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Adoption Blog: Man Up!
Lost and Found: My Reflections on Fatherhood
Recently our family had the opportunity to take a vacation in southern California. Maybe I should clarify: My son, Manu, adopted from India, and I had the opportunity to tag along with my wife, Leslie, as she attended a corporate training workshop in Carlsbad, just north of San Diego. We already have a vacation to the beach planned for later this summer, but with Leslie’s airfare and the hotel room paid for by her company, this was too good to pass up!
We made plans to arrive a few days before the start of her meeting and to stay for a couple more after it was over to allow for some sightseeing and family time. Our first stop was, of course, Disneyland in Anaheim. Leslie and I are longtime Disney buffs who have made many trips to the Florida theme park, but we’ve never had the chance to visit the original, so we were just as excited for ourselves as we were for Manu to be able to experience it. The following weekend, after Leslie’s training was finished, we spent a few days exploring the city and visiting the San Diego Zoo. We had a great time as a family and have lots of photos and memories on which to reflect, but for me, what I will never forget is that week in between.
During the day, while my wife was busy with her work, Manu and I were on our own. I must admit that the thought of an entire week with me as the sole parent, in an unfamiliar place, made me a little uneasy. Though I have no problems taking care of my son, I’ve never had to do everything on my own for as long a period as this—usually it’s a tag-team effort between me and Leslie, taking turns running after him, picking him up when he falls, and taking him potty. Plus, how would I entertain him for an entire week? So you can imagine my delight when I discovered that our hotel had a private entrance to LEGOLAND California. I thought to myself, Convenient, fun, and all I have to do is keep him from hurting himself and I’ll be Super Dad!
So off we went to conquer the world, just me and Manu. The park was perfect with lots of rides and activities designed for the preschool crowd. We flew planes, sailed boats, piloted helicopters, and raced model cars that we built out of blocks. We admired entire cityscapes made of LEGOs and were especially impressed with a scale replica of the Taj Mahal! Manu drove his own little go-kart on a track all by himself, easily zipping past all the other 3-year-old racer wannabes! We chased away a flock of birds that tried to share our lunch and then we watched a little factory demonstration of how the blocks are made, very interesting and educational—stuff every 3-year-old should know!
During the afternoon of that first day we came upon a little flume ride. At first Manu was unsure if he wanted to ride it. I convinced him that he would enjoy it, and he nervously agreed to get on. About halfway up the first hill—and it was a small hill—Manu looked at me and said, “I don’t want to do this, Daddy. I’m scared.” I reassured him that everything was going to be OK, but he didn’t say anything after that—he just held onto my leg with an iron grip and stared straight ahead, eyes wide. I felt a little guilty for asking him to ride it, though I was proud of him for getting through it without crying. Afterward he said, “I don’t ever want to ride that again, Daddy, OK?” I told him that we wouldn’t. As we walked away from that ride, a distant memory emerged—one that I hadn’t thought about in years but was suddenly as clear as if it happened only the day before.
It was 1979, I think. I was 7 years old and I was spending the day at King’s Island amusement park in Cincinnati, Ohio. I don’t remember why, but it was just me and my father. It was my first visit to an amusement park or anything like it, and I was amazed by the smells, colors, and sounds of the fun going on all around me. I remember the bumper-car rides, the Tilt-A-Whirl, and an air-conditioned, indoor boat ride that cooled us off as we watched cartoon characters sing and dance. I remember sitting on a bench, sharing an ice cream with my dad, talking, and watching the Ferris wheel go 'round and 'round.
It was a happy day, one of the last with him I can now recall, as I would lose my father to cancer a few years later. But as much fun as we were having, one instance eclipsed all the fun and tarnished the memory of that special day for me: After waiting in line for probably a half hour for a flume ride—similar to the one that Manu and I rode—that my father wanted to ride with me, I chickened out and told my dad I couldn't ride it. Though he never said anything, in my 7-year-old mind I felt like a disappointment to him. We would go on a few more rides that day, but by then a little of the magic had worn off. By the time the evening's fireworks started I was sad, ashamed, and ready to go home.
In the years that followed, I would think about that day often, desperately wanting to go back in time and get on that ride; I needed a do-over to show my father that I was a big boy now, but I couldn’t because he was gone. In my young mind I didn’t want that to be his last memory of me. It’s funny how childish ideas like that can still affect you long after you’re grown up; I’ve teared up just writing this down. But this recent time spent with Manu has done a lot to help me see things from a different perspective. I’m now pretty sure that, just like I was with Manu, he was happy simply spending time together, just the two of us, and he probably never gave that flume ride a second thought.
I think a lot about what it means to be a father. Sometimes I feel like I’m just winging it, not having much personal experience to draw from; most of the men that were important to me as a child left my life much too early. I often wonder what I would be like today if my father hadn’t died. For better or worse, I’ll never know. I think I turned out OK, but I always feel like something is missing—some great piece of wisdom passed down from father to son. I thought a lot about my dad while we were in India. As I happily held my new baby boy I couldn’t help but think that this is how he must have felt holding me—I felt a sort of spiritual connection to him just then. I have also asked myself several times, What would he do in this situation? I wish my father and grandfathers could have met Manu. Since we adopted him from India, Manu has been the light of our lives and I know they would have loved him, too.
I think what I needed most as a young boy was just to have my dad around. Perhaps it is just that simple. So I make a point to spend as much time with my son as possible, and maybe together we’ll figure this father-son thing out.
We would spend the remainder of our week in California visiting an aquarium, catching a movie at a theater, walking on the beach, and returning to LEGOLAND for another day of fun, minus the flume ride—Mommy sure missed out on a lot! On that last day, while taking a break from the rides to enjoy a treat, I turned to Manu, put my arm around him and said, “I love you, Buddy!” to which he responded, “I love you too, Daddy. We’re pals!” That is a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
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