McGrath: Small but crucial moments in a father’s journey
By David McGrath firstname.lastname@example.org June 14, 2013 9:36PM
David McGrath fishes with his father. | Supplied photo
Updated: July 17, 2013 6:26AM
I never saw much advantage in being a father.
My old man had to work every day, even in the summer. And he spent much of his measly two weeks’ vacation yelling at me and my five brothers to clean our rooms and stop teasing our two sisters.
Granted, he was free to smoke Salems and drink as much Budweiser as he wanted. And driving his Pontiac was the coolest thing a kid could imagine. But he could have done all that without the eight kids, who seemed to cause him nothing but grief, fatigue and poverty.
Becoming a father did not change my opinion. Here I was, 31 and with two kids of my own, on a hot and sticky day in June, shaking my head at how I must have inherited my father’s lousy luck.
Our window AC was making a lot of noise, blowing nothing but warm air. I could not find work that summer to supplement the $11,000 salary as a teacher at Chicago Vocational High School. And our baby daughter had an appointment with a pediatric surgeon for a neck operation.
“Why don’t you go fishing? Take Mike with you,” my wife Marianne said, referring to our 5-year-old son. “He’ll like that.”
She didn’t exactly have to twist my arm, and soon I was lifting and sliding the jon boat onto the roof rack of our Chevy and loading the fishing gear and the ancient outboard into the trunk.
By 3 p.m., we were driving down Interstate 57 headed for Momence, on the state border along the Kankakee River. Momence has a free public boat launch on a stretch of the river bordered mostly by woods and a few occupied homes. The water is deep and hard to fish, so we had it pretty much to ourselves.
We motored upriver several miles, killed the engine, then drifted slowly back, casting the banks. The birds, the steady current, the intermittent breeze, it clears your head. And it made me a captive audience to my son’s nonstop questions.
“Dad, did I have surgery when I was little?” “No.”
“If Jackie goes to the hospital, will we get another baby?”
I explained to him that though Jackie was only 3, she was destined to grow up to be Wonder Woman, for whom death is an impossibility.
“When she’s a grown-up, can I have my toy box back?”
I caught a smallmouth bass on the edge of a seawall. Mike’s casts landed in branches several times, requiring furious rowing against the current to extract his lure. It was growing dark, and we had another mile before arriving back at the launch.
The Kankakee flowed silently. There was much dimpling on the surface, though I could not feel rain. And then I perceived the reason — insects hatching on the river bottom and taking to flight. Thankfully, they were not mosquitoes. But thousands were soon swarming around the boat and our faces.
I had been on countless streams and lakes since my father first took me 25 years earlier. So I’d seen Mayflies helicoptering over the water. But never anything like this. In minutes, we were drifting through a veritable blizzard of the white-winged insects.
Assuring Mike that they did not bite, I told him they only wished to rest a bit on his shoulder or on his hat before resuming their lives, which, I read later, lasted a mere half hour. In twilight, Mike was glowing with snowy phosphorescence. Keeping still, we became completely cloaked in Mayflies, my son resembling a snowman with glasses, his eyes wide behind the lenses.
Surprising for him was his silence. It’s as though we both knew words were superfluous when witnessing the phenomenon, both of us cherishing a miracle that would cease in 30 minutes.
It was then that I finally felt the importance of fatherhood. Understood the responsibility of being there, making sure that father and son are in the same boat, so to speak, when life’s wonders, mysteries and challenges unfold.
“Listen, Mike, Jackie will be fine,” I said. “It’s just like when she was overnight at Grandma’s. After two days, she’ll be home.”
Sometimes, like that night on the river, we shared joy; other times, pain.
Because childhood disappears almost as quickly as the Mayfly, it’s those precious moments of sharing that make all the difference and being a father the most crucial job in the world.
David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.