The Importance of Fathers

An Alaska Airlines jet zoomed across the sunset sky carrying 75 passengers into the Portland airport. “Are we almost there yet? Will Dad be there to meet us?” asked a fat little boy, pulling on his mother’s sleeve. The man in front of him rolled his eyes. That little brat had been asking that for the past hour. He would always accompany his queries with ferocious kicks on the back of his seat. The businessman with his laptop under his seat had been unable to think about the project for which he had been sent into Portland. He had been unable to sleep. He hadn’t even been able to flip through the magazines filled with expensive doodads. Finally he turned around and asked the boy to stop with the harsh command, “Please, little boy, stop kicking my seat. If you insist of kicking a seat then trade places with your mother and kick this old man’s seat. He’s asleep and surely won’t care.”

The little boy was quiet, subdued by the man’s harsh tones. He looked dejectedly down at his dimpled knees. He couldn’t help it, he thought, if his feet hit the seat. His legs were too short to hang over the edge of his chair, but were so long that they almost touched the back in front of him. When he got excited about something his feet would just kick the seat themselves, no matter how often he reminded them not to or how hard he pinched them when he did. But if he traded seats with his mother then he couldn’t look out the window and then how would he occupy himself for the rest of this age long journey? He turned his downcast eyes to the window and looked out. “Mommy! Mommy! Look! It’s Mount Hood!” He pointed excitedly at the great mountain, but suddenly his excitement was cut short. In his great enthusiasm he had kicked the seat. He saw the harsh man drop his head into his hand. “I’m sorry, Mr. Man,” he said sincerely, tapping the man on his suit-clad shoulder. “Did you see Mount Hood?”

The man closed his eyes tightly and rubbed them with his hand. This cheerful, bumbling little boy reminded him of his own little boy at his home on the other side of the country. But he had been around his son far too little of late. He remembered his sad look when he had told him that he couldn’t make it to his baseball game. But he just had to work. If it had been the first game that he couldn’t attend then it wouldn’t be so bad, but he hadn’t made it to any games and the season was almost over. The last game would be the day that he got back from this business trip.

He had told his son that he probably wouldn’t be able to make it. The undersized boy had lowered his disappointed eyes and turned to leave the room. He put his hand on the door handle and slowly opened the door. Just as he went out he looked back into his father’s eyes that were so like his own. The words that he spoke with that one look before he turned and sulked down the hall could have filled volumes. He told his father with that look that he was no father at all. He told him that real fathers found time in their busy work schedule to play catch with their sons and to go to their ball games. With that look he told the man sitting at the desk in front of the laptop and surrounded by papers that he hated him. He had wanted to love him, but his young love was quenched like a flame with no oxygen.

The man had put his head in his hands. He looked gloomily at the family portrait sitting by his computer. Two faces smiled falsely at him, mocking him as the failure that he was. His son’s smile was not heartfelt and his wife’s eyes challenged him from under their eyeliner. He hadn’t been able to make it to get his picture taken with them because of an important business meeting and now he realized that the picture was only too true. This family portrait that was lacking it’s patriarch was more of a family portrait than it would be if he was in it, for if he was there it would only be more of a lie.

Dejectedly he had finished up his work for the evening and packed up his papers. He had climbed the stairs and opened his bedroom door. The bathroom light was on and his wife was lying in bed. His suitcase was packed and stood open, ready for his toothbrush and other last minute things that he would use in the morning. His wife had taken care of him as usual.

She rolled over on her side and looked at him as he got out his pajamas. “What was your answer?” she asked, knowing it was a useless question.

“Oh,” he had sighed heavily. “I told him that I wouldn’t be able to make it.”

She flung herself over on her back and her stormy eyes bore into the ceiling as though she wanted to burn holes right up to the stars. “Why? The game isn’t till the evening and you get home at five. It’s his last game and it means so much to him.” Her burning eyes were on him now and he switched off the light so that he couldn’t see them as they bore into him. But he knew they were still on him.

