The first time your baby crawls is one of fatherhood’s most cinematic images. Movements recorded in the memory to be replayed years later in slow-mo reminiscence. For a few weeks now I’ve been waiting for my son Sam to crawl. At first, he looked like he’d cracked it and I wondered idly when he’d start running and when applications closed for the 2012 Olympic track team. But my excitement, initially feverish, has faded as he pauses before the summit. I feel like Sherpa Tenzing waiting for Edmund Hillary to notice the view instead of rooting in his backpack for lozenges.
Yesterday, while watching Sam’s latest attempt to upgrade snake-belly-scooching to four wheel drive across the colored alphabet tiles in our living room, I reflected on my own memories of his first seven months. If this really was a movie, I mused while mopping up Sam’s vomit off the letter D, which dad would I be?
Ideally, one would borrow from the best, stealing Spencer Tracy’s wisdom, Gary Cooper’s sense of duty, and Jimmy Stewart’s Wonderful Life family devotion. Imagine if this was possible, fatherhood would be an absolute cinch. I’d just download the requisite qualities, then be instantly able to diagnose my son’s teething, or translate his gurgles, or be kinder to my wife.
Sam burped and reached for the pack of wipes by the sofa, reminding me of Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona, the desperate dad grabbing diapers as he robs a convenience store. Who was I kidding? This was hopeless, fatherhood was never a pick’n’mix deal. Besides, knowing my unerring eye for idiocy, I’d probably download qualities from all the wrong dads: Nic Cage’s rap sheet, Eugene Levy’s American Pie-style tact, Darth Vader’s bedtime stories.
Actually, there’s no doubt about who’d play me in the ideal movie of Sam’s life. Every father wants to be Atticus Finch. With his quintessential calm, Gregory Peck sets the celluloid standard. He is also the furthest thing from my own performance as a dad. Self-control and understanding are not exactly my watchwords when Sam craps biblically, or pukes so voluminously that I need to change not only his outfit, but mine too. On those endless nights when I stalk up and down a shadowy hallway to get him back to sleep – thinking darkly that if this is how it ends up, there’s no way I’m ever having sex again – I’m probably closer to Boo Radley.
In front of me, Sam lurched heavily from letter H to P, then slumped sideways. Arranged across the carpet, the alphabet tiles seemed a brightly-coloured roadmap of progress. Just as his scooching would become crawling, walking, and running, each letter represented something bigger, the building block of a word, a sentence, or a screenplay (though given that I’d only laid out 20 letters, it might not be much of a screenplay). Whether it was cinema dads or step-development, Sam and I each knew where we wanted to go, just not how to get there. He’d probably be okay – I know very few adults who are still crawling – it was me I was worried about. In these times of fractured families (my own father is 5000 miles away), who do today’s dads learn from? No wonder I’m making up my own rules.
Undaunted by my failure to identify my own cinematic inspiration, Sam scooched to the edge of the four-by-five rectangle with the crocodile-slither he mastered last week. Every day, it’s amazing to watch him. Even if he doesn’t crawl, each morning there’s another blink of consciousness in his eyes. He doesn’t recognize the boundaries of his two-dimensional tiled world, but reaches beyond it like a tiny Christopher Columbus. If he doesn’t need a roadmap, why should I? As he inched forward, there was something soaring about his effort, and for a moment I believed that Atticus Finch was attainable for us all. Then my boy collapsed facedown on the letter K and began to cry.
Neither his plastic giraffe nor the stripey rattle staunched the tears, so I flipped him over turn-turtle to bite his belly and he shrieked with laughter. I love hearing him laugh. After his grey months of heartburn, it’s like sunshine. Recently, he’s been teething, so I’ve taken to pouncing on him at unpredictable moments to distract him from the pain. Frequent mauling might be closer to assault than affection, but it’s the only act guaranteed to divert him. Forget justice or respect for your neighbor, eternal vigilance is our watchword.
When I rubbed my nose on his tummy, he yelled happily, then grabbed two handfuls of my hair. In that stabbing instant of pain I realized. Here am I biting him while he’s yanking my hair. This wasn’t To Kill A Mockingbird civics class and we weren’t Atticus and Scout. I was Clouseau and he was Cato. Sure, Peter Sellers and Burt Kwouk duelling obsessively in a Parisian apartment won’t make Good Parenting’s top father-son relationships, but it works for us.
Wisdom, restraint, and manners was what I shot for as Sam’s father. What he got was premeditated attacks inspired by an accident-prone Gallic detective and repeated every morning with autistic reliability. Still, what do you expect when you aim too high? You hope for Atticus Finch and you end up with Aspergers French.