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Our First Father-Daughter Road Trip Was Escaping a Hurricane

You could never say that we didn’t see it coming.

Hurricane Irma churned its way toward Florida with a level of intensity and capacity for destruction that was plain to anyone. Its ferocious potential was evident from Barbuda to Cuba long before it reached the Gulf Coast of Florida. News broadcasts announced its power and path.

As a single dad in Tampa with a five-year-old, I had only one choice. It was time to leave.

Leaving wasn’t as simple as it seemed. Days before landfall, flights were unobtainable. First Tampa, then Orlando, then Jacksonville ran out of departures with seats. I had to settle for Atlanta, which involved an eight-hour drive in the best of conditions to catch an outbound flight to family in New Jersey. Thus was my daughter’s first road trip born.

Packing the suitcase of a five-year-old girl is an interesting experience for a guy.

Certain stuffed animals were considered essential for the journey but were too large to fit in her suitcase together with clothes and other needed items. I explained this. We negotiated. Eventually, we settled upon two smaller stuffed animal alternatives.

Only certain dresses would do. I had to explain that the climate in New Jersey in September was colder than in Tampa, Florida. We negotiated some more. This was all in good cheer, but it ate up time, patience, and energy.

I know an amazing preacher, a former NFL player with the Arizona Cardinals, who talks about his “cup of grace” that starts out full each day but can be emptied over time. He says that when your cup of grace is empty, it’s empty. It will fill back up, but you have to tell your loved ones when the cup is dry. Then they know when to cool it.

Two stuffed animals, three dresses, two beloved bath toys, carefully selected socks, a denied pair of shoes (too large to wear yet without causing blisters), a hairbrush, and an assortment of separately packed snacks later, my cup of grace was as dry as the Sahara. I love my little girl. But she is, as she describes herself, a “specific person” – in every way.

I’m impressed that a five-year-old can come up with the idea of being a “specific person” on her own, so I let that slide. I may even encourage it.

We need specific people. They build our bridges and houses and help run our computer networks. Life wouldn’t work without them. But there’s also no denying that they can be a pain at times. Especially to a creative writer dad.

Adding fuel to the specificity fire is the pronounced femininity of my little minion.

Men love women for what makes them different from us. It’s just naturally that way. If we weren’t different, nothing would work and nothing would be interesting. But no one would say that differences make for an easy time. And there’s nothing like a lengthy road trip under adverse circumstances to bring out the differences, and even magnify them up to the threshold of actual, physical pain.

I’m like most parents, whether single or married. That is to say, I have heard the “Let It Go” song from the Frozen soundtrack so many times that it’s led me to contemplate the violent destruction of audio equipment and question my sanity on multiple occasions. But there is nothing to do when your little one is herself the author of your musical interlude.

It’s excruciating.

You don’t want to stifle her enthusiasm. You want her to express herself. But girly girls sing girly songs, over and over and over. The repetition feels great to them. It must be like eating cherries: “Hey, that one tasted good, let’s have another one!” That’s what I think when I dig into a big bowl of fruit.

My little Katie was evidently feeling the same as we transited from Tampa to Ocala to Gainesville, at times on the highway and other times plying the back roads in an effort to escape the snarl of Floridians hurrying out of the way of Irma’s wrath. Katie never stopped being nice and sweet – but she never stopped singing, either.

My martial arts teacher is a third-degree black belt. He says that he can turn the volume in his household up or down simply by concentrating, that his mind is strong enough to train his focus on as much or as little of his surroundings as he likes. I don’t know if that’s possible for me or not, but I do know one thing: I’m training with that guy until I become a black belt because I’d walk through the gates of hell to possess that kind of ability.

Since I already feel like the gates of hell and I are old friends, my arrival there may be redundant. But at least I’ll feel like I’m right at home.

I have to give Katie her due. In many ways, she made the trip to Atlanta more pleasant than it would have been had I been alone. We talked about her grandmother’s house. We laughed and made jokes, even though her “knock-knock” jokes didn’t make any sense. So what if I had to rhyme words with her for hours and have contests to see which of us could spot more school buses for 300 miles? It was really fun, despite the challenges.

Kids push us to our limits, but they light up our lives. You don’t get one without the other.

Katie’s arrival in New Jersey kicked the whole deal into overdrive. We were safe, that was great. Irma had no chance of harming us. I breathed the sigh of relief that every parent knows and understands. But my peace of mind was short-lived because the child care marathon started roughly at 8:30 a.m. each morning.

Katie would wake up hungry. (That’s to be expected.) Then she’d want to play with the dogs, including a huge, three-month-old puppy weighing 35 pounds, who appears to be a mix of Labrador and Newfoundland. I christened the puppy Jackson, since he didn’t have a name yet. If you think Jackson’s energy was more than equal to my daughter’s, you’d be right. Sometimes you score points just when all the furniture in the house remains intact.

After some time with Jackson and my mom’s resident cocker spaniel, Katie would ask, “What’s the plan?” She likes to have an itinerary. At the age of five.

Our plans were always intense and scheduled. We went to Space Farms, a northwest New Jersey institution so long established that I went there as a kid 40 years ago. We saw and fed every animal known to man. We snacked. We picked apples. We went to the beach playground at the lake. We made sand castles. We swam even though it was September.

Back at home, we played Chinese checkers and Monopoly (Katie monopolized us thoroughly). Then we did puzzles on the floor. We drew and painted and colored. We played with the dogs some more. We decorated a pumpkin for Halloween. At last, we fell asleep watching PJ Masks.

That was Day One.

Each day was a delightful, brutal sensory onslaught from dawn to dusk. It’s what you get into being a parent. Nobody tells you that ahead of time. If they did, no one would have kids and the world would depopulate.

Candor requires me to affirm that, if it weren’t for Katie’s school to take up some of the strain, I would have been ready for the jacket with the funny sleeves a long time ago. Saying so, by the way, isn’t inconsistent with the deepest, most adoring love. It just is what it is. And it’s the hardest job you’ll ever love. Hands down.

I didn’t fare too well in the father department. He was out of the picture early, as some dads are, and when he was dragged back in later, he left a trail of hurt and destruction in his wake. Some people don’t know how to do anything else.

In my darkest moments, when I’m overtired beyond anything that’s normal just trying to be a good dad, I occasionally have a moment of weakness and lament my fate. I wonder why I am called upon to be a great dad when I didn’t get even a good one. You can be used to life’s unfairness and still think that.

When I feel that injustice rise inside me and indulge for a moment in self-pity – which is exactly what it is – I look at my little girl. She smiles. It does me in. There’s no cost, there’s no past, and there’s no pain or loss. There’s only her love.

Divorce is a hurricane. Katie’s energy is another kind of hurricane. We have to stand up to these things in life. I don’t know whether everything that doesn’t kill us will make us stronger. Personally, I have my doubts about that. But I do know that raising a beautiful child ennobles us. It gives us purpose, and it gives us hope.

Hurricanes don’t last forever. And when they pass, in their wake, they always leave the most pristine, clear sky without a cloud, beckoning us to an extraordinary tomorrow.

Who said motherhood doesn't come with a manual?

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