Father’s Day has been my favorite holiday for 16 years now. I appreciated this particular June Sunday as I grew into adulthood, my own dad being a primary standard for the right way to live and the importance of a father actually performing that role, day in and day out, one year after the other. It wasn’t until I became a father myself, though, that the holiday became an annual gift, one that had nothing to do with boxes in wrapping paper or even a trip to the ballpark. Father’s Day has become my annual checkpoint, a midyear day to remind myself how very good life has been to me, largely because of the two daughters who grow in beauty every 12 months and, not incidentally, their mother who first defined the quality for me.
The checkpoint always presents surprises. An evaluation of a year in my life as a dad is never without, for lack of a better metaphor, curve balls. This year, they happened to actually be sports-related, physical trauma for one child, emotional (primarily mine) for the other.
In late April, my younger daughter came charging in from centerfield during warm-ups for her middle-school softball game ... and charged about three inches too far. The fly ball she intended to land in her glove instead, in her words, “landed on my nose.” Her mom and I witnessed the mishap and, thankfully, were both with her for the ride to the emergency room and initial treatment. This was my worst nightmare since I first tossed a wiffle ball to Elena’s older sister: “Try and catch the ball, but no matter what, don’t let it hit your face.” On the drive to the hospital, I felt as though I had personally delivered the damaging blow. I’m guessing this feeling doesn’t hit swim dads or golf dads. (Though surely there is unanticipated trauma with those sports, too.)
Among the first things Elena told me from her hospital bed — as we awaited the next in a series of nurses and doctors — was, “I’m not afraid of the ball, Dad.” However afraid I may now be of a softball (it ain’t soft) near my child, the fear is a father’s only. Less than three weeks after her accident, Elena started in centerfield and helped her team win the middle-school city championship. She insists the face-guard she wore was temporary.
As for my firstborn, Sofia tried out for her high school softball team in February, having played the sport since she first slammed a ball off a tee as a 6-year-old. She felt prepared to show her skill set, hoping to find some playing time even as a freshman. When the softball coach saw her run during a P.E. class, though, Sofia was told she’d be welcome at tryouts, but only as a left-handed hitter. She was told her speed is too great an asset in softball and could only be maximized if she switched from her natural side as a right-handed batter.
Hitting a thrown ball with a round stick is the hardest thing to do in sports. And knowing the difficulty I had hitting from my natural side, this “curve ball” tested my resolve to avoid meddling with my daughters’ teams. But again, the anxiety was a father’s only. Sofia turned around and not only won the leftfield job, but batted second in the order all season, starting every game for a team that went 17-5. Surely her coach will soon recognize the asset of a sophomore switch-hitter.
“I don’t think I am a great man, but I have been able to do most of what I wanted, in large part because I married your mother. I can tell you this for sure: the most important thing I can associate with my name is raising you and your sister.”
My dad wrote those words in a note he sent me shortly after I became a father in May 1999. They’ve rung true ever since. Trauma is around the corner for every dad, hopefully mild. It’s never easy to endure, not when our children are in the mix. But witnessing them overcome life’s stray curve balls? That’s pure inspiration, flavored with awe.
Happy Father’s Day.