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The Building Blocks of Being a Dad
“I quickly learned about the mundane aspects of fatherhood. I have been slower to grasp the mystery” (Larry Matthews).

Fatherhood came to me at age 30, thrusting me into a role that was both mysterious and mundane.

…from time to time, thankfully, they need me still. But not as deeply as I need them.

The mundane came in a barrage of infant needs. Thankfully my wife had prepared, studying how-to books well in advance of our son's birth, and bringing forward the collected wisdom of a durable Atlantic community.

I served as the assistant, and was on a steep learning curve. One lesson I learned about the care of another human being that the mundane – the food and clothes and diapers and equipment – is inescapable. I have been slower to grasp the mystery.

That I was responsible for our young offspring was instantly, dauntingly clear. That this child would need me in ways no one ever had soon became evident.

As small children, my son and daughter brought enormous joy into my life. Sometimes as I came through the front door, one or the other or both would tear down the stairs from their bedrooms and, before reaching the bottom step, launch themselves into the air, certain I'd catch them. Or we'd dance to the soundtrack of Ghostbusters in a loud, unfettered Saturday-morning frenzy. The rest of the world faded into nothingness in the face of their pure delight. They wanted nothing more than to play together, to laugh, to go anywhere together – to simply be together.

It proved too good to last.

As a typical Canadian male with an old house and modest means, I frequently visited Canadian Tire. My son always expected to come along. My impatience as he got into his boots and coat, my warnings about the brief duration of that day's visit to the holy land of hardware, the rapid pace of our walk across the parking lot on arrival – none of that dampened his enthusiasm for the trip.

Until one day, when he was around 9, and I asked, "Want to go to Canadian Tire?"

He didn't even look up from his Game Boy. "Nah. Jamie might come over. We're gonna do stuff."

So I wandered around the store alone, purchased another can of paint and roll of masking tape, and nursed my bruised ego. Gradually I pulled out of my sulk and reflected that this was a portal to a new era.

In due time, my daughter took the same healthy, important step across the threshold to her individual identity – a move that necessarily veered away from her mother and me.

When a child reaches that moment, almost instantly the parent becomes less central to daily life. Our presence and parenting remain crucial. But the terms of engagement change as our children make friends, experiment, succeed and fail, celebrate and mourn and make the journey toward maturity and independence.

There were lots more trips to Canadian Tire, some with my son and more without, until they stopped altogether when he was a teenager. For some years now I have purchased paint and masking tape without a child's questions or advice.

This doesn't mean I'm alone. These days my father often accompanies me. It usually doesn't matter how brief an errand, nor where I'm headed.

That he would come all the way across town simply to have coffee with me, or travel an hour by bus each way to have lunch with my brother, leaves me bemused. In the face of the effort he makes to share 30 minutes together, my attitude, I confess, has been more patronizing than appreciative.

But lately I'm understanding him better. Apparently, one is never done with parenting. I'm proud of both my 20-something children, fine adults who are intelligent, engaging, responsible, fun and full of hope and potential. And from time to time, thankfully, they need me still.

But not as deeply as I need them. I'm hungry for news of them. I scan each day's e-mail and monitor my call display. I have an enormous appetite for the details of their lives. There's an underlying urgency to this demand that they can’t begin to understand.

And that is the mystery – that helping raise these tiny creatures for whom I was responsible would create a profound desire for them own heart, and that a parent’s need for a child continues to grow. How utterly I have come to need my children, how deeply they move me, and how powerful they have become in my life.

This came into clear focus for me just last winter. My son, now working on another continent, was home for Christmas. His times here are always heavily scheduled, as he extracts the most from every day. He asked to borrow my car to go to Canadian Tire.

"I'll go with you," I said.  He waited, somewhat impatiently, while I scrambled into my boots and coat and gloves and we headed out.

We parked and got out of the car. He set out toward the store at a pace that had me hustling to keep up.

And in a flash, as though in a trick photograph, I understood the mystery. I caught a glimpse of a procession of fathers marching across the Canadian Tire parking lot. Each man is drawn by the child in front, the past pursuing the present and, through them, our hopes for the future.

In my vision my father, who is 81, and will cross town to see his son, followed me and behind him, my grandfather, and behind him, my great-grandfather, all drawn forward by their daughters and sons.

In front of me strode my son, oblivious to my vision, and not thinking at all of the sons and daughters I hope he has some day, so they may teach him what it is to play freely, to need others deeply and to know pure joy.

Larry Matthews lives in Toronto.

Originally published in The Globe and Mail, June 15, 2008. This essay appeared on the Facts & Arguments page in The Globe and Mail. All rights reserved.




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