It’s approaching 6 p.m. and garlic and basil scents from the kitchen fill my house. I can hear the pots and pans clanking in the kitchen as my dad cooks, humming as he stirs. I peer in from the back porch which feeds into the dining room, leading into the kitchen to see the steam from the stove rise to the ceiling. I lay back on the white carpeted floor of the porch and continue watching one of my favorite shows, “Dragon Tales” on the TV in front of me. As I wait for my mom to come home from work, I am eager to share my day with her. My dad continues to whistle and hum as he tries to finish preparing dinner before mom arrives home. It’s pasta night.
My dad has always been protective of me. The day I was born, he was paranoid that the nurses would accidentally switch me with another baby. So naturally, he didn’t like the idea of putting me in daycare as a child. But because it seemed like the most sensible thing to do at the time, he and my mom reluctantly put me in daycare for a few weeks. During my time in day care, I ended up “losing” my favorite stuffed animal, which I later discovered had been left inside my cubby. Other than that, I have very little memories from daycare. One of those memories is the day they had a clown come visit us with balloon animals. I’m not a big fan of clowns, but thanks to my dad, that was the last I saw of daycare (and clowns). When my parents enrolled me in Ward Parkway Presbyterian pre-school, my dad, John Burgess, chose to stay at home with me in the afternoons while my Mom, Gina, worked during the day. That was my dad for most of my childhood, occasionally cooking dinner while mom made her way home from work, always packing lunches in my clunky, purple lunch pail that I would sluggishly carry to school with me.
The supper I always remember my dad making when my mom couldn’t make it home in time to help was pasta, or as I would refer to it as a kid—“saghetti.” When she got home, I would run up to hug her and lead her to the dining room. We would all sit down and eat our “saghetti” while I rambled on about the events of the day.
After my short stint in daycare and “graduation” from Pre-K, my dad continued to stay home with me every day after 3 p.m. through grade school, since my mom would work some nights until 8 p.m. While other kids were getting picked up by moms and maroon-colored minivans in grade school, I rode home in my dad’s black ’94 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Every day, from preschool until fifth grade when my mom’s work schedule changed, my dad would stand outside the school in his worn paint-splattered slacks, fleece North Face and ball cap, waiting for me among the chattering PTA moms. Some days we would go straight home and I would plop down on our plaid couch and watch my favorite PBS shows. Other days he would teach me how to play checkers or chess. Still, my favorite memories were on days when my dad and I would go for walks down to Windsor Park and he would push me on the swing, doing underdogs, or running under the swing as he pushed me so I could go higher. Even the times when I would stand on the end of the grocery cart at Wild Oats while he raced around the store, picking out the groceries for the week.
On any choice autumn day after school, when the leaves were in the prime of their transitions from green to crimson, my dad and I would hop into the old Grand Cherokee with a Frisbee and my old black Labrador, Duke, and drive out west to Shawnee Mission Park. On the drives there, my dad would play U2’s “Achtung Baby” or Radiohead’s “Ok Computer” and sing along. We would walk the trails of the park as he pointed out the countless signs of fall to me. Even now, fall holds a strong resonance for me when the leaves start changing and my mind races back to my childhood. I see myself sitting in the passenger seat of the Jeep, watching the trees pass and listening to my dad try to sing “Karma Police.”
If it wasn’t for my dad’s decision to stay home with me, I would have spent my early years watching clowns make balloon animals at a daycare with a bunch of other kids instead of taking nature walks at my favorite local park. Having a stay-at-home dad never affected me in the short term; it was just the lifestyle I was accustomed to growing up. I never looked at the other kids’ moms waiting to pick them up from school and felt embarrassed that my dad was there instead. I know now that my mom was taking care of me in her own way, and my dad was doing what he loved most—being my dad. I guess I never fully appreciated the time my dad put into taking care of me until last October, when he left to work with a construction company for three months in Minnesota. When he told me that he wouldn’t be back until the week before Christmas, I let the thought shift to the back of my mind and didn’t think much of it until he actually left.
It was the small things that I missed while he was gone: the nights he would grill out in our backyard and cook the meanest grilled chicken while sporting the “Grill Sergeant” shirt I bought him for his birthday. The Sundays he would yell at the Chiefs out of disappointment or enthusiasm through our television. I missed the random, philosophical discussions he would strike up about anything in life that my mom and I sometimes rolled our eyes at. There was such an undeniable sense of emptiness in the house that my mom and I felt when my dad was gone. It was the first fall my dad wasn’t home.
I made a pact with myself that when he returned home, I would try to show more gratitude towards my parents and not be so stubborn all the time, even though most of my stubbornness comes from my dad. I realized during that three month period how thankful I actually was for the father I was given. He’s far from perfect, but he and my mom care more about me more than anyone in my life.
I wish I would have cherished those small moments I spent with my dad more when I was younger because as I look back on them, I think about how much they shaped me as a person. He taught me to be tough and to “buck up” when things weren’t going my way. He taught me how to play chess and how to ride a bike. Because I had a stay-at-home dad, I was able to become closer with him than I ever would have if he worked a nine-to-five shift every day.