It was my daughter Layla’s ninth birthday last week, but if you’d asked her, it was more like her birthday season. Five months ago, Layla not only started talking about what gifts she wanted for her birthday— she began developing a meal plan for the big day (donuts, a Lunchable, and tacos). Layla deemed the day before her birthday, “Birthday Eve.” She went around talking about it to anyone who would listen, including a Target cashier, who thrilled Layla by correctly guessing that she was turning nine.
The other night I had a dream about my dad, who died over two years ago. I was in the fellowship hall of the church we attended when I was a boy, and I (as an adult) called his cell phone number. This was odd because I knew he was dead and wouldn’t answer the phone, but to my pleasant shock, he picked up. “Hey-lo!” Dad said in his twangy Arkansas accent. My heart leapt. I hadn’t talked with him in months — I thought I couldn’t talk to him anymore. “Hey, Dad!” I said, but then I looked up…
One time when I was about eight years old, I was outside with my dad when I heard a bird chirp a three-note melody: “tweet-tweet-tweet.” I looked over at my dad and said, “That bird’s singing a song,” and then I imitated it with a whistle — “tweet-tweet-tweet.” My dad’s face warmed; he gave a soft, kind smile; and his eyes twinkled.
My wife didn’t know what to expect the first time she met my dad, and I wasn’t sure how to prepare her for it. As I explained to Raquel, “My dad is like — I don’t know — this truck driver preacher who talks to everyone he meets. He’s kind of eccentric.”
One morning when my youngest daughter was 3, she got out of bed, met me at the stairs, and with quiet sincerity said, “Daddy, I have a husband.” “Oh really? What’s his name?” “Ramón,” she said, pronouncing the name “Wah-mone.”
When I was in my early 20s, I took an etiquette class back home in Mississippi. Although I remember very few of the rules, one has always stuck with me: As a general rule, you should let people embarrass themselves.
One night when my daughter was in kindergarten I was putting her down to sleep, and as I was leaving the room, she said, “Daddy, a girl at school called me a mean name.” “What was it?” I asked. She covered her face with her hands and said, “I don’t want to say.”
I arrived at the DMV late on a Friday afternoon, hoping to get my driver’s license without suffering through a long wait. I never imagined the monumentally awful experience that was about to unfold.
It was Christmas of 1984, and my mother crammed my three older siblings and me into a compact car and took us to Arkansas to celebrate the holiday. I vaguely remember it — my mother, on the other hand, remembers it quite clearly. Apparently, it was pretty rough. No doubt, putting one adult, two older teenagers and two small boys into a small car for six hours was a recipe for disaster. One of us — I shall not say who — was behaving horribly and Mom couldn’t seem to get control of the situation. She was exasperated nearly the entire time.
Last Friday night, my two-year-old son had a cold that suddenly started getting worse. He began coughing harder and harder, and eventually, he started wheezing. I normally would’ve deferred to my wife on something like this, but she was out of town, so I decided to wait it out. When his breathing became progressively shallow, I drove him to the emergency room in the middle of the night. They told me that a virus had provoked a severe asthma attack.
When I was in third grade, I had problems behaving. My heart was in the right place, but my good intentions didn’t make it to the surface a lot of the time. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to follow the rules.
A few weeks after my first child was born, I told my dad off. At the heart of my complaints was one central failure: Ever since I was a kid, he had failed to show up.
Last summer, my dad was in crisis. He was in the hospital after another near miss with death, and based on his track record, it would kill him if he went back to his old apartment and tried to live independently. And while I couldn’t imagine sending him to a nursing facility, we didn’t have a lot of options.
When I was five years old, I was playing outside one day when a wild man in an old truck sped into our driveway and slammed on the breaks. Thank God my dad was there. “Get your boy out here!” yelled the middle-aged man, who threatened to assault my 12-year-old brother, whom he accused of something. I couldn’t hear what the accusation was –all I knew was that the man was serious. As it turned out, however, my dad was more serious.
I stood in the shallow end of the swimming pool waiting for my sobbing 5-year-old daughter to jump in. This had been going on for almost 15 minutes. “I’m scared,” she cried.