JIM DODSON: Fatherly Advice And Deaf Ears
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I was struggling to keep up with my teenage daughter along a dark and foggy stretch of coastal road. This was just after 3 a.m. last Wednesday.
Unimaginably, she was heading for a baby-sitting job.
If I was annoyed that her regular baby-sitting client would ask her to come out on a winding coast road in the middle of a wild tropical night just so he could take a trip to New York, my daughter was angry that I insisted on following her there.
"I know what I'm doing, "she declared. "I'm not a child. And besides, I made a commitment."
She was right about this. She's not a child anymore. But she is still my daughter.
"Fair enough," I said. "I'm just committed to seeing you get there safely."
She gave me The Sigh. "Well, please don't insist on going in to meet the man. That would just be too embarrassing."
"Not a problem," I assured her. "I'll try and keep my distance."
This seems to be my fate these days -- to keep my distance and stick my nose in only when money or a little comic relief is needed. If I try to offer fatherly advice -- well, it can get ugly fast.
Now, as she sped ahead of me in my old Volvo into the swirling ocean fog, all I could do was picture some disaster waiting just around the next curve in the road. So far as I know, she's a careful driver, though at this moment she was going much too fast for conditions over a road where I knew from painful experience animals were prone to appear suddenly.
Ironically, we were passing an old farm where I once ran over a woman's barn cat early one January morning. Oddly enough, that happened the day my daughter was born.
I'd been rushing home to the island cottage where we were living to shower and fetch the camera I'd forgotten to bring to the hospital when the cat scampered over a snowbank and appeared in my headlights. I swerved but struck him and saw the wounded animal hobble up the bank and head off into a snowy field.
I pulled over, climbed the bank, and waded into a perfect white blanket of snow, just as a golden sun cracked the arctic horizon, bathing the field in brilliant orange light, following the erratic wounded tracks to a cluster of evergreen trees on a hill. There I found the old orange cat curled up and bleeding from the mouth, in shock and breathing hard. I picked him up and carried him back down the hill and crossed the frozen road to a farmhouse where the kitchen light had just come on. Someone was up making morning coffee.
The woman began to cry as I gently handed over her dying cat.
"I'm so sorry," I said, yo-yoing between ecstasy and the horror of what I'd done. "My daughter was just born this morning and I was hurrying to get back to the hospital ..."
"It's OK," she said, cutting me off quietly, cradling old Tom like a baby Jesus. "I'll take him to the vet. He was old and half-blind. At least you stopped."
She sniffed, managed a brave smile, and congratulated me on my daughter's birth. I thanked her, asked her to send me the bill and apologized again, cursing myself all the way back to my car. The woman never sent me a bill. I later learned her cat died moments after I left.
With this moment from 18 years ago still achingly fresh in my memory as we passed the very spot where it happened, I dialed my daughter's mobile phone and got her plummy-voiced recorded greeting. Kids all sound like MTV rock stars these days.
"Hi, this is your dad calling," I said after the beep, aiming to strike a balance somewhere between amused concern and outright paternal panic. "By the time you get this message, love, it may be too late. But please slow down. These roads are very dangerous at this hour. I love you."
I hung up, wondering if she would ever hear this message from the trailing darkness, regretting my poor choice of words -- it may be too late -- and then sped up myself to try to catch her fleeing taillights.
Suddenly another thought occurred to me, almost as if some thoughtful angel had whispered in my ear. I actually slowed down, hoping the sight of my headlights dropping back might cause her to respond accordingly. She knew where the client lived, after all. I didn't.
I watched her taillights go around a wooded corner and feared I'd been left in the fog. When they reappeared, though, she was applying the brakes and I could almost picture her pretty face scowling at what a tedious drag her old man has become.
Lapse in Judgment
I sometimes find myself wishing I could wind the days back to the little girl who never failed to laugh at my jokes.
Instead, let me just wind the days back to where this difficult week started.
It began last Friday night when two of my daughter's best friends went over to her mom's house to watch a movie. Her mom and stepdad were away for the weekend, but her grandmother was visiting and alone upstairs. Downstairs, some boys showed up and someone -- no one is still certain who -- brought along a bottle of vodka.
