In the past week, I’ve picked up one grandson from preschool twice, taken the other to baseball practice and cheered him on at a coach-pitch game, did a whole lot of riding on the golf cart with both of them while blasting those super-cool new songs “Purple People Eater” and “Ghostbusters,” told bedtime stories about Jack and the Beanstalk and Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby and, of course, responded to roughly 1 million requests of “Pop, be monster!”
Cue screaming and panicked running to the nearest walk-in closet. Door slam … and scene.
It was a week that began with a funeral for my uncle — my mother’s last surviving sibling. The next day, we welcomed my third grandchild, which made me a girl Pop for the first time and necessitated my doing even more helping out and monster-ing with my grandboys than usual. And, oh by the way, I missed just two hours of work the entire week and still got a lot of important projects done. In short, it’s been a stressful past seven days.
Spending that much time with the boys — ages 6 and 3 — can wear out a 52-year-old … or even a young fella like myself. My back hurts from where the 3-year-old dug his toes into it after falling asleep next to Pop shortly after they threw Brer Rabbit in the briar patch. My head aches from all the whining about scraped knees and unshared toys. And if I see Blippi dance across my TV screen one more time, the television and I just might have an Elvis-Robert Goulet moment.
And, yet, I wouldn’t trade a second of my time with the kids.
These two — oops, make that three now — young’uns don’t have any of my blood flowing through them, but they are every bit my grandkids and I couldn’t love them any more than I do. So, I treasure every moment — many of which I capture with my camera phone so that I can flood Facebook with cute pics. No apologies. You take pictures of lunch. I take pictures of my grandkids. It’s not my fault they’re so photogenic.
Every moment spent with a child is precious, but especially so as a grandparent. The parents have all the responsibilities and most of the time with them. As grandparents, we are blessed with fewer responsibilities but cursed with less time. The clock is ticking. Parents can’t hear it, but grandparents can. I can’t afford to waste a grain of sand in that hourglass. When the kids are my age, that last grain of sand will have long since dropped. If it were to fall tomorrow, I’ll be lucky to be remembered at all someday. I can’t stomach that thought, so I try to make the most of every moment.
Because I dote on the grandkids and wear myself out being there for them, I’m told over and over what “a great Pop” I am. I appreciate the sentiment. I do make the effort to be Pop of the Year. But I’m a great Pop for the absolute worst reason:
Because I was a bad dad.
My son, an only child, is 22 and enjoying life on his own in Australia as he studies civil engineering and works a part-time job like a lot of kids his age. He always has had many friends, and he’s at an age when your closest friends are like family.
We are different in so many ways, yet I see some of me in him — especially the noncomformity that goes far beyond being OK with not fitting in to actually getting satisfaction from going against the grain and rattling the status quo. Rules aren’t meant to be broken; they’re meant to be laughed at. Some folks are out-of-the-box thinkers; others, like us, prefer to crush the box and play with the bubble wrap as they ponder life. Some folks march to the beat of their own drummer; others march to the dings of their own xylophones.
I’ve got more nonconformity metaphors if you’re not following me.
But he’s not thriving not because of me. No, he’s thriving in spite of me. That’s shocking for me to even type today because I just knew I was going to be a fantastic dad, maybe even the best ever. I told him so on the day he was born, a rather difficult birth because he was a big baby and should have been born Cesarean. (His doctor would later admit the same but said she was under pressure to keep her C-section rates down. I was less than impressed. And folks wonder why I’m disgusted by insurance companies and medical profiteering.)
I would tell him many more times what a great dad I was going to be. I held him as a baby at night and whispered, “I’ll always be there for you.” But I wasn’t, and it haunts me every day of my life.
Too many times when he was growing up, I chose to be somewhere else. We’ve all got obligations, such as jobs to put food on the table. We have other family matters to attend to. There are responsibilities that often separate us from our kids. We can’t always be there. That’s not what I’m talking about.
Way too many times I made a conscious decision to be somewhere else — somewhere that was not important, doing things that were even less important. Those are the choices that make you want to go back in time and slap the fool out of your old self.
For many years, most of my weeknights were spent in a newsroom. Again, that was not by choice. But one evening when I was not chained to the desk, I took my then 5-year-old son to dinner at a restaurant. It was a good dad night. Outside of the restaurant was a fountain, so I gave him a penny to throw in and make a wish. He clutched it, closed his eyes and made his wish: “I wish Daddy could be home every night.”
What kind of dad could hear something like that and still fail?
In the years to come, we spent a lot of days together. We had many father-son outings. Yet, I had many more opportunities to spend time with him upon which I passed. Too often I made the choice to do something else. Way too often. I doubt I really needed to be any of those places in hindsight. I needed to be with him.
As the years went on, the tables turned and he became the one making the choices to be somewhere else, somewhere without Dad. And he can’t get much farther away than Down Under. I can’t blame him. But I also can’t listen to that Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle” without tearing up. OK, without bawling. Turn it. Just cut the damn radio off!
Time is our most precious commodity. You can’t get it back — not a single second of it, much less hours and days. I can’t fix that past. I try not to repeat the same mistakes as a Pop that I made as a Dad.
So, please heed the advice of a bad dad: Invest as much time as possible in your kids. You don’t have to make every moment a gift, but you do need to be present every moment possible. I can’t guarantee they’ll turn out to be wonderful adults or that they’ll even thank you for your efforts. But I can absolutely guarantee you this:
You will someday regret every moment you chose to be any place else but with them.