I struggle every day as a father. I’m never sure that my actions will have good consequences. I am becoming an old man. My energy is failing, or, I should say that it takes a whole lot more gumption to overcome inertia these days. I’m never sure if my actions will be the right ones but I know that physical inaction is almost never right.
Today, I had that energy on my mind very early on. On waking, I dreaded a day where I didn’t want to do anything but knew I’d have to for my good and for Nick. I took a long while to get through the newspaper. After a good dose of cartoons, Nick wanted to see if his friend could play. When he returned home disappointed—the kid could not come out—I thought, well, today, we ought to get moving. Instead, he wanted to wait to see if his friend could play after a wait. I went from the newspaper to bed. When I emerged an hour and a half later, Nick’s friend still could not play.
We sat in the living room, cartoons on the television. The sun shone and the day promised mid-winter warmth. Though I didn’t want to do anything, I felt uncomfortable sitting there doing nothing but the heaviness of my own body kept me in place.
Let’s get out, I said. Let’s go take a hike. I was only nominally committed. If something had come up, I would have stayed in my chair.
It’s not that I didn’t want to hike. A hike would do me good, I knew that. I love the place where we were going. But I was leaden. I moved only slowly. I didn’t want to read and could not think of anything I wanted to write. I tried but nothing came. Watching my kid in front of the television and playing with his legos was killing me.
We hitched up the dogs and drove to Swope Park to a trail we know. I have been going there for over twenty years. Rocky ridges fall down stony, heavily forested slopes to a stream. The bottoms spread out around the creek under old-growth trees. In spring and summer, sounds echo under the canopy and out over the low ground cover. The green of the grasses and trees hurts my eyes. In fall and winter, the afternoon sun strikes the hillsides, revealing subtler browns and yellows in the sylvan beauty of this tiny valley.
I first took my daughter Sydney to this little chip of forest when she was a little girl. Being a father at the time scared me. I worried that my actions and decisions would ruin my child. I wanted to be a good father but didn’t know how. What I did know was that I knew the outside. Getting her into the woods, I thought, couldn’t be wrong.
We visited the valley often. If I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do with Sydney, we’d climb in the car and get lost in the woods for a couple of hours. Though the valley is in the middle of a busy city park, we almost never ran into another person when we walked the trail. Instead, we listened to squirrels skitter through the leaves, frogs burping in the creek, and birds singing in the trees. City sounds, traffic and railroad, stood behind it all, reminding us that we weren’t far from home.
Because of Sydney, I know better how to be a father. My experience with her makes decisions regarding school and home easier when it comes to Nick. I am not the frightened, anxious man I was when she was growing up. Nick, 12 years younger than Syd, presents fewer conundrums—or, at least, the puzzles and perplexing problems are different.
I no longer use the woods as a backstop but as a motivational device. Nothing motivates Nick more than time doing stuff with his father. I wanted to get Nick out of the house. Too much television. Too many videos on the phone. Too many video games. A trip to the woods would break him out of entertaining himself with video screens and the tedium of legos.
We climbed out of the car with the dogs and headed out. The trail isn’t long but runs up and down hills and through the bottoms, taking us through varied landscapes in a short period of time. We hiked down the hill over the rocks and to the stream. The dogs dragged us behind them. Where the trail was flat down at the bottoms, we got our feet muddy but somehow steered the dogs around the worst of it. (I didn’t want dog baths in our future.)
Being outdoors in the woods makes being a father easier. I’m at ease there. I’m assured of myself. I know my way around the woods. I have something to contribute, whether the name of a tree or the identification of hydrodynamics of a forest stream. Nick depends on himself but looks to me for guidance. He gets to the point, as Syd did, where he is telling me about this or that in the forest.
We didn’t have a fabulous or outstanding time. Not all times between father and son need be exciting. We communed for a moment, had good conversation, and wrangled dogs together. We still had a lot of afternoon and evening ahead but we had our moment together today.
As I look back over the day, we didn’t do much but for our hike. Everything is fine, nothing is out of order. I’m still worried about being a father to Sydney and Nick. I don’t look forward to tomorrow and another day wondering if I’m screwing up my kids.
The house is quiet tonight. The dogs have been laying around since we returned this afternoon. Nick has been reading for a couple of hours tonight in the back room. Everything, despite my anxious insides, is fine.