“You know how busy I am when I come home from these trips. I’ll have a load of things to deal with. Besides, I’ll be tired from driving the hour home from the airport.”

“You’ll have much more to deal with than business if you don’t be more of a father to your son.” There was a pause and she added, “And a husband to your wife.” She rolled over and he knew that the discussion was closed.

If only he could tell her how much he loved them both! If only he could tell her how much it meant to him that she had packed his suitcase with all of the right clothes all folded perfectly, ready to take out and wear. If only he could tell her how much he loved watching her and their son clean up from dinner when they thought he was on the phone. But he didn’t.

Instead he had rolled over and slowly drifted off to sleep. Now as he sat on the plane and listened as the fat little boy asked him if he saw Mount Hood he wished that he had spoken. He wished that he had told his beautiful wife just how much she meant to him. He wished that he had gone into his son’s room and told him that he would try to make it to the game, even if it meant he had to drive extra fast on the way home and skip dinner.

He opened his eyes and looked at Mount Hood at the boy’s request and was amazed at its beauty. It was like a white handkerchief dropped among a sea of green. He wondered what his wife and son would have said if they were here with him now. He would have smiled as he did now when the boy behind him said, “It sure is pretty isn’t it,” unknowingly kicking the seat. And he wasn’t reminded of it either.

The kicking increased as the plane began to descend. The fat boy had lots to point out and kick the seat over. He exclaimed over the Columbia River and the control tower and the other planes and just about everything else. “Look, Mommy, at all the cars! They look like the little beetles that I squished at Grandma’s house. And just think, there’s a person in every one of them! Maybe Daddy’s in one of them. Do you think he’ll be waiting for us?”

The man smiled at the boy’s enthusiasm. Had his own son said things like that when he and his mother were returning from a trip to his aunt’s house? Had he been so excited to see if his father was waiting for him at the airport? If he had been then he would have been disappointed because a phone call had kept his father away. The man wondered if this boy’s father would be waiting or if such a small thing like a phone call would be keeping him away.

Finally the airplane landed and passengers began getting off. The boy and his mother stood and stretched for a minute. Then they began gathering their bags. The mother opened up the hatch above her seat but was stopped from taking down her heavy bag. “Let me help you with that,” the man said. “I’ve only got my laptop.”

“Oh thank you,” she replied. She turned to her son and asked, “Have you got everything? You didn’t drop any of your cars or books?”

The boy smiled up at her, his eyes sparkling out of his chubby face. He had manfully slung his little backpack onto his back and looked like he was ready to climb the Mount Hood that he had just been exclaiming over. “Lets hurry and go see Dad!”

They followed the line of people leaving the plane and at last made it to the building. Their fellow travelers were all headed off to the rest of their lives. Some hurried off to accomplish their goal. Others lingered to greet those who had come to welcome them.

“Daddy!” cried the boy running over to throw his chubby arms around a man from whom he must have gotten his figure. His mother ran over to them and embraced them both.

The man surveyed this happy scene and quietly dropped the heavy bag next to them. Then he walked off to find a place to use his cell phone.

The boy turned to look for the harsh man that had warned him not to kick his seat. He saw him by the window anxiously dialing a number. Silently he hoped that he was calling someone who would make him happy. He had looked so unhappy when he dropped his head in his hand. “If he had a dad like I do then he would be more happy,” he thought to himself as he grabbed that wonderful dad’s hand and followed him off to their happy little home, not knowing that he had helped change the course of at least one person’s life.

Anxiously the man listened as the phone rang. Ring…. Would they pick it up? Ring…. What were they doing? Ring…. Maybe they weren’t going to pick up the phone. They did have caller ID. Ring…. Then came his voice, “We can’t come to the phone right now. Please leave a message so that we can get back to you.”

