So this column is about what makes a dad. It’s not about what a dad is, or how a dad is defined, but simply what makes a dad. And what makes a dad “awesome.”
I grew up in the ’70s when a dad washed the cars on Saturday morning, wore aviator sunglasses, and a suit and tie to work every day. He was the stricter one, but the one you could count on to give in if you really worked it. A dad drove the company car (where one could always find fresh packs of Certs) and it was the car reserved for dinners out on Sunday nights with your grandparents. Your mom’s car, maybe like ours – the Dart – was the car used for grocery shopping at the A & P and dentist-visiting and such. Those days, a dad cut the grass on Saturday afternoon and had a stubby dark-brown bottled Labatt’s 50 afterwards, which you could fetch for him if your timing was just right. Every dad smoked and it was cool then.
A dad knew how to camp and build a fire in even the rainiest weather. A dad shaved and you got to watch sitting on the laundry hamper, if you were quiet. He took you to the Pop Shoppe once a month and let you choose the flavour you wanted, even if it was Lime Ricky. He delegated controversial decisions to your mom and ate more cobs of corn on a late summer evening than you could imagine anyone eating. Dads were the verified origin of the now-far-too-overused “Awesome” and I was lucky enough to have one (and still do!). Most of all, a dad was a bit of a mystery. The guy you always wanted to impress.
But that was then. Dads aren’t so “cut and dried” anymore: they come in a variety of sizes and shapes and names. They aren’t just the dad you have. And often, they aren’t the dad you were “born” with. Now, I’m all for dads that become dads through their role rather than through their DNA. Being adopted, I completely and utterly get the whole idea that your parents are the people who are there for you, like my parents have been, day in and day out, through the rough patches and the celebratory moments.
I have only met one person on earth with whom I share DNA – Georgia – and yet I have never doubted the support, and solid ground that my family has provided. They’re my family, and I almost never think about the whole “but we don’t share any DNA” thing.
And that’s why I’m writing about dads here. Georgia has a father that she shares DNA with and he’s not around, by his own choice, not for a long time now. But Georgia, well, she has a dad. His name is Chris. She doesn’t share any DNA with him. But she does share a love of Plants Versus Zombies, Kraft Dinner with ketchup and peanut-butter-and-syrup-covered pancakes on Saturday mornings. For all intents and purposes, Chris is her dad and is around for the long run. Which will hold plenty of challenges, laughs and trying moments. And which is, in fact, a long run. Georgia will live with us, we suspect, for the rest of our lives, with as many opportunities for independence and creating her own space, as possible. But we’ll always be “the three of us”.
This is what Chris signed up for, astonishingly. We’ve known each other for many years, professionally, and met at conferences annually as he lived in Halifax and I in Toronto. He thought I was tall and unapproachable. I thought he was arrogant and distant. Boy, were we wrong (okay not about the tall part; I’m pretty tall). Five years ago, when we decided to prove each other wrong, I ventured into the long-distance thing very tentatively. I wasn’t exactly the profile of what most guys were looking up on Lavalife: a 40-something single mom and career woman with a kid who has autism. Yeah, I can see the incredible demand for that profile! However, Chris was interested. Five years later, now in the same city and in fact both faculty members at the same University, we get along like a house on fire, as they say, and I’ve discovered that you can have this great person who is not only a supportive, fun and amazing partner, but also…well, a great dad. For someone who has had absolutely no practice for the job of dad, and who didn’t seek the job out, he has established himself clearly as the best guy for the job.
One of the first things Chris did when he came to Toronto and stayed with us was to watch Georgia. He observed what she did, how she reacted. And then, miraculously, he acted. One day, her computer desktop was customized for her with an eclectic mix of Bob Marley, the Wiggles and Baby Einstein along with the Beatles and Disney Cars. Another day, they made a video together to help her learn her words. They went to the basketball game together. They went out to a sportsbar for nachos and juice. They sat on the beach together and listen to music. They developed routines and activities together that have provided them with a unique relationship, so that while most of the time, it is “the three of us”, sometimes it is actually “the two of them”. That, for me, is the best. Truly the best. It’s really hard to describe how meaningful that is to me, after a long time of doing most day-to-day things with Georgia on my own. “The three of us” doing stuff still often makes me secretly smile inside, with a sense of disbelief and excitement. “The two of them” makes me, well, the happiest I could be.
He’s also been there for the less fun things and he is definitely hands-on. He’s cleaned up after and nursed a sick kid, wiped a nose, washed hands, helped with teeth brushing, and dealt with all the things that parents deal with, when a child needs help with every activity of daily living. You name it, he’s done it. Always with a sense of humour, a deep respect for Georgia as an individual and occasionally, a deep breath afterwards.
It isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s tough sometimes. We are very different disciplinarians and we often find ourselves at odds with how to approach situations. We have to maneuver our way through a lot of unexplored territory: for me, learning how to “share” parenting and for Chris, figuring out what kind of a parent he wants to be. It’s not always basketball games and nachos – often it’s serious parenting talks late at night to try to work it out.
And he is awesome, yep. He gets it, this whole how-to-be-a-dad thing. He can throw her in the pool as many times as she asks and more. His arms never seem to get tired. He doesn’t mind that she likes to wear swim goggles out to dinner occasionally or travels with a stuffed parrot. He sets up her iPad and sets it up again and is much more patient than I am, when deleting the 976 videos of our living room she has shot in one day. He teases her no end, which (as those of us who grew up with brothers know) is “character-building.” He takes her on the rides on the Ex that I sadly cannot tolerate, i.e. those with any kind of circular movement – and then staggers about with her in search of French fries afterwards. He asks her whether or not she likes the tie he’s chosen when he’s getting ready for work and she is peppering him with random distracting questions.
I’m not sure if he even knows it, but he’s the real thing: a genuine dad. A great one. One of the best. I know for a fact that he had a great dad whom I never had the privilege of meeting. If there was one wish I’d like granted, it would be for Chris’s dad to be able to be here to see what a wonderful dad his son has become, and how much he’s loved in that role. He’d be so proud.
I love the idea of dads. Even more so, I like the reality of dads. I have a great dad, Chris had a wonderful dad. And the super best thing of it all is that Georgia – well, Georgia has an awesome dad in Chris. Lucky her and lucky us.
You know, “the three of us”.