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Parenting From The Wonder Years

It’s raining outside, just as it has been for much of the month. Only this night, it’s really dumping, angry hurtful pellets slapping against my sweat-soaked flesh as I dash ungracefully from the gym to my car. Once behind the wheel, the steam from my body counteracts whatever modest progress the defrost is making, a humid mess I am, not only affected by the high pressure system outside, but also, apparently, by the one from within.

Once the windshield is finally clear, I navigate the puddled roads with the help of rapid-fire wipers back to my house to pick up my 10-year-old daughter. A friend has invited her to play basketball with some other kids at the school gym, an after-hours treat made possible by one of her teachers.

And so there I am, driving on a night when I’d rather not be, enduring a soggy commute, despite the fact that such nights are best spent indoors. But I don’t mind. Because Alli loves basketball. And I love basketball, too, and it’s a good thing, indeed, when a parent and a child share a love. 

We pull up right on time. To the same school I’ve driven her to countless times. The one that used to be mine. If one of your children attends your old school, you’ll no doubt understand the wave of nostalgia that accompanies you on your first few trips back. Still, at some point, the nostalgia dissipates.

At least it did for me. I have no lease left on that school. It doesn’t even look like it did back in my day what with all the expansion. Plus, Alli’s now in her fifth year there.  It’s no longer mine. It’s hers. And once you make the hand off, once you finally let go of that baton, you let go of the nostalgia, too.

But nostalgia’s funny. Because even if you’ve let go of it, it can decide to grab a hold of you any time it wants. And this night, it does just that, snatching me up unexpectedly the moment I open the door to walk into the gym I’d not set foot in for God knows how long. The one that belonged to me for several years starting when I was Alli’s age.

It was brand new back then. State of the art. But on that night, it looks much older, run down even, despite the fact that it still has plenty of good years left in it, just like the man following his daughter through its lobby.

I pause to consider the trophies on display in the built-in case on the right, its glass shelves in desperate need of a Windex-soaked rag. I’m not sure, but I think I find one that my team was responsible for, appreciating the full-circle realization that Alli’s basketball coach was on that very team with me. 

Alli grows impatient with my stroll down memory lane, uninterested in my team or any trophy it may have won, as precious seconds are ticking away, my child suddenly and uncharacteristically aware that an hour has only so many of them. 

I try to explain that I was merely looking for evidence of my youth, concrete proof that I, too, have a claim to that school, to that gym, the one that was currently exercising its claim on me, but I stop mid-sentence because she doesn’t care. And I wouldn’t either if I were she. That gym’s no more mine than Justin Bieber is.

Even so, my journey back continues as we step onto the gym floor. I stroll the far sideline and look across the court at the splintered, wooden bleachers stacked up against the wall. The same ones which unfold with a series of staccato, metallic clanks to accommodate fans like the ones that used to root for my team via cheers my wife and the other girls led.  

She’s just as beautiful as I remember.

No one in a million years would have ever guessed during one of those games that Caroline and I would one day get married. Though it didn’t exactly take Nostradamus to figure out from my wide eyes that I had a thing for the little girl with the big smile. Not that I was alone. Everyone loved Caroline back then. 

Proof, I suppose, that some things never change.

Alli and her friends dribble and shoot, and the echo of the ball’s bounce ricochets off the cinderblock walls into ears that feel borrowed. I look up at the scoreboard to see if we’re winning. Odds are good. We went 15-3 that year, but the scoreboard is turned off, so it’s impossible to tell, and I’m suddenly sad that I can’t play just one more game in the gym that belongs to my daughter. That I can’t waltz over after the final buzzer and tell Caroline that I’ll see her in 21 years. That she and I are destined to raise five children together, including the one who’s with me now. That, God willing, we’ll grow old together.

Which is cool, though, because I’m not a child anymore. I’m a parent, one whose day, in many ways, has long passed. Though one whose day, in many others, is just beginning. And I coach my daughter and the other children, along, of course, with the two other men, right there in the gym where my coach used to coach me, and I wonder if my face looked like my daughter’s whenever I got critiqued.

As Alli knew it would, the hour passes quickly and I spend a few minutes after that hour the same way I did after my team’s practices hurling up shots from half court. I’m proud of how formidable my attempts are, proud, also, that I still have a good stroke from the line, not to mention a bounce in my step as I wrap a dribble behind my back, then cross over before kissing a scoop shot off the glass.

Of course, it’s possible that if I could actually see myself engaging in these acts, I’d realize that I don’t quite have the swagger I think I do. That instead I look like a middle-aged man whose mind can’t quite get his body to do what it once could, the way it once could, and that I’m only imagining this rush of vitality, or, more likely, borrowing it from some remote corner of this odd convergence of time and space that’s held me willingly captive for the past 60 minutes. But even if such were the case, you’d not be able to convince me of it.

Kids don’t believe shit like that. 

I take one final shot from mid court that rims in and out. “Can we please leave now?” Alli says, long weary of my look-at-me anitcs.

“Yes, sweetheart,” I say. “That’s as close as I’m gonna get, anyway.”

And as I pull out of the parking lot and back into reality, I realize that it was close enough. 

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