Upon reflection, I think I have observed something about fatherhood. Or at least my fatherhood (the one I am doing or having right now, not the one my dad did or had with, on, at or to me—the prepositions, here, are unclear to me). It is this: I am fairly certain I would destroy myself saving one of my children. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’d destroy myself failing such an attempt. Not infrequently, I think of a specific incident. (This may get a bit dark for some readers. There is talk of hypothetical death and dying: both my own and my children’s. I won’t think less of you if you skip it).
When L was about two years old, my family and I were at the Texas Renaissance Festival. They have, there, a little side-path where you can kind of get away from the hubbub of the main festival. There are a few nice plants, some statuary, the odd set of benches and a majority of the path is adjacent to a little water. Optimistically, it could be called a stream, but realistically, it’s a murky, stagnant mosquito breeding pit.
As we walked, L decided it was the thing to do to throw sticks into this mosquito pit. Naturally, I thought, “Sure. This is a mysterious yet universal drive among primates, as far as I know. Knock yourself out, kid.” At one point, however, in order to do this, my toddler had to step off the path and onto a small shoulder populated by some kind of viney ground cover. No sooner did I think, “This probably isn’t going to end well,” than did the “not well,” in fact, begin.
Standing at the top of a sloped, roughly 5-foot drop to the water’s surface, something went wrong with his feet and he pivoted about the ankles, planking face-first into the slope, then pivoted about his head, planking again and slid feet-first down the rest of the slope and vanished into the water. In fact, roughly two and a half years later, now, I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate for two reasons: 1. Memory is fallible and that seems entirely too cartoonish and 2. I’m pretty sure I was running before he finished the first stage of the fall and that my next conscious thought wasn’t until I was mid-leap into the water after him.
I want to unpack that leap in a second, but first, I want to tell this from the point of view of some very nice people who were walking up the path from the other direction. They’d entirely missed L’s presence at all. Their first thought was, “What could have possibly possessed this scrawny, balding kilt-clad man to fling himself into this gross wat—OH MY GOD HE’S PULLING A BABY OUT OF THE WATER!”
The water was colder than I expected and much deeper (it was certainly taller than L could stand up in). My wife appeared uphill seemingly instantly and took our confused and frightened toddler from me, then the folks mentioned above and a friend of ours helped me scale the slope and get everyone sorted. Later, someone asked L something along the lines of, “What do you think just happened?” and he replied, “Daddy saved me from the alligator water.”
Let’s go back to the leap, now. When I said that I think my next conscious thought was mid-leap into the water, what I mean is that if there had been alligators in there, or even machine-gun wielding, right-wing extremist water cobras, I’m pretty sure I would have been in mid-air and committed before I could think something like, “The gun show snakes have taken my son and if I jump, too, I will join him in death.” I might have had a similar thought with the ending, “…and I am about to join him in death,” but there would have been nothing to do to change that fact.
I hope I can limit my engagement of the actual “destroying myself” part of this to when my children are in literal mortal danger, but I suspect that whatever processing goes into that decision happens faster and at a lower level than my conscious mind. A part of me finds this observation slightly dismaying. Another part of me finds it incredibly reassuring.
Thanks to Carl Youngblood, Andrew Harrison and Kevin Lord for helping edit this post.