“My car has a favorite speed. It wants to go this fast!”
At least that’s what I told myself as the wobble in the steering wheel subsided upon reaching eighty-two miles per hour. I’m pretty sure it’s written somewhere in the 2000 Acura Integra User’s Manual. Right after the page that explains that driving through a heavy downpour is equivalent to detailing your car.
But I had to get to the sports complex.
I had just landed in Nashville after a three-month stretch of business trips that left my wife feeling like a single mom and my kids feeling like Monday-Friday orphans. And today was Jake’s first time on the ice as part of the Nashville Predators’ GOAL program.
Kids in the south have about as much interest in hockey as they do the economic situation in Khazakstan. So, taking a page from the tobacco industry marketing handbook, the local NHL team has adopted the “get ‘em hooked while they’re young” strategy. Their program will give your five-year-old a helmet, gloves, pads, pants, skates, a jersey and a hockey stick, and provide four group hockey lessons absolutely free of charge. It’s genius. Since Jake had recently shown an interest in all things sports, Gabby signed him up.
I arrived at the rink ten minutes into the first practice. Gabby was standing in the bleachers, laughing to herself, with her camera phone pointed at the ice. I turned my eyes toward the rink and saw what looked like a huge mix-up in the wardrobe department at 20th Century Fox. Every single Oompa Loompa in Oz was mistakenly outfitted with a Transformers costume and turned loose on the tundra.
There were dozens of little kids scattered from one end of the rink to the other. Some were skating like old pros. Others were upright, gingerly making their way from one coaches’ station to another. And a good number were laying flat on their backs like beetles with their limbs flailing. Helpless.
I approached Gabby and gave her the usual kiss hello. Still smiling, she pointed to the center of the ice.
“He’s right there. In the red leg warmers.”
And there he was. A newborn deer in spring. Wobbly knees and all. He would try and lurch forward, only to find his legs splay out like a wishbone, sending him flopping to the ice. Face-first. Head-first. Butt-first. Over and over again. Coaches would come by from time to time, get down on the ice, say something to him, and then skate away.
I felt horrible for him. I knew how excited he was for this first practice, and he was spending the entire time falling down. And he wasn’t alone. As I scanned the rest of the rink, it looked like a scene from beneath a bug zapper. There were bodies strewn about. Kids crying. Reaching into thin air, hoping for a rescue. Coaches would come by at random times and hold out a hockey stick. A kid would grab on and the coach would skate away, dragging the blubbering husk of a hockey player and sliding them across the ice toward the exit. For others, the rescue never came.
Hockey can be a cruel sport.
Then there was Jake. Like the rest of us, he can get pretty frustrated when things don’t go his way. I waved toward him to get his attention. After a couple more flops I finally caught his eye. I expected tears streaming down his face.
Instead, he picked his head up off the ice, sat upright, extended his arm, and me a thumbs-up. When he smiled, his eyes beamed and his lips parted to reveal a bright green mouth guard.
The coaches set up different areas for kids to rotate through, practicing stick handling or footwork. Falling, crawling and sliding, Jake would finally make it to one of the stations. By the time he’d finally get there, everyone would dart off to the next location, leaving him scrambling to catch up. He face-planted and butt-busted the ice well over a hundred times in the span of 45 minutes. The final whistle blew. I met him at the rail. He was one of the last ones off the ice.
“Did you have a good time, buddy?”
“Yes,” he answered, slobbering through the mouth guard. “I want to go again.”
“Really? You must have really liked it. What were they teaching you out there?”
“How to get back up.”
“How to get back up?”
There were about half as many kids on the ice at the second practice. Hockey Darwinism. For some reason, Jake was still loving this sport that was 90% ego-bruising and 10% gliding grace.
By the time the third practice rolled around, Jake could skate. Sure, he still fell plenty of times, and he wasn’t setting any land speed records. But he could also weave through cones. Even swatted the puck into the net a couple of times. When he did, he thrust his arms into the air in triumph. I couldn’t help but join in the celebration.
In moments like this, you feel the joy of parenting. Seeing your kid fall in love with something. Watching them fight through adversity to find the satisfaction that comes from hard work and determination. It makes you feel like you must be doing something right as a dad.
And then you’re reminded that such moments, while thrilling, are also fleeting.
Like last week when my young Wayne Gretsky chose to wake me with a scream at 2:30 in the morning.
“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”
I ran into Jake’s room to see what was the matter. He was sitting up in his bed, red faced, and yelling like mad. We had house guests that night, so Audrey was sleeping in his room with him. She had this incredibly worried look on her face. I would have been very concerned, were it not for the fact that my son was breathing just fine.
Waking up the whole house.
I hustled him out of his room and into the master bath. There, amidst the chaos, I tried a remedy that had worked to calm him down in the past. I turned on the hot water to create some steam, leaned over the sink, grabbed a towel, and draped it over both of us so we could breathe in the makeshift sauna air.
But this time, it wasn’t working. Both of us had hot, sweaty faces, and he was still howling like a banshee. The kid has a flair for drama, which he inherited from me. I was trying to calm him down by saying, “You’re fine! Don’t worry! Just take some deep breaths!” It was no use. He still wouldn’t chill out. Instead, he yelled back,
“I can only breathe in! I can’t breathe out! I can’t breathe out! It’s not working!”
And that’s when I lost it. Parenting fail. I grabbed my son, and pulled his face two inches from my own. I then shout-whispered biology facts at him. At 2:37 in the morning.
“You’re being ridiculous, son! You cannot produce sound from your mouth unless you are exhaling air across your vocal chords! It is technically impossible for you to make the noise you are making without being able to breathe out! There is nothing wrong with you! Now CALM DOWN and GO BACK TO BED!”
Gabby, hearing my little science lesson, came to the rescue. She walked in to the bathroom, politely asked me to get him a cool drink of water, and gave the boy a hug. When I returned to the room with the water, Jake was already half asleep. I, on the other hand, was wide awake. And angry.
In the morning, Jake felt a bit warm. So, we took his temperature.
When he complained of a sore throat, we grabbed a flashlight to take a peek. The kid’s windpipe was red and swollen. Inflamed. It looked like it hurt. Next, I checked the mailbox, where I found a letter declaring that I was voted Runner Up in the America’s Most Heartless Father competition. Bested only by that guy who put his kid in a weather balloon as a publicity stunt.
There’s always next year.
I wanted to rewind the clock back to 2:30am. Erase the mistake with a hug and some will-timed compassion. Unfortunately, I’m not Marty McFly, and there is no flux capacitor. So, I did the next best thing.
I took Jake’s hand and walked with him to the couch. I looked him in the eye as he plopped down next to me.
“Hey buddy. Last night, I didn’t do such a good job taking care of you. I didn’t realize you were sick. I messed up. Sometimes dads make mistakes,” I told him. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s OK.” No fanfare. Just a quiet voice telling me that it’s not the end of the world.
Then Audrey came in, book in hand. She crawled next to me on the couch and said, “Read it.”
She handed me the book and I settled back into the cushions. As I turned the first page, they both shimmied in close. I started to read. Jake grabbed my arm, lifted it, and placed it around his shoulder.
Teaching his dad how to get back up.