This story aired Monday morning, June 5, 2023 on the Sundial Writers Corner on 89.3, WLRH

My only first-hand experience with childbirth before my son was born had been in my garage. I sat with my dad’s dog, whose name I don’t remember because there had been so many. She was in labor with her first litter and as I stroked her head to keep her calm, I kept repeating what any caring and sensitive child of 11 would say to a dog giving birth in the family garage, “Good girl, c’mon girl, you can do it girl”.

So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that through instinct and muscle memory that when I repeated these lines during my wife’s labor, “Good girl, c’mon girl, you can do it girl”, my left hand rightfully received a crushing squeeze, and I was given the worst side eye of my life.

No one warned me that I shouldn’t try to calm and comfort my wife as I would one of my dad’s many Blueticks. 

But any uncomfortable missteps were soon forgiven as we witnessed the best of humanity in the form of a baby with a mop of brown hair, blinking eyes, ten fingers and ten perfect toes on two long feet like my own.

There had been expectations with childbirth, like I expected to be prepared to support my wife having taken several birthing classes. My wife expected that I wouldn’t speak to her like a dog. We all have expectations or at least things that we have grown used to. The sun rises and sets. Santa Claus is real. Your parents are your own. 

* * *

My mom was always home from school in the summers as she was a teacher. She and I were the two in the family of three that were most alike. We could have easily passed as siblings when viewing our first-grade school pictures and we have always communicated in a similar fashion. Mom would take me everywhere, from places that I wanted to visit (the library), places I did not want to visit (the fabric store) and to my grandparent’s house up the road within walking distance. We would talk the entire summer on these rides and walks, much how I now talk with my own son. Our conversations about books, art, and movies were paused when my dad came home from work. He didn’t keep up with those things and fittingly, he wanted us to hear about his day at the textile mill.

In the summer after second grade, Mom began laying out the clues to help me deduce that there was no Santa. As a teacher, she had seen the torment that came from being the child who held on to myths too long. In the midst of drawing and talking that summer, I looked up and bluntly asked if there really was a Santa. Mom gently replied, “No, your father and I are your Santa.”

I was proud that I had put the clues together correctly, but still a bit exasperated that the make-believe had ended, I said “Great! I guess you’re going to tell me there’s no Easter Bunny either.”

Mom smiled and playfully asked if I still believed in the Tooth Fairy, to which I replied with a wicked side eye of my own.

 * * *

In elementary school, did you ever see your teacher at the grocery store? This used to freak me out. I imagined that the teachers lived in their so-called lounge in the school and this is where they powered down until the next school day. And even though my mom was a teacher, It was hard to imagine that any of my teachers had a life outside of the school. Just like it was hard for me to imagine my parents having a life before I was born. 

Unbeknownst to me, Mom had been married before. And every once in a while her brother would make digs about her ex-husband in front of me. These digs were never clear or overt, so I hadn’t put two and two together yet. Mom decided to get in front of a potentially upsetting discovery by dropping clues again in conversations, so that I could unearth and digest this new news more easily. It was about a man. As Santa was real and then he wasn’t, this new man was non-existent and then he was real.

I don’t quite remember the details or the exact evidence she presented, but I put things together quickly enough and asked her the question that I was led to.

“Mom, were you married before?”

She gently replied yes.

I dared not ask any further questions in fear of what other truths might be waiting to wrestle me away from my comfortable world. My concrete foundation was beginning to crumble and in that moment a seed of doubt had been planted.

I walked with my heart in my head to our backyard kennel, thinking this could explain things I had always felt deep down. I love my dad, but even at a young age, I recognized that I was disconnected from him. Later I would learn that this disconnectedness came from his own childhood trauma, but in that moment, I was convinced that biologically, I wasn’t his. I was perhaps the product of Mom’s first marriage. I saw Dad holding one of his many puppies from the kennel and I nearly cried thinking that my father wasn’t mine, but I never spoke my fear to him.

* * *

As an adult the disconnectedness I felt with my dad had turned more adversarial. We butted heads on so many things, from the big subjects to the mundane. We’d make up, but it was exhausting.

The day before my 30th birthday my dad had accident on a trail ride. He was thrown from his horse, and he landed on his leg, crushing everything below his left knee. The leg was nearly lost, but through science, alchemy, and time, he kept his limb. His recovery was slow and as my mom was still working, I moved home to help physically care for him and his many dogs.

I entered our living room one evening and noticed him reclined on the couch, his unadorned feet hanging over the armrest.

“Dad, do you need me to cut your nails?” It would have been nearly impossible for him to do considering his injury.

“No, I got it,” he said.

I had first noticed his neglected toenails, but then I could see his long, slender, pale white feet, toes that could hold a pencil. The round bundle of muscle below the ankle almost appeared blue because of their closeness to the surface. If my feet had a mirror, then these would be their reflection.

Dad had my feet or rather I had his and my son had mine.

And this is when any question or any lingering insecurities about my parentage as a child fled my mind. My father and I are dissimilar is many ways. I have not followed in his footsteps with how I view the world and yes, we still butt heads, but when I look at my own feet, it is a literal reminder that we are bound together.