Right before the subway doors closed last night a dad got on who I thought I recognized as one of us.
He lurched through the doorway. One hand holding a folded baby stroller, the other lightly guiding the back of his 2-year-old daughter's head.
The girl didn't want to sit in a seat offered to her and her dad, as that would have made dad’s life easier. I recognized her type, too – The Honey-Haired Ball-Buster – because I have two at home. Naturally she insisted on holding on to a metal pole, the same one I was holding. Dad gamely hovered over her while clutching the stroller. I knew it was heavy because we used to have one just like it at home. It was sturdy, and folded it was a nightmare to balance upright without almost smacking someone with it.
His daughter noticed the stroller was wobbling. The dad said it wouldn’t be that way if she had been sitting in it like they had talked about. I didn’t have a hard time imagining how annoyed he might have been on the train platform when she refused to climb into her stroller. I had been there too many times before. I wanted to say to him, dude, if you think you’re pissed at her now, you’re going to love ten years from now.
The little girl was bubbly, smiling up at everyone, chattering, and nearly inaudible as her mouth was barely three feet from the floor, and we were, you know, on the subway.
Dad really was trying to hang with the conversation, straining to hear her ask the first part of what sounded like a 14-part question. But after a few seconds he said,
“I don't know what you're talking about, but yeah.”
He was one of us, for sure. And by that, I mean an imperfect, unvarnished dad.
It was all there in his voice. The fatigue. The anger from her not listening to him about sitting down. The unapologetic sarcasm. The declaration that he didn’t always pay attention and he didn’t care who knew. His understanding that they call it “paying” attention for a reason, because it comes at a cost and it really is finite.
Years from now, I again wanted to tell him, you’ll be signing a permission slip for one of her class trips, and you won’t even know what it’s for – it could be a tour followed by lunch at a crack house, for all the attention you will be paying (none) to the trip details written on the first half of that permission slip. And he would look at his future self and believe it was possible. Because his attention, one of the few remaining things he had left that was still his, was being siphoned by the Honey-Haired Ball-Buster and perhaps by other children, by his wife, family, friends, coworkers, strangers…in short, everybody.
But remember, I would say, had I offered up one more piece of unsolicited advice, your wife is not everybody. And if you doubt that, I'd tell him, try that “I don't know what you're talking about, but yeah” line on her the next time she's trying to tell you something. Chances are she'll remind you just how unvarnished she can be, too.