It was Saturday night, June 18th, the night before Father’s Day. I had fairly low expectations of what the next day would bring and in that way, my expectations were sure to be exceeded. The truth is that I did not give the family much to work with in the way of ideas to honor me. They would ask what I wanted, and my standard response was that I wanted what most dads want on their special day – to be left alone for a few hours. I really didn’t need or want anything special, with the exception of a fresh strawberry pie for dessert. The pie ingredients were already in the refrigerator, so it was destined to be a great day.
The one roadblock to a stress free day was little Lucy. She had come down with a non-specific malaise 2 days earlier, and nothing can disrupt a family like the illness of a little one. In this case, Father’s Day at our house might mean extra whining, too much TV, and perhaps a mid-day nap, but now there would be two of us engaged in these unproductive activities.
On this Saturday, Lucy was already showing signs that her health was getting slowly worse. After dinner at approximately 6:45 PM, she fell asleep on the couch and we carried her to bed for the night. On a typical evening, Lucy would go to bed closer to 8:00 PM, so she obviously needed the extra rest. We hoped she would wake up cured and full of energy again. With Lucy in bed early, Cherie and I settled into familiar routine of checking emails and reading entertaining blogs such as this.
At about 8:45 PM, the sunlight was still lingering outside the windows, but night was closing fast. We heard someone on the stairs, and we both assumed that it was one of the other kids getting ready for bed. It wasn’t. Lucy appeared in our office in front of us wide awake, fully dressed and bearing gifts.
“Happy Father’s Day, Daddy!” she squealed. Her hair was brushed, her smile was bright and she was even wearing her “Daddy’s Little Girl” t-shirt in my honor. She had hidden behind her back a gift bag of Father’s Day goodies, although I was pretty sure that the bag contained things of mine that she had stolen and was re-gifting back to me. It made no difference. You will have to take my word for it – she was precious.
There was one cloud hanging over this celebratory scene. It was nighttime, the day before Father’s Day, and Lucy had only slept 2 hours. She must have woken up, looked outside, and the departing daylight looked like the arriving light of morning. She was confused, and who wouldn’t be? The digital clock in her room read 8:45, and the differentiation between AM and PM is an advanced concept, far beyond the comprehension of a 6 year old, let only a 6 year old suffering from spiking fevers. We are going to have to break the news, and she will have to go back to bed.
Before parental empathy and compassion had enough time to slow us down, we had to tell her. We both stared at her, and I said in a quiet voice, “But, Lucy, it’s not Father’s Day yet. It’s nighttime and you were asleep. You still need to go to bed and we are going to celebrate tomorrow.”
I apparently did not communicate this message with the requisite empathy and tender touch that such a moment demands. In my defense, that could have been an impossible task. The color drained from Lucy’s face as I spoke, and her eyes drifted off, staring intently at nothing in particular. She was looking inside and what she was seeing was personal embarrassment and confusion. There is only one rational reaction to personal embarrassment and confusion when you are young. The tears started first, but the long wail came shortly thereafter, and as her cries filled the room, the personal embarrassment shifted to me.
I am the Dad, and I had disappointed my daughter on Father’s Day (almost Father’s Day). I should have been concerned about how in the world we were going to get her back into bed at this point without reading dozens of books, laying with her for an extended period, or – last resort – putting her in bed with us. I thought about those issues, but I was mostly consumed with her sadness that her surprise was ruined somehow, and it was all my fault.
She eventually calmed down, and Mommy took over as only a Mommy can do. Lucy was back in bed, and emotionally back together again within an hour or so, thanks to Mommy. I was “chopped liver”, at least until tomorrow morning.
I thought about my other children, older and wiser, of course, but also equally susceptible to their father disappointing them or ruining their well laid plans. I vowed to keep this moment in mind, and be careful with my words and the timing of those words next time, lest I burst more bubbles at some future point with my negative doses of reality. Lord knows there is sometimes value in letting your kids live in a dream world, if just for a few hours. There’s always time for reality checks later, and the outside world will happily supply these in great quantity. No sense in Dad adding more opportunities for personal embarrassment and confusion.
Dads, never forget the impact you have on your kids, even in situations when you’re trying not to have any. Kids have a bad memory for details, but their emotional memory runs deep.
Good luck with that, fellow fathers. The odds are against us, as any good therapist will tell you.