The Family Captain: An Essay Reflecting on Fatherhood

A boat ride around Balboa Island with his kids prompts a father to reflect on his role and how it changes.
Illustration by Hannah Agosta

So, Dad, how do you like being a father?”

My youngest daughter asked that with a sly grin as I glided our Duffy boat across the calm water past yachts and multimillion-dollar homes.

She probably suspected that I was in no mood to answer. Though cruising around Balboa Island with our three grown children and their significant others was my idea of a fruitful Father’s Day, the fact that their last-second packing of lunch supplies caused us to be 30 minutes late for our assigned reservation still irritated me.

“It’s great,” I mumbled, and my kids recognized this was all they would get for now.

My daughter had channeled the DNA of my departed mother, who would sit at our family table of seven in Los Alamitos every Sunday dinner, enduring the usual silence for only so long. Then she’d break in with “So what’s new with you?” causing the meekest of the five siblings to turn red, then dare to share something with the group. We’d go around the table until my father had had enough, getting up to do chores or something in the garage.

I never questioned my mother’s good intentions—not even when she announced, after a marriage encounter weekend with my father, that our entire Irish Catholic family needed to start hugging. To punctuate this shift, she added that Dad would now kiss her the minute he walked in the door from work. Thereafter, he constantly and mockingly obliged. But it wasn’t in his nature. 

Though I spent a good deal of my adolescence and young adulthood attempting to avoid imitating his petulant and peevish behavior, especially toward my mother, his stoic blood still ran through me.

Few men have perfect role models for fathers, those once found on 1950s and ’60s sitcoms, who came home from work to sit in a recliner with slippers and a pipe, dispensing wisdom to sons and sometimes daughters. My implied fatherhood message from a veteran of the Depression and WWII was “work, provide, and save.” Mow the lawn; change the oil.

But he also spent hours in the garage—away from the family—washing, drying, and folding laundry. He rolled into the driveway every Thursday afternoon, his trunk bursting with bags of groceries for the coming week. He spent late Friday nights, while my mother and younger siblings were asleep, mopping the kitchen floor, cigarette dangling from his mouth.

It took life away from home, college, and at least five years at work to believe I was someone substantial enough not just to sustain a relationship, but to commit to a partnership in which love, respect, and toil might produce a life of meaning and purpose beyond myself. I married when I not only found a woman I loved, but someone who would shower our children with a radiant smile and warm hugs day after day. If I couldn’t step beyond the stresses and demands of life, hoping my devotion and duty would express love to my children, I had secured someone who would touch their hearts directly.

It would be simplistic but also correct to say this was all it took. There were struggles and successes, mortgages and credit card debt, accidents and illnesses, but never doubt. When my wife worked the swing shift, I warmed bottles and baby food, drove infants in car seats until they fell asleep, pushed swings and merry-go-rounds in local parks, and made up bedtime stories. Tired or not, it’s just what you do. Each child brought a unique joy. Love never needed to be parceled out. It just expanded, even in the deepest challenges.

One by one, the kids arrived at their senior years in high school. I sat in the stands of the gym before a game as our firstborn barely made it through a solo of the national anthem. But she did. I wiped tears from my eyes before congratulating her. I smiled in the back of a rented team banquet room while our son, chosen to speak about the varsity basketball coaches, entertained the parents and players like a seasoned emcee. From the second row, I held my breath as our youngest, captain of the dance team, twirled on the stage during her Senior Solo. Then I sighed in relief.

What’s it like to be a father? In high school, I couldn’t have done any of those things my kids did. I’m not sure my wife could have either. But somehow, between us, they could. They did. Through all their challenges and accomplishments, I am confident they always will.

We were not far out into the harbor when my youngest, working her first year in Child Protective Services, asked to take the wheel. My son, who counsels addicts in a recovery program, took the helm next, with his girlfriend. My oldest daughter, seven months pregnant and a high school teacher of English language learners, then shared steering the boat with my wife, smiling and giggling together as the two-hour cruise wound down. We listened to music, ate sandwiches and fruit, laughed, and reminisced. I sat up front, quiet most of the time, watching the boats and fancy houses drift by.

The wheel was returned to me as we approached the dock. I began guiding the boat back into the slip.

I remember when we told my parents in August 26 years ago that my wife was pregnant with our third child, due the following May. My mother smiled; her eyes lit up. But I watched my dad, who paused, then turned and walked out back around the side of our house. I knew he had done the math, that his prognosis with lung cancer did not stretch beyond December. He wouldn’t see this grandchild born. But I couldn’t let him go as I had countless times before, so I walked out after him, to where he stood facing the street through the wrought-iron fence.

I stuttered out, “Dad, are you OK?”

He turned and offered a brief smile beneath his moist eyes. He waved me away with a gentle hand, appreciating my concern, but wanting to be alone. I let him be.

When my oldest’s baby arrives, she might ask, “So, Dad, what’s it feel like to be a grandpa?”

“Thankful,” I might say. For my wife, for my kids, for my mother, and for my dad.

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