MY 4-year-old son picked a leaf from a large dogwood tree and handed it to me. The leaf was smooth, deep-green and shiny. But its large size attracted him most. The leaf surpassed in dimension the pale ones attached to the dogwood in our yard, their more diminutive state the result of a perpetual and losing struggle to wrest nutrients from our boulder-laden soil.
"Daddy, have this leaf."
Jamie makes me a frequent recipient of his gifts -- advice as wel as objects. Complaining to my wife one evening, Jamie within earshot, about my overloaded "in" box at the office, I Kevin J.Lanagandecried the volume of documents "coming at me." Jamie must have constructed as his mental model of what goes on at my job an image of people heaving papers at each other. Days later, as I trudged out the door to do battle with memo-mongers, he solemnly counseled: "Don't throw papers at anyone, and don't let them throw papers at you!" Upon reflection, I have decided that his model is accurate, and his counsel prudent.
Being a father focuses you on what is real. Daydreams, however vivid, don't get diapers changed; kids never wait while you grab 10 more minutes' sleep. My son rarely lets what is real get too far away from his sights, either. While driving home from pre-school one morning, I tried to explain what an allergy was. (Who knows how these topics ever come up.)
"It's when things do something to you. I'm allergic to cats; they make me itchy." Jamie considered this for a moment, then asserted he was allergic to dogs. "Why?" I asked. "What do they make you do?" He replied earnestly, "They make me want to run away from them."
When he was 2, Jamie caught his head in the arm of an aluminum lawn chair. Struggling to free himself, he screamed as much in fright as in discomfort. I nervously tugged at the chair and my son, but in my haste and alarm I succeeded only in wedging him more tightly. Ultimately, a neighbor had the presence of mind to cut the chair and snap the arm loose. Once free, Jamie became eerily quiet, clutching his blanket and his mother. I could not rid myself of the notion that inside his intense silence was radiating the discovery that his father could no longer unswervingly be counted on to rescue him from harm.
At the end of the compelling play "My Dinner with Andre," the character Andre speaks about how fragile and changing are the roles of parent and child. He concludes with a rush of images:
"What does that mean? A wife. A husband. A son. A baby holds your hands, and then suddenly there's this huge man lifting you off the ground, and then he's gone. Where's that son?"
My own father died at 32, when I was a year old. I never knew him. For me, also, the "huge man" was gone. It's funny, but I have always pictured him, even now as I approach my 40s, as being much larger than I, even though if he were alive now we would be nearly the same size. I envy and wonder about people who get to grow up with their fathers. Do fathers seem to shrink? Does this happen not only in terms of size but also of stature? When Jose Canseco doesn't hit home runs anymore, will he seem smaller, less ominous to his children, to fans?
We took Jamie to a popular amusement park in Pennsylvania. The day was suffocatingly hot, the park teeming with ripe people. Jamie's head cold would not relent. Lines were forbidding. Upon arriving at the feature water ride, we learned that Jamie was not tall enough to be allowed on. His face crumbled.
For a diversion, I quickly undertook the most daunting of carnival games to win a Bart Simpson doll, a Ninja Turtle, anything. It was futile. As a last resort, I doggedly arched six basketballs toward a minuscule hoop. The sixth caromed in, winning a fuzzy stuffed version of the ones I had launched.
Embracing the ball, Jamie looked up at me, too tired even to smile. "You won this for me?" He left the park exhausted in a stroller, a thumb in his mouth, an arm firmly pressed around the prized orb.
When he clutched the ball, I felt he was hugging me, was witnessing that I had somehow redeemed the day. It was a victory more palpable and exhilarating than anything the Olympics could offer.
"Daddy, have this leaf."
"Thanks, Jamie. Why did you give me this leaf?"
" 'Cause it's giant, like you."
I haven't often lived up to such a grand billing. But for that day, at least, as my son and I ambled away from the magnolia, I was walking tall.
Kevin J. Lanagan writes from Lutherville