I like to take a toothpick and throw it in the forest and say, You’re home! My children hate my jokes. But I’m a father. We are supposed to make these jokes. Part of being a good parent is how I think of it. And I am a good parent when I have my girls, which is only one weekend a month and four weeks in the summer. Each time it is like we’re starting over, like I’m in a foreign land where nothing works the way I think it will and I get nervous, tell jokes they hate, trip over things, get lost on the way to the pool, bump into walls. By the end of these weekends I feel bruised and battered. After four weeks in the summer I feel like I need a wheelchair.
Regardless of my general confusion while they’re with me, I’m think I’m a pretty decent dad. I remember to feed and water them. I take them to the public pool. I order pizza and Chinese food as a treat and cook the rest of the time. We watch bad movies that I let them pick. Last night we watched a movie that’s a modern take on Cinderella and I wanted to tear out my eyeballs, but my three daughters sat rapt in front of the screen, hanging on to every inane word that came out of that tween princess’s mouth. Ellie is six and probably shouldn’t be watching movies like this, but Melissa and Caroline, my thirteen-year-old twins, always say they shouldn’t have to pay for my and their mother’s mistake. Yes, they’re referring to Ellie, but they insist she’s in on the joke.
I wonder about this a lot. Being a decent dad, I mean. Is it a good sign my girls feel comfortable punching me when I make a bad joke? That they see me as approachable enough to punch? My own father was cold and distant and I like to think my daughters see me as more of a friend. A friend they sometimes punch. But I don’t want them to think I’m trying too hard to be their buddy. After all, it’s important that children know there are limits. It makes them feels safe is what I read somewhere. I wonder if they miss me when they’re with their mother. It’s not a question I can ask my twins, but Ellie is young enough to be brutally honest about the fact that all she really needs is her mother.
No, Daddy, I don’t miss you when we’re at home, she answers, without any hesitation, while lounging with me at the public pool. She says this with a smile, her cheeks still full to bursting with baby fat.
I’m glad, I say, and squeeze her tightly, feel her giggle into my chest and then push away. She skips over to the wading pool and splashes under a purple hippo-elephant looking thing. Her little body is strong as she windmills her arms through the spray. Across from us I watch the twins jump and dive from the highest boards, and I cringe as they arch their long, thin bodies, all skin and bone after their most recent grown spurt. They choreograph swan dives, and flips, they fling their elastic bodies backwards, stretching their arms behind them and arrowing into back dives that slice the surface of the water. They jump, dive, and flip without hesitation, as if they know something I don’t, as if somehow, no matter how they fall, they’ll land safely.