My daughter Ruby has a tiny bud of a pea plant growing in a dixie cup, and she’s been carrying it around all morning. She’s gentle with it, as gentle as a five-year-old can be, that is. She calls it “Plantie.”
Plantie is fragile and helpless on her own. She needs water, she needs soft light and, according to Ruby, she needs to be hugged close when it gets too cold. Plantie needs the soft pads of your fingertips lightly brushing her leafs. She needs an encouraging coo and a whisper of a kiss.
Ruby gives these things to Plantie because she has that kind of heart and because to her, this is how one raises, protects and loves a fragile sprout. She is practicing parenthood, and she is becoming a better human for it.
I didn’t have a father like Ruby has. When I was her age I had a drunk, an addict, a schizophrenic, an abuser, a fragile beaten man with exposed raw nerves who cowered from the world in his polluted cave that stunk of his rotting conscience.
Still, I ached for his approval and his love. One day he got on his knees and slurred that he was going to teach me how to box.
Put your fists up, he said and I did. I jabbed immediately and knocked his sunglasses crooked.
He smiled and he was proud of me. I smiled and I was proud of me, too, and I dropped my hands and his fist felt like a brick in a sock as it split my lips. The back of my head, the wall.
I stayed down, sobbing and swallowing blood. I was seven. You gotta keep your guard up, he said.
But still I ached for his approval and his love.
I want to talk about the ways I am better because of him – he taught me to love baseball, for one, and even planted the idea of tabletop sports games in me by showing me a dice baseball game HE had made up as a kid – but mostly the stories where I come out better are the stories where he provides an example of the father and man I don’t want to be.
We learn baseball from our fathers, we learn manhood from our fathers, we learn to be fathers from our fathers.
When I was Ruby’s age I didn’t have the role models and the support she does. I learned to cradle and protect her through thorough introspection and examination of the empty spots in my childhood, and through the want to make sure that her childhood doesn’t lack in the ways mine did.
But, as fathers, it turns out that the difference between me and my dad is something I wouldn’t have guessed.
When Ruby coddles and cares for her fragile sprout, she’s learning important lessons about nurturing and love and what one needs to grow up healthy.
When I coddle and care for my fragile sprout, I’m learning important lessons about nurturing and love and what one needs to live with peace and serenity.
It turns out that it’s in the fathering that we learn to be better humans, and that it’s in the being better humans that we turn out to be better fathers. I learned that from my daughter when I tried to be her father.
There’s the difference. The learning and the trying.