What My Son's Memories Mean To Me
I want you to know that one day, for a couple of hours, we were The Backpack Superheroes. It was a Monday, or a Friday (one of the two days each week I got to spend with you before you started school fulltime) and we both wore backpacks on the way to the playground. Mine was filled with diapers, snacks from who knows when, and a cup of milk.
You decided to stuff your little Very Hungry Caterpillar one with toys and sidewalk chalk. And when we stepped outside that day, both wearing those backpacks, you came up with the idea. Our duties as Backpack Superheroes were mostly undefined but I remember we did look for Backpack Villains in our Philadelphia neighborhood, vanquishing them from the city (not really), while finding solidarity with those who shared our backpack-wearing superpowers (we didn’t tell them).
Of all the moments we shared, it’s funny this one stands one out to me. Perhaps it’s because I enjoyed the creative way in which your young brain churned, or how much fun it was for the two of us to have this kind of mini-adventure on an otherwise bland morning when most other people were at work or school.
More than anything, though, it was a reminder that the best thing I can do is simply be there with you, as much as I can, so I never miss those unexpected moments of joy.
In the nearly five years since you squirmed into the world and made me a dad, I’m not sure if I have any profound lessons to offer about fatherhood. I have so much yet to learn. But there are two dads I think about often, both driving home the importance of being there.
The first is my own father, who died from cancer when I was around the same age you are now. I’ve written about him in the past, watched home videos, tried to learn his hobbies, his hopes, his dreams he never got to realize. But until recently, I didn’t allow myself to think of the unimaginable sadness he must have felt that last year in the hospital when he wasn’t able to simply go on a walk with me, or tuck me in at night, or soak in all of the cuteness and weirdness that a 4-year-old’s imagination has to offer.
Which brings me to the next person I think about, someone I’ve never met but everyone knows: Joe Biden. You can’t always tell when he’s duking it out in political forums but the former senator and vice president has endured so much personal tragedy while somehow remaining endlessly optimistic. There’s one piece of advice he gave in a speech that’s always stuck with me. When talking about why he commuted by train every day from his home in Wilmington to Washington D.C. after his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash but his two young sons survived, he said: “Because I came to realize that a child can hold an important thought, something they want to say to their mom and dad, maybe for 12 or 24 hours, and then it’s gone. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Where do those thoughts go when they’re gone? It’s sad to think they disappear forever, and that you won’t remember many of the cool things you come up with until your memory is fully formed. But I want you to know that I tried to be there for as many of those moments as possible, even when you forgot about them, even when I did too.
When you’re older, I’ll tell you more about some of my favorites. Like the time we chased the sound of an ice cream truck for 12 city blocks, people cheering us on as we went, the grand prize being a crappy teenage mutant ninja turtle popsicle that melted on the long walk home. Or the time Mom asked you to take your hand out of your pants at school and you responded, “No! It’s my culture!” Or how you gave your little sister a nickname and when she cried for the first time, you rushed to find her milk and said, “It’s OK, Bean Bean, I’m here! Don’t worry!”
I want you to know I’m the lucky one. I’m fortunate enough that I have a career that allowed me to spend more time with you than many dads in your first few formative years, something I hope to do with your sister too. And the best way to honor my father’s memory, I think, is to keep doing that for as long as I can. That’s because I’ve learned the best memories aren’t always formed on those big trips to the zoo or theme parks (those are fun too!) but sometimes in the car when you’re trying to make up riddles or at the dinner table when you’re creating your own “podcast” on my phone’s voice recorder.
I didn’t know wearing backpacks would turn us into superheroes, and I didn’t realize turning a corner to buy an ice cream would turn into a mad dash through the city. But looking back on it, those are adventures I wouldn’t trade for anything. I can’t wait for the next one.
About the Author
Dave Zeitlin is a freelance journalist who writes for The Pennsylvania Gazette, The Athletic, MLSsoccer.com, The Associated Press and NBC Sports Philadelphia, among other outlets. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, 4-year-old son, 1-year-old daughter and 80-pound giant beagle mutt.