A Son Needs his Dad… To Be There
by Jay Payleitner
Driving home from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana as midnight approached, I couldn’t help but wonder whether our trip was worth the trip.
My wife, Rita, was asleep in the passenger seat and I was still trying to figure out what led us to make the three hour trip down to campus. Six hours back and forth.
We talked regularly on the phone with my son Randy, a junior English major, and he had been telling us how much fun he was having playing intramural football. He said it was more fun than high-school sports. So—in the middle of the workweek—we got in the car and went. Did I mention it was six hours back and forth?
Rita and I drove 160 miles to arrive just in time for his 8 p.m. co-ed intramural flag-football game. If you know about such things, you know that’s unheard of. Parents just don’t go there. Not that it’s frowned upon; it’s just out of the ordinary. But we had been invited. We mentioned to Randy it would be fun to watch him play again and he said, “Come on down!”
It was a brisk autumn night; football was in the air. The teams began to assemble and stretch out, just like real athletes. The cheering section would be limited to Rita, me, and a player on crutches sidelined from an injury in a previous game. But even that got me hoping that I was about to enjoy a real football game with real plays and aggressive strategies.
Unfortunately, midterms were coming up. And the other team was two or three players short. Apparently, their less-dedicated athletes thought studying was more important than intramurals. The game was forfeited. Not a big deal, unless you had just driven 160 miles to stand on the sidelines.
We took Randy out for pie and coffee. Which, looking back, was more gratifying than watching any football game. I don’t remember any specific topic, but I did have the sense that Rita and I were watching our son turn into an adult right before our eyes. Then we hit the road home.
Behind the wheel, I had plenty of time to allow the lessons of the evening to come together. This journey called life has all kinds of noteworthy milestones—birthdays, graduations, championship games, and award ceremonies. Any good dad—like you or me—is going to clear his calendar and attend those big events. That earns the gold star, right? Well, yeah. But big events are not when life happens.
Life happens during the small moments. Raking leaves. Street hockey. Driveway hoops. Trips to the hardware store. Clearing debris from the storm sewer. Debating over the best NFL running back. Hashing out a theological question. Flushing a dead goldfish. Burying a beloved dog in the backyard. Washing the car. Making ice cream. Digging out a tree stump. Asking your son to program your smartphone. Putting the chain back on his bike. Leaning against his bedroom doorway and comparing frustrations you’re having at work and he’s having at school. Teaching him to tie a tie. Sharing a box of cereal at 2 a.m. Intramural football games. Small moments that add up.
Pulling into our driveway well after midnight, I realized God had been guiding me in my fathering for the last eight hours and the last 20 years. A football game that never happened led directly to an overwhelming flood of gratitude that God had called me to be a dad. To be there. Every day. What a privilege.
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