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The air smells briny. Low tide makes it even swampier. It’s August and the evening’s hot sun still feels harsh on my skin. It was a long day at work. Counted the minutes on the office clock before heading out for a run along the lazy, winding path by San Diego’s Mission Bay. I really need to let off some steam. Stretch my legs. Clear my head.
But, I haven’t run a hundred yards before my upper lip beads with sweat. Not because of the heat. Or work frustration. Or the run. Because of the screaming kid. The one in the stroller. The one I’m pushing. My kid. My kid. You’d think after eighteen months, I’d be used to saying it. But, she’s my first. My only. Fatherhood is still new. I’m still not comfortable with the idea I’m a new dad. It’s exciting and I’m proud. But, I’m tired. Doubtful I’m doing anything right. And right now, her steady flow of tears dissolve any semblance of confidence I have, leaving my fears bare.
This is not the stress release I was hoping for today.
Running has always been my happy place. I mean, it’s hard work. It even hurts sometimes. But, I always feel better afterwards. More relaxed. Like everything is right again. Every run whisks me away to the first time I ran when I was a kid. I was just ten years old. I’d spent hours watching the 1984 Summer Olympics track and distance running events. Heart pounding and eyes glued to Carl Lewis, Joan Benoit, and Edwin Moses. My heroes. One day after the Games were over, I got up early before the sun rose. The house was quiet while everyone slept. I pulled on my sneakers, some shorts, a mesh football jersey, and walked out the back door. The air was cool and damp. I ran down New Shore Road along the edge of Long Island Sound where I grew up. No cars. Just me and the oak trees, the lichen-covered stone walls flanking the crumbly road, and the sea breezes pushing me along.
Running was an escape from my parents’ divorce back then. These days it’s an escape from whatever stress du jour is on the menu. It’s my time. Me time. It’s my reset button for life. But, now I don’t know what it is. I started running with her when she was just four months old. She was so small, the stroller so big. I packed her in with a half dozen rolled beach towels to be sure she was safe and secure. The cutest little dough ball. She was so quiet back then. She’d just sit and watch the sea gulls and sand drift by. But, not today. Today, she’s wailing up a storm and I don’t know why.
I pull off to the side of the path. I am prepared for anything. Have enough supplies in the stroller to mount an Everest expedition. Bottles, snacks, diapers, blankets, toys, water, change of clothes, books, rash cream, sunscreen, pacifier, backup pacifier, sunhat. It’s all here. I start troubleshooting. Run through the list of diagnostics I’ve learned over the last year. Is she hungry? I give her a bottle. She spits it out. Thirsty? Spits out the water too. Snack? Some yogurt drops? She purses her lips and turns her reddened face away. Wet diaper? No, dry as a bone. Is the sun in her eyes? No, the stroller shade is pulled all the way down. Pacifier? Nope. Toy? Nope. Nope. And more nope.
People on the path start stopping to see if I’m okay. If the situation is okay. I don’t look like a dad in control of the situation. At least, I don’t think I do. My dad comes from a long line of dads who had no idea what they were doing. He passed the tradition down to me. A woman asks me if I need help. My face flushes. I’m fine, I say. We’re fine, I correct. The lady doesn’t look convinced but gets the message and walks away. The crying sirens on.
I’m not very good at asking for help or even accepting it when offered. Plus, I’m this little person’s dad. I should know how to fix the problem. But, I have to know what the problem is in order to fix it. Minutes pass. The tears keep flooding down her cheeks. I can see I’m not going to get a run in today. Out of desperation I unbuckle her and pick her up out the stroller. She whips and flails her arms and legs around like an octopus. I almost drop her. Decide it’s best to set her in the grass on her bottom and let her work it out.
Like a faucet being shut off, she stops crying as soon as her tiny feet touch the ground. She pushes herself up and makes a beeline toward the path. A cyclist leaning into his drop bars speeds by. I take two quick steps to pull her away and put her back in the grass. She starts to wail again until I let go. She redirects herself back to the path and takes several surefooted steps onto the concrete.
She has good balance. Always has. She was an early walker. Took her first wobbly step at nine months. It was pure determination. Now she’s had almost a year to practice and she’s fast. She starts running, arms outstretched to her sides for balance. She bounces down the path like a pink ball gaining momentum. Where is she going? I run after her and pick her up to bring her back to the stroller and the grass. The tearful pyrotechnics erupt again. Then it dawns on me.
I ask her, do you want to run? She makes a fist and bobs it up and down to sign yes, too frustrated at her slow father to speak. My heart races with excitement at what this means. She wants to run. She wants to run with me. Her dad! I set my beautiful child down on the path and she takes off. I scoop up our supplies strewn all over the grass and stuff them in the stroller rushing to catch up. I pull alongside her. She is running. I am running. Dad and daughter side by side. In her steady stride I see her independence. Her fearlessness. As though thinking my dad’s doing this so I’m doing this and nothing will stop me. I catch a glimpse of her. Who she is. I mean, really who she is. I feel more connected to my daughter than ever before. It makes me happy.
In a half mile she starts to slow. I can tell she’s annoyed that she’s beginning to tire. She’s grappling with her limits. Why she can’t just keep going and going. It’s OK I tell her. A half mile is good. Like really good. I pick her up and put her in the stroller. She cries, but doesn’t resist. She’s tired. I buckle her in and get another couple miles in, smiling the whole way. Running is forever changed for me.
Running used to be me time. And that was good. Now I see it can be us time. That’s better. It’s bigger. Bigger than me. It’s no longer my world. It’s our world. I let go of a little piece of me and I gain a whole new universe. Not a bad deal. And then it dawns on me. I’m a dad.