For reasons unknown, I chose to introduce my two-year-old son Eli to the sublime art of sledding from the top of the steepest and most treacherous slope in our neighborhood. The hill was short for sure but as steep as a cow’s face, beset by gnarly winter trees and rocky in all the wrong places. My son stood by my side, wrapped in his winter coat, the apprehension plain on his face. I was still his hero then, and hadn’t failed him yet, at least not in ways he could understand. I told him that cake tasted good, and it did. I had been right, oh so right, about Santa Claus. Still he was dubious. The hill looked steep and the ground hard. Only the obvious excitement in my voice could have convinced him to ignore his nascent survival instinct and put his trust in Dad. He climbed aboard the sled with me.
I pushed off, with great anticipation. Within seconds, I knew we were in trouble. Halfway down the hill, we caromed off an unseen stone and started listing to the side. My attempts to regain control were futile. We carried on, downward, sideways, at a precarious tilt, before hitting bottom with a sudden jolt that sent us both flying into the snow. To make matters worse, I landed square on top of my boy. I can still recall the sensation of rolling over him in the snow, he a thirty-pound human speed bump to my rocketing beer-gutted dumb-daddy mass. Even as my legs drifted over the back of his head, pounding his young face still deeper into the snow, green guilt was rising in my heart.
I looked up to see waves of pain and betrayal wash across his face. I soothed him the best I could, checking for crushed cheekbones and pulling great chunks of snow from his nostrils. He was intact, thank goodness, and his tears were sourced in shock more than grievous injury.
I held my crying boy in my arms, sure in the knowledge that I had failed this crucial test of early fatherhood. The morning had held such promise. I had anticipated a gauzy, sepia-toned Norman Rockwell moment: a boy’s first sled ride with Dad. I was sure Eli would remember it for years, and he even might recall it at my funeral as the day he first understood how wondrous and thrilling this world really was. “The embrace I felt that day,” he might intone to a hushed crowd of mourners, “was not just my father’s gloved hands, but the world itself, saying, ‘Welcome, Eli. You’re in for quite a ride.’”
Eli learned a different lesson that day: that the world is quick and brutal and cold, and that Dad is sometimes wrong. Control is an illusion, and comfort precarious. Doubt and fear are our surest companions, and at times we do well to listen when they speak. But also: shock gives way to understanding, wounds do heal, and cocoa helps.
It took three years before Eli would dare climb on a sled with me again. I can’t blame him for his trepidation. He is nine now, and sleds with relative abandon, but still he shows a cautious streak. He has learned to trust his own instincts over his father’s, to good results. I hope he keeps that self-assurance wherever life leads him, for surely that was not his final rocky ride. •