The Long Walk
When I drop my children at school, I rarely park near the front entrance. In fact, I often park much farther from it than is necessary. I don’t do this to avoid the many double-parked minivans which clog the street like some long suburban gypsy caravan. It is also not my distaste for the endless series of potholes which line this same street in front of the school like some puckered battlefield. I appreciate not dealing with these inconveniences, but I actively seek out the inconvenience of a long walk to school because it gives me an opportunity to connect with my kids.
Our life often feels like an endless slog of activities, destinations, and the commutes between them. My children only participate in one regular extracurricular pursuit at the moment, a weekly gymnastics class which my daughter adores and my son barely tolerates. Even this small commitment every Friday afternoon feels like too much. Too much traffic, too much hassle, too much money, and definitely too much whining, even from the older one who actually wants to be there. Even so, I have learned to embrace the moments in between. This genuflect to smelling the roses was not an intellectual revelation. It was a desperate reach for daily sanity.
This 4 block walk to school has become a daily opportunity to check in with my children without seeming like I am checking in at all. Struggling down the sidewalk—two kids, one father, two lunch boxes, one back pack—we must appear like some strange chimera of a nuclear family. As my son sits upon my shoulders like a second head, pulling at my ears and my daughter treats my offered hand like a whirly carnival ride, I give in to our lack of forward progress. Despite the antics, it is a chance for us to converse about topical considerations which we encounter along the way. A mound of dog poop in our path promotes a dialectic discussion of what dog deposited it (my son suggests it was a dragon), techniques to best avoid the poop in the future, and an exploration of the ethics of the owner who failed to clean it up. One sad red sock abandoned upon a strip of grass, inspires a fanciful narrative of its owner, the question of did it run away from a smelly foot, and the curiosity of what happened to its absent sock partner. All these exchanges which occur when we could just as easily have been focused on our destination rather than the more interesting path to getting there have brought me closer to my kids.
I haven't always embraced these unsuspecting precious moments of parenthood. I have screamed. I have cajoled. I have threatened. I have feigned deep sadness all in a pyrrhic effort to get my kids moving in a forward direction. I have pulled arms too roughly. I have plead to the gods of small children. I have even stomped away, leaving my two kids weeping in one sad square of sidewalk. Where is papa going? my daughter once asked the universe as I huffed away in frustration. As ashamed as I am of these moments, I am equally as pleased with the revelation that they were unnecessary, that there exists a different path. Who cares if we are 5 minutes late to school? The ABCs of kindergarten are less important than the chance to learn more about my child and more about myself. What if we’re late to gym class? Making it on time to a class of five-year-olds tumbling in disarray does not hold a candle to calmly hearing about my daughter’s day while sitting in interminable traffic.
The long walk is not just about where we are trying to go. It is a state of mind, a state of being. I can summon these invaluable moments any time. My children, who don’t give two shits about being on time, taught me this. My daughter—still mastering the art of wiping her bottom—often insists that I join her in the bathroom. She sits on that toilet for many minutes and she prefers to have company. It gets lonely, she tells me. We spend a lot of time together in that small room with walls of seafoam green, talking about deep things as she grunts it all out with a cherry-red face.
My three-year-old son is also in on the game of passing time as time is passing. It sometimes takes him five minutes to complete a few sentences about some idea rolling around his brain. As he jousts with the architecture of his tongue and the fancies of his mind, he rarely gets impatient. He doesn’t give up. In those magical moments, which many people consider wasted, I really want to be there. I don’t want to worry about where I am going or where I have been. The only thing that exists for me at that moment is a story about a red car and maybe there was a dog barking too. It is a story my son is telling me through his asynchronous toddler stammer and it is the most important thing for this dad right now.
David has worked as a pediatric oncology nurse at UCSF for 13 years. Over that time, he has worked with thousands of parents and their children. His intimate interactions with these families often occur in the setting of extreme duress, heartache, and celebration. These intense moments have taught him how to be a parent in the hardest of times and have also shown him what it means to be a parent in the best of times.
His upcoming book, Nurse Papa - 16 Meditations On Parenthood From A Pediatric Oncology Nurse, will be released later this year. Nurse Papa is a prescriptive and heartwarming book written from the perspective of a pediatric oncology nurse who is also a father. The stories within are directed at parents and those without children who are looking to ask and answer some of life's big questions. You will laugh, you will cry, and you will learn about yourself.