades of ash gray and blue about two minutes after he was born. He did finally agree to breathe and recently turned 21. I bought him a beer at Famous Dave’s BBQ. It was pretty cool.
Three miscarriages later, I would never again possess illusions about life’s greatest joys, greatest gifts or deepest meaning. The things that matter the most aren’t earned, achieved or deserved. Entitlement is the playground of fools. The universe is in no way compelled by my merit or my claims for fairness.
No one knows why things work out the way they do. Ambiguity reigns. Mystery trumps all. Yet, emerging from that Mystery came Joseph. Now 12. He’s sound asleep, lying next to me.
How can I tell my children how stupid lucky I am? Are there words to ever make them understand? Whatever they received from me that was good and true and beautiful … well, my life was immediately recompensed to overflowing. Every time you drop a faithful and loving coin into the slot machine of The Good Father and pull the handle, you hit a jackpot.
It’s ridiculous, really.
I got to be a father. Their father! This makes me the richest man alive. Bucket list? I’m good, actually.
I awaken Joseph. It’s our last day of fishing. The score is Joseph 8, Papa 3. He’s flat kicked my butt in the trout derby. But this morning I’ve plotted my comeback. See, yesterday Joseph used the last of the Power Bait. All we’ve left is lures, with which he has zero experience.
So, the Little Goober steps to the lake’s edge, makes his very first lure cast into the water, cranks the handle … and lands another fish! Are you kidding me?
“Papa, I’ve got one,” he exclaims.
“Great! I’ll come right over and throw you in the lake,” I say tenderly.
Final score: Joseph 10, Papa 4.
“Are you upset that I caught more fish than you,” asks Impudent Goober.
Father’s Day, light bleeding through the rustling.
It’s the kind of question I immediately recognize. The sort of question that simultaneously brags, boasts, preens and postures, yet also manages a sincere, empathic inquiry into how I might be feeling. My answer addresses, at once, both the braggart and my beloved boy.
“Joseph, when you’re a father, you’ll discover for yourself what I’m about to tell you. The greatest day I ever have is when you’re happy, successful, celebrating, victorious. When you’re proud of yourself for a job well done, when your heart is filled with rich satisfaction, when you master some skill and enjoy the feeling of competence … well, there is nothing that happens to me that is more fun than watching you be truly happy.”
Joseph smiles when I get to that last line. Hard to believe that I could add to the joy he’s already feeling in himself, but clearly he likes thinking that his joy has added something to my heart, too.
“Likewise, if you’re sad or suffering, it’s pretty much impossible for me to have a good day. And that’s just what it means to be a father.”
The young master angler stares, expression fixed. I can see my words churning behind his eyes until some cognitive gear jams, making him blink. His thoughtful rejoinder: “Well, unless you’re a really crappy father.”
Good point. A cogent observation.
Later, as I’m breaking camp, it occurs to me this was my Father’s Day card. I smile, realizing I just received a classic, ’round the barn, bass-ackward 12-year-old boy’s compliment crackling in the flames of irony. (Lucky for me, I carry a preadolescent male decoder with me at all times!)
Joseph is allowing for the possibility that I am not, in fact, a crappy father.
I’ll take it. Compliment received.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.