I am sitting on the upper deck of a tour bus roaming the San Diego Zoo and smiling. It’s not the animals that are making me happy, though the elephants, tigers, and pandas are amazing. It’s the sight of my husband, Dave, and son, Max. They are having a conversation about who knows what, and Max is cracking up.
My husband is an outstanding father. He has been from day one of our son’s life, when Max landed in the N.I.C.U. Doctors discovered Max had a stroke — a bilateral kind that struck both sides of his brain and incurred damage. I can still picture Dave putting his head down on the table in the conference room at the hospital when the neurologist broke the news, his shoulders shaking. I had never before seen Dave cry. When he had pulled himself together, as I sat there in shock, he asked the doctor what we could do to help our son.
What I’ve always loved about Dave is his sweet, easygoing ways and his super-sized heart. He is known among friends for his bear hugs. When we started dating, it was easy to see what a great father he’d be — but I never imagined just what lengths he’d have to go to.
As a result of the stroke, Max has cerebral palsy. His hands, arms, and legs are impaired, because CP makes your muscles stiff and not move the way they’re supposed to. We learned to massage Max’s little limbs when he was a baby, and it would make me melt to see Dave standing over the changing table, speaking baby talk to Max and rubbing his chubby legs.
The CP affected Max’s eating, too, and when we’d feed him the baby food would dribble right out of his mouth, and we’d have to spoon it back in. It could take a good half hour to get through one jar. Of everything we were dealing with, the feeding most devastated me. I had good resolve to help Max do the best as he could, but having a child who couldn’t chew OK triggered my greatest fears about his future. Was our son going to be that disabled? There was also the fact that nourishing your child is a primal parent desire. Mealtimes left me wracked with anxiety.
Dave felt none of that. “He has to eat,” he’d say, matter-of-factly.
Me, I read into things, I over-think, I over-feel. Dave tends to err on the opposite side, but it was a winning combination for parenting Max because when grief or worry would get the best of me, Dave would step in and just do it. Soon, Dave was handling most of the feeding, which he does to this day. At 11 years old, Max is able to spoon food into his mouth, but he still likes when Daddy helps and still requires assistance with drinking, among other tasks more typically associated with toddlers.
My husband not only changed diapers from the start, he did so for years on end; Max didn’t potty-train until he was 9. Dave took some sort of perverse pride in his ability to put a diaper on Max anywhere — the trunk of our minivan, an airplane bathroom and, once, in the bleachers of a baseball game. (This is not to be confused with the perverse pride he took in the size of his poop: “Wow! That’s a big one!” he’d say, gleefully.)
Max is getting bigger. He’s not yet steady enough on his feet to step out of the bathtub on his own, so Dave lends a hand. Dave is also there to help Max climb up and down stairs, help him get into the minivan, help him navigate around the bouncy house at birthday parties. He is more hands-on than any other dads I know at this stage of parenthood. Not once have I ever heard him complain, or bemoan that he doesn’t get to do things other dads do with their kids. This is because he has found other ways.
Today is our 13th wedding anniversary. To me, it is also Father’s Day, as it is every single day. Sure, sometimes men get unwarranted props for doing duties that come with the parenting gig, like watching the kids when Mom goes out or helping with self-care, as in the recent photo that went viral of blogger Doyin Richards brushing his daughter’s hair with a baby strapped to his chest. This isn’t about that. This is about a dad who constantly rises to parenting challenges and does so tirelessly, cheerfully and with so much love.
Happy Anniversary, love. And Happy Father’s Day.