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Missing Dad

That morning I fielded more requests than an overnight deejay.

"Get me dressed." "Get me water." "Where's breakfast?" "Can we go to the dollar store?" "Dollar store." "Dollar store!"

And it was only 8:53.

Normally, that Defcon 5 level of morning whine-time from my twins might jeopardize the life of their stuffed SpongeBob. But that day, I volleyed back calmly: "Your manners?" and "Be patient. We'll go to the store later."

To them it was any other day. But to me, it was as meaningful as any I'd had as a father. That day, my sons turned 4 years and 10 days old -- the same age I was when my dad died.

Seeing Alex and Thad at the exact point in their lives as I was when my father disappeared from mine froze me. That four-year, ten-day mark -- an end for me 30 years ago -- meant a beginning for them. They'd now have time with me that I never had with my dad.

And it reminded me that my job wasn't just to provide, to teach, to guide, and to back Mom up when she derailed the Popsicle train. My job -- no, my vow -- would be to make as many memories with them, for them, as I could.

Throughout that day, I thought back to how disappointed my father must've been when he was diagnosed with cancer and realized that he wouldn't get the chance to take me fishing, play catch -- even yell at me for a D in physics. And I realized that I could be there for my boys like my dad would've been there for me.

So I promised myself to do things like coach their soccer team, so I'd be right there in the middle of the huddle, sticking my hand in and shouting "1-2-3, Green Gorillas are groovy." I promised more patience, more reading, and less time at my desk. I promised to be the dad I always wanted to know.

As the three of us went about the day, I remembered a walk home from the park we'd taken a couple months before. Alex had figured it out. He knew Grammy and Pop Pop (my wife's parents), and he knew Nana (my mom), and the numbers just didn't add up.

"Daddy, who's your daddy?" Alex asked.

"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.