We've had many conversations in our blended households about underage drinking and personal responsibility, and up till now my daughter has been a model of respect in almost every way. She knows the laws, and she knows there are serious consequences in life.
That's what made this episode so surprising. When she later took it upon herself to 'fess up to her mom what happened -- stalling before telling me because as it clearly states in the Official Guide to Being a Modern Teenager With an Annoying Father, dads should always be the last to be informed -- she admitted that she had felt helpless to say no to her friends, caving in to the very kind of peer pressure we were nearly convinced she was immune to.
She clearly made a mistake in judgment. Evidently, so did we.
To top things off, the next morning, while walking out to her car to go to work, she slipped and badly twisted her foot.
On Tuesday, after limping severely for two days, she went to the doctor and learned that her foot had a stress fracture that would require a cast for at least a month.
When she showed up at her favorite coffee shop for our family "meeting" to discuss possible sanctions from Friday night's breech of trust, she was distraught over the fact that she now wouldn't be able to swim on the school team this winter and will probably grow horribly fat and ugly between now and Christmas.
"I may not even be able to ski this year!" she added tearfully.
I tried to console her with the thought that her foot will nicely heal before ski season begins, pointing out that thanks to global warming, we probably won't even have snow until next Easter.
Oddly, she didn't think this was the least bit funny.
Trying a different tack, I made an observation about time healing all wounds and wounding all heels -- thinking in particular about whoever brought the vodka.
Finally, throwing all caution to the wind, I ventured where angels fear to tread and observed that the older I get, the less I think there are really such things as accidents -- merely messages from on high that we either learn to heed or ignore at our folly.
"Dad," she said, giving me The Sigh between sobs, "I really don't need to hear this. I'm having the worst week of my entire life."
"You haven't lived your entire life yet," I said, trying to lighten the mood a bit. "The question is, what will you learn from this one?"
Life's Not Fair
In the end, she wasn't happy that her weekend curfew had been rolled back an hour until she could earn back our trust, that all overnights at the houses of her two best friends were temporarily suspended, and that the planned two-hour road trip with the same two chums to see her favorite rock group at the University in Bangor was hereby canceled.
"It's not fair," she said with a doleful sniff, "that I'm the only one being punished for telling the truth."
She was right about this -- but only because she'd begged us not to inform the parents of her friends about what had happened last Friday night. The group, I knew, was also her favorite rock group. She was the only one of the trio that actually wanted to see them.
Life isn't fair, I almost pointed out -- but realized in the nick of time that I'd probably said enough already.
Her mother suggested a compromise: If her friends confessed to their parents and faced the music the way she had, perhaps the concert could still happen -- though none of the girls would be permitted to drive there on their own.
I quickly volunteered to do the driving, figuring it might be one of my last times to do so.
"You won't even know I'm there," I said -- because, increasingly, I'm not.
My daughter looked at me as if I'd just run over somebody's barn cat.
Another Phone Call
After driving a half-hour home from following her out to her insanely early baby-sitting job on the peninsula, still thinking about the old tomcat I'd accidentally dispatched on the snowy morning my daughter entered this world, I crawled back into bed, hoping to catch an hour of sleep before I had to get up and try to earn a living. Sometimes, I confess, this task seems far less daunting than being the father of teenagers on the cusp of leaping the nest.
That's when the phone rang. It was my daughter on her mobile phone.
"Dad," she said quietly, suddenly sounding more the little girl who used to laugh at all my jokes, "there are two mice running all over the kitchen floor, making a lot of noise."
"Where are you, sweetie?" I asked.
"Sitting in a chair under a blanket in the living room, trying to sleep. It's creeping me out."
"They won't bother you, honey. They're just a couple of furry little creatures trying to get through the night." Like worried fathers and old tomcats, I almost added.
"OK," she said with the faintest note of gratitude that did my aging heart some good. "Thanks."
"Call me if you need anything else," I said.
"I will," she said yawning, then added, "Thanks for following me out here. I'm sorry about last Friday night. I'm glad you're driving us to the concert."
I couldn't resist one final sleepy joke.
"You'll probably survive weeks like this, babe," I said. "I'm just not sure I will."
Contact Jim Dodson at email@example.com.
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