There are moments as a father that are just about perfect. Births. Touchdowns. Graduations. Marriages.
And then there are the moments you wish you could have back, the ones where a fathers flaws are on full display like the one I had the other day, when the doughnut dropped.
I was driving our minivan to take our four kids on an overnight trip to see their grandparents. For once, everyone in the car was happy. My wife wasnt in the car but was also happy she was skipping this trip to have a rare childless night at home.
The van was blissfully quiet as I got onto Interstate 85. I thought about the way it so often used to be, when at least two kids were always fighting. The second child once clawed No.3 on the arm, made his arm bleed and then proclaimed over the crying: Its not my fault. He has weak skin!
But it was peaceful now. I had been feeling good lately about the kids maturity they are 14, 11, 8 and 5 years old now. The oldest three are boys. The youngest is a girl named Georgia. I believe, as all dads secretly do of their own daughters, that she is the sweetest and funniest girl ever.
When Georgia was 4 years old, she couldnt remember which machine in the house did what. One time she stepped on the bathroom scale, rubbed her hands together and said, Lets see how old I am. (It turned out she was 34).
Anyway, our kids hardly ever get doughnuts. But I had bought a dozen as a surprise for them on the trip.
Guess what Ive got? I said from the drivers seat, keeping an eye on the road. I leaned the pastry box I had been hiding toward the back seat so they all could see.
Doughnuts! they yelled.
From long, hard experience, I had bought four doughnuts each of three different varieties. There was no way I was about to get into the Thats the one I wanted! argument. Statistically, I was all set.
A forbidden phrase uttered
As so often happens in fatherhood, however, I had messed up. It turns out that its not easy to open a doughnut box, pick out the chosen doughnut with a napkin and pass it back two rows while driving 65 mph on a highway. Like texting while driving, it should be outlawed.
I fumbled with the box lid. The natives grew restless. Their voices rose.
I want the chocolate one! I want the lemon-filled one! I want the one with more chocolate on it!
And, loudest of all, my 14-year-old son, Chapel, in the backseat saying, over and over, Just pass the box back, Dad. Gosh! Ill hand them out. Just pass it back!
As we sped down I-85, I looked at my teenager in the rearview mirror and caught him rolling his eyes. After that, there was no way I would relinquish control of the doughnuts. I would do it my way.
I successfully delivered the first doughnut. Same with the second and the third. And then I took out the fourth a glazed one with chocolate on top and managed to drop it directly onto the dirty van floor. It landed chocolate side down.
Expressions of shock and Ewww! ricocheted around the car. And, then, from my oldest son again: I told you to pass the box back.
Shut up, Chapel! I yelled.
Immediately, the car was very quiet.
Maybe that doesnt sound so bad to you. But saying Shut up in our house to anyone is strictly forbidden. We treat the phrase like cursing. I dont ever remember saying it to one of the kids.
And here, in a matter of two minutes, I had transformed from Super Dad into an ogre from a Pat Conroy novel.
As soon as I said it, I regretted it. How could I have boiled up so quickly?
I still dont know. I apologized and he accepted. But I still feel bad about it.
The thing about parenthood is that no matter how many kids youve raised and no matter how many years youve been in the game, you still blow it occasionally. You snap. You are too tough. Too lenient. Too something.
I cant stand to be wrong
But what bothered me the most was that Chapel was right. Like most dads, I cant stand to be wrong. It wasnt safe or smart to pass out doughnuts at 65 mph. (Incidentally, the doughnut that got dropped on the vans floor got eaten anyway. One of the kids invoked the 5-second rule).
Comedian Bill Cosby once said, Parents are not interested in justice. Theyre interested in peace and quiet.
Ive always liked that line. But the weighty silence in that car after my outburst wasnt what I was after.
I can be a pretty good dad sometimes. I loaned my 8-year-old $20 the other day at Walmart. He had forgotten his birthday money, and he wanted to use the cash to buy a Lego set.
And when he mysteriously paid me back with 80 quarters most of which I believe came directly from my change jar in the closet I just laughed.
But like all parents, I dont always like the things I find out about myself under the stress of raising children.
And then something happens like the other night. I was working on my computer upstairs when my 5-year-old brought me a homemade card. It had red hearts colored all over it and the word Dad in the center.
I made this for you, Georgia said, because when I grow up I wont live with you and be here all the time.
I hugged her. You can always live here if you want, I said. All of you can.
OK, I will, she said and ran off.
I thought about how lucky I was. Four healthy kids. A bounty of blessings.
Like all children, mine need a father figure in their lives.
They give us fathers second, third and fourth chances to get it right, just as we give them those same chances to learn from their own mistakes.
Like a Picasso painting, fatherhood is messy and beautiful, all at the same time.
Happy Fathers Day. I hope your day is peaceful, your mistakes forgivable and that your doughnuts always fall chocolate side up.