Nobody ever warned me about Father's Day. Before my son was born I'd spend June's third Sunday festive, fancy-free, unworried by the occasion. I'd give my dad a necktie or a mix CD, ink a clumsy card. If we were close by, I'd hug him, whenever far apart I'd call. Father's Day placed low on my hierarchy of holidays – a ranking measured mostly in a holiday's number of required traditional foods. Passover and Christmas each score high, calling for whole and particular feasts. Birthdays do worse – just a single candled cake. Father's Day doesn't take anything special (what do fathers eat anyway? Cheese-and-tomato sandwiches? Steak? A greedy portion of lemon sorbet?) so mostly I let it bumble by. The day wasn't about me: It was about my dad, whom I adore, who's easy to celebrate.
On my first Father's Day as a father, last year, I was too staggered to really think about it. Even that designation seemed new – "father," a word remade. Our baby boy was a marvel, the most vivid thing I had ever encountered, and just the notion of Father's Day made me giddy. The same June Sunday had come around again but now there was a new person here with us, a new mantle on my shoulders, a crazy new future counting in.
Counting: that was the first sign.
The calculations didn't start straightaway. M's age was never counted in hours. By the time I thought to do it, he was already one mind-boggling day old. (One mind-boggling day young.) Maybe my heart was beating at double-time: it was dark out when he came, then dawn rose, then an afternoon and evening and night rushed by and already one whole day had passed. He was too old to count in hours, now. The counting began with days: one day old, two days, five, a week. One week becomes six; two months become twelve. Now M is 14 months old and I am clinging to that unit of measurement as a fire-fighter clings to his pole, feeling it pour past. When the kid is two years old I will say 24 months. When he is 25 I will call him a 300-month-old. I am not trying to slow down time – I am just trying to manage its hurtling. There's no need for life to go by so quickly, not now, when there's a small tomorrow crawling down the hall, ransacking the Tupperware cupboard, chirruping like a chick. My heart's already hurting and life's just moving at real-time. During M's first, uncounted hours I felt as if I could still distinguish each impression, each thought, as it alighted behind his blue eyes. When I held him against my chest the seconds seemed to come slower: as if they were forbearing, deferring to him, gathering in the doorway. The light seemed slower too. The sounds – cotton sheets on cotton sheets, hot water from a kettle, a breeze in the branches – each seemed discrete, deliberate, knowable. And there was this newborn in our arms, at the beginning of knowing.
Today, 14 preposterous months later, the baby is almost a toddler. He is ravenous: for tastes, sights, sounds, staircases, woodchips under the play-structure. He likes to tell us what dogs say and what sheep say and what snakes say but he won't answer when I ask about cats. Fatherhood no longer feels like a reverie: it's a race, or a racing-after, and an ever-reconstituting partnership with M's (magnificent) mother. Almost every day, I leave them to "go to work": ambling to a coffee shop, arranging words into sentences. Back home, a little boy's throwing Ping-Pong balls, laughing his head off, learning to scale the record cabinet. The tally of days, weeks, months is no longer just a sum of moments shared but also of moments missed. It's only going to get worse: before long, M will go to daycare, then to college; soon he'll be crate-digging in China or backpacking through Haiti or whatever other brave trail he chooses to plunge down. I'll be there for him but at the same time I won't be there, not always. I'll give him everything I have but I know as well how easily such gifts can be diminished.
Because it us up to me what kind of father my son has. It is not my child's responsibility, nor my partner's. I have chosen this obligation. Or maybe it chose me, a love like an icebreaker through ice. Parenthood is a heavy wonder – a tiny hand in one's hand – and I find now that Father's Day is at the heavier end of that experience. Yes, this is an occasion for greeting-cards and brunches, long-distance calls home. Maybe even for neckties – will I receive one too, one day? Yet beyond that, beside that, as sons and daughters bumble by: Father's Day is a mirror. Twenty-four hours held up before me, to see all the ways I've followed through or fallen short. Twenty-four hours to count again, not in breaths and breezes but in hopes and changes, marvelling at how far we've come, how far there is to go, and everything that's taken place between myself and this perfect little boy, gnashing on a banana, at my feet.