While delivering a glazed eye stare to my phone one evening, questioning my various life choices, and chewing over my worries about the future, I stumbled across a video from last year, of the day my son learned how to ride a bike.* It’s me, running behind him, calling out encouragement as his initial wobbles turn into confident pedaling. The National’s Easy to Find was released around the same time and I distinctly remember mentally soundtracking my jog down the sidewalk to Berninger’s melancholy “and I would always be light years, light years away from you” as my son gained speed and started to pull away. This is the sort of sappy thing that happens to you when you become a father.
The fact that children will shift your horizons in unexpected ways is not among the things that “no one ever tells you about becoming a parent.” It’s actually one of the things almost every single parent tells you, in one way or another, often while they stare into the middle-distance with an absent expression, seeing something that I, at least when I was childless, could never quite see (arguably, because you can’t actually see it until you cross that transformative boundary into parenthood). But, the image of giving a push to someone who ends up accelerating away from you into the distance gets at something of the reality.
Before you become a parent, you don’t quite grasp the breadth of the gap between you and your children, that it will ultimately become a matter of light years, an unbridgeable distance. You might think that somehow you are ahead on the trail, but in the end, you are actually always behind. Barring tragedy, your children will travel far beyond you, at speeds you will never match (the tragedy of the loss of a child is the tragedy of the journeys they never get to take). Recognizing this potential is a source of joy, but is also marked by sadness – because to realize this is to recognize our own limits – our falling behind. That initial push for those first few wobbly feet of unaided pedaling is also a letting go.
The last couple of weeks, after years of relatively uneventful toddler sleep, my daughter has been waking multiple times every night, crying and calling out. The darkness of her room has suddenly become a source of mysterious and persistent fear. Waking at 3am and stumbling to her room to try and comfort her I feel what everyone feels in the same situation, irritation and frustration, even though these night time struggles are a common experience of parenting, just ones that won’t be memorialized on home video. But in the morning, feeling foggy and dull, the accumulated fatigue beginning to weigh me down, I remember the acceleration of growing up, the ways in which the gap will only widen over the years. I try and remember the fact that one day, if I am lucky enough to grow old, I’ll look back fondly at the nights spent singing lullabies – as moments when a distance of light years could be collapsed by a back rub and a song, even if only for a moment.
*There were a number of days leading up to that particular day, but once he got it, he got it. Pro-tip: hold the child, not the bike.