The man paused. He had been so full of words for his family, but now that it came to speaking them he didn’t know what to say. “Hi, it’s me,” he began. “I was thinking on the plane, and, uh. Well, I just wanted to say that I got here safely. Love you both. Bye.”

He put his cell phone in his pocket and started off to his lonely hotel room. Why hadn’t he been able to say all the words that were welling up inside of him now? Why hadn’t he told them that he would try to make it to the last game? He just hadn’t found the courage. Well, he would make it to the game. He just had to. The little glimpse that he’d had at the happiness that the little fat boy enjoyed made him feel guilty down to the depths of his soul. He saw just how deprived his own son was. He saw just how much a father’s love meant to a small boy and he was determined to make up for lost time.

That Saturday he was still firm in his resolution. The jet that carried him just couldn’t move fast enough, especially since it had started later than planned. What if he couldn’t make in time? How could he convince his son that he had really tried to make it?

At the flight change in the middle of the day there were still more delays and the plane didn’t get going till half an hour later. The man couldn’t sit still in his seat. He looked absently out of his window with unseeing eyes. All he saw was the reproaching look that his son had given him and the burning look of his wife’s chastising eyes.

At last the plane landed but already he was going to be rushed if he was going to arrive in time to see his son’s last game. He sped down the open freeway making excellent time. But as soon as he got off of his exit he ran into traffic. It seemed that every car in the city was out and about. “Haven’t you people ever heard of walking or riding bikes? Come on, aren’t you worried about air pollution?”

He was half an hour late when he pulled into the parking lot at the park where his only son was playing his last game. He was playing it with the knowledge that his father didn’t care about him.

The skinny little boy had adjusted his baseball cap and scanned the cheering crowd for his father. He waved back at his mom but his eyes didn’t rest on the only face he wished was there. He saw Bobby’s dad who only liked football. He saw Tommy’s mom, looking more at her fingernails than at the game. But at least they were there. His dad wasn’t even there. His dad didn’t care about him enough even to come to his last game.

He dragged his feet out to the field and the game began. What was the point of even trying? His dad wouldn’t care if he won or lost. He wouldn’t even know the difference. A pop fly was hit by the first batter. It flew through the air and headed right for the boy who’s scowling face showed more than the fact that he missed such an easy catch that his mind was not on the game. The ball, as though it understood that he didn’t care flew the rest of the inning to Bobby and Tommy and the other boys who had parents there that they were eager to impress.

And so for the rest of the game the boy’s face was covered with that disinterested scowl and he didn’t even try to impress anybody. Who would care anyway?

He stood up to bat one last time. He looked over his shoulder and saw his mom, her hands clasped nervously in her lap and her eyes fixed on him. She cared about him, even if his dad didn’t. His gaze turned to his other teammates. Bobby was on base. He was ready to run for all he was worth. It was a close game and he was trying to show his dad that baseball could be fun to watch. Tommy was on the bench with an untouched bag of sunflower seeds. He was hoping that his mother would look up from her fingernails and see just how much he wanted to please her.

The boy looked at the pitcher and prepared to do his best. If his dad didn’t care, well, he might as well try hard for the team and for his mother. And when the ball came his way he swung like he had never swung before and watched as the ball flew over the fence and out of the park. The cheer that went up from the crowd was enough to turn Babe Ruth over in his grave. But one cheer was louder than the rest. The boy’s team lifted him up on their shoulders and carried him around the field. If only his dad could see him now. He looked out on the screaming crowd. Bobby’s dad was standing on his bench, his hands waving enthusiastically in the air. Tommy’s mother had forgotten her fingernails and her voice was raised with the rest. The boy’s mom was jumping up and down and that’s when he saw him. Next to his mom was the very person he had thought didn’t care enough to make it to his last game. And now he was there. He had seen him hit that ball over the fence and now his cheers were louder than anyone else’s. Their eyes met and the boy lifted up his arms and yelled for all he was worth. His dad did care about him!