"Oh, you don't know my daddy," I said.
"Where's he live?" he said.
"Oh, buddy, he died," I said. "He got very, very sick, and now he's in heaven."
Thad cross-examined: "But there are no houses in heaven."
Unable to explain the lack of subdivisions in the sky, I answered as helpfully as I could to two people who, I thought, couldn't understand what death meant. I mumbled, "You're right," and let the conversation drift away.
A couple hours later, we were in the middle of our bedtime routine. After their bath, Alex and Thad jumped onto our bed so I could slide on their pajamas. As I pulled up Thad's Nemo pants, he put both hands on my shoulders. I thought he needed support while he was standing on one leg, but it turned out he was actually offering it.
"Daddy," he said quietly, "I know you miss your daddy."
At first, I was happy -- happy because, in a way, his statement meant that he'd miss me if I wasn't there. But of course, he was right. I did miss my father. All I had were pictures, his West Point uniforms, and one distant memory -- of me sitting on his lap in the driver's seat of a car.
And that's what hurt most. I'm sure he did some of the same things with me that I'd done with my boys, but all I had was one lousy memory of us in an Oldsmobile. It wasn't easy thinking that my entire existence as a father could boil down to three seconds of me stealing fries off my sons' plates. I think that's a big part of why I want to do as much as I can with my boys. All along, I've been doing it for me, too. I've been making up for all the things I would've done with my dad.
Alex and Thad just turned 8, and I still work on weekends, raise my voice, and grunt when they want to go to the restaurant bathroom for the fourth time before we get the second bread basket. But when I get home from work, we play -- we take bike rides and do "99 high" throws in the pool, whatever that means. We take hikes and get doughnuts. We read books before bed. We crank Jimmy Buffett in the car and jam to "Cheeseburger in Paradise."
I have no idea what will stick with Alex and Thad when they grow up (let alone when they wake up). And who knows how many more days, years, or decades I'll get to spend with them. But even if they don't remember the first goal they scored while I coached from the sidelines or the pickup games of basketball we'll play in our driveway, I will.
I missed all these memories once. I don't want to miss them again.
Ted Spiker is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Florida in Gainesville and a contributing editor to Men's Health.