I am the parent of five millennials. Three I fathered, and two I got in a brilliant merger when I married their mother in 1997.
It takes nothing less than a miracle to be the father of five young adults: Namely, they all have to make it through childhood. Really it’s a boatload of miracles, small and large. They have to survive broken bones and febrile seizures and asthma attacks and tumors that turn out to be cysts. Thousands of cars have to swerve out of their way as they learn to drive. They have to wake up from general anesthesia and from huge quantities of alcohol. And they have to be statistically ordinary enough to avoid a plague of rare childhood diseases.
Even with all those miracles, fathers still have to overcome a great deal of their own operator error. At least I did. I was two years into fatherhood when my eldest son disappeared at a mall. We were in Express, a clothing store. My wife went into the dressing room with several items, leaving me in charge of Zack, who was strapped into his stroller like a man in a straitjacket. I could take the squirming but not the screaming. In this, I wasn’t alone. A store full of shoppers wanted me dead.
I unstrapped the little maniac, setting him firmly on the floor. He declared his independence by pushing the stroller into a display and knocking over a dozen sweaters. As I picked them up, he scrambled toward the dressing rooms, and his mother, at the back of the store. Smart little man, abandoning the father ship.
A perky clerk insisted on refolding the sweaters I was fumbling with. So I began tracking Zