For me, there are three milestones that a father is responsible for with his daughter, three sacred trusts that belong only to a dad. These are teaching her to ride a bike, explaining how to deal with boys, and teaching her to drive.
Taking the training wheels off and guiding her through that first wobbly ride is more than an apt metaphor for enablement, it’s a right of passage, living proof that her own capabilities can earn her sovereignty; her first realization, small as it is, that she can steer her own course and go where she chooses. She’ll peddle away, turn, stop and look back, her face flush with pride, delight, and most importantly freedom.
I want to see that face.
I am a divorced, single parent with joint custody, and my daughter Madi lives equal time with both her parents. Several years ago, Madi’s mother had her first significant relationship and introduced that new element to Madi’s life. No matter how well you manage things, your ex’s other will have an impact on your young child–you hope it’s a good one. It is inescapable that you’ll feel a little bit tweaked at another male figure in your daughter’s life that you didn’t pick; I’ve never had insecurities with my status as Dad and neither has Madi, but it’s a caution. Fortunately, this fellow was a lovely and kind man (they’re not together anymore).
A few years ago, just before I was to make a first stop at this fellow’s house to pick some items of Madi’s, her mother mentioned that “Dave” had been teaching Madi to ride a bike and had taken the training wheels off the bike she used there. Now, she had no clue about these sacred paternal trusts, because I had never had the opportunity to share them with her, though she may have asked, but the betrayal was none-the-less brutal. I liked Dave, and his family was great, but why the hell was he teaching my kid to ride a bike without asking me?
I guess you could say I was a little distracted as I drove to Dave’s, Madi happily in her car seat in back waiting for her fun afternoon with dad to start. I was trying to tell myself, unsuccessfully, that it didn’t matter. His was an older house with a gravel driveway that sloped down to a rural road, across from a wooded embankment on the opposite side.
I pulled up the drive in a hurry to get this pick-up of ‘stuff’ over with. There was a “thing” going on at the house, which included some other friends of theirs that I had never met, and Madi’s mom was there as well. Madi opted to stay in the car, and I jumped out and headed for the door.
Half way to the door I happened to turn and look at the car. It was rolling, gathering speed towards the road and embankment with my daughter in it. <insert Homer Simpson scream> I had apparently been distracted enough to not quite get the shifter into park and left it in neutral. The beeps and audible protestations of the Nissan Murano went unheard in my distracted funk. Funny how fast you can forget your own body at times likes these. I leapt toward the car, aiming PAST my closed driver’s door so that I had a chance of opening it.
I got it open and threw my body at the moving car and into the seat. The bright flash of light and skull-on-metal sound told me that I had not ducked my head sufficiently to get it into the car door opening. I hit it so hard I really couldn’t see, and felt immediately nauseous.
“Fuck! Don’t pass out! You cannot pass out”
The car still rolling, I grabbed the roof with my right hand and pushed off the ground with my left leg, aiming my right foot in the vicinity of the brake pedal. It found its mark and the car lurched to a stop just before reaching the street. The momentum, however, caused the door to slam shut.
Through the throbbing pain and disorientation in my head, I became aware of another pain. Briefly, I thought it was my left leg, which had been solidly jammed between the seat and door when it closed, but when I reached to free it, my right hand didn’t move.
“Oh, that’s where that hot stabbing pain is coming from.”
I looked with a bleary morbid fascination at my hand shut three fingers deep into a completely closed and latched door. <insert Homer Simpson scream>
“Oh, man, those have to be broken.”
They wouldn’t budge. I cannot explain how badly I wanted to get them out of the door, I kind of panicked for a moment, man, it just didn’t look right, but between my addled head and the odd contortion of my body, I couldn’t reach the door latch.
“Okay Gary, limb check. Left leg hopelessly wedged, right foot on the brake, (don’t move that), left hand crushed, that’s all three, I’m fucked. Wait, there are four! Use your right hand, put it into park, free up your brake foot then turn to open the door.”
(Sure, it sounds simple to you, but it’s brilliant when all you see are stars and you want to cry from the pain.)
It was about this time when Madi spoke up.
“Daddy what’s the matter!” I called up my best matter-of-fact, nothing’s wrong voice.
“Nothin’ I uh… forgot something.” (Yeah, brilliant.)
I stepped from the car and held up my hand, then tried to curl my fingers to see what broke. “Bend suckers!” Astonishingly, they did bend. Nothing seemed to be broken! I sent a mental note of thanks to the Nissan engineers who worked out enough room in a latched door NOT to shatter a finger bone and made a partial apology to the designers of the spare tire anchors [See Flat Tire]. Pretty cool.
My fingers still hurt like a mofo and my head wasn’t quite right, but I made my way to the door and stepped inside.
As I got to the door, Madi’s mom led me to the kitchen where Dave and a cluster of their friends greeted me with the now familiar, “So that’s the guy” face that I have become accustomed to in certain divorced parent circles. It’s a polite smile and a half-hearted attempt to appear interested, but they didn’t want me there any more than I wanted to be there so all’s fair.
I prouder man than I would have kept the stupid faux pas of the driveway to himself, but I believe that one who cannot laugh at their inner fool, is doomed to forever look truly foolish—and why waste a good story.
“You would not believe what I just did pulling in…!”
It was a good story. Polite smiles all around.
Stuff retrieved, I got back in the car, rested one and a half hands on the steering wheel, remembered the sacred trust forever broken, and sighed.
“It is NOT your day dude.”
“Daddy! What are we going to do today, I’m bored!”
I looked at my hand and rubbed my throbbing head, utterly defeated.
“Let’s go ride bikes Madi, I’ll take your training wheels off and…”
“NOOOO!!! I don’t want my training wheels off!”
“I thought you took them off and was riding without them?”
Noooo! I can’t ride without training wheels! Please don’t take them off, please??”
“But I thought…”
“You got it girl!” And so we did.
Madi’s tenth birthday is approaching now, and I have tried several times since that day three years earlier to take her training wheels off, without success. She’ll say, “Not yet Daddy.” And I’ll say,
“That’s alright kid, I’ll be ready whenever you are ready.”
Still looking for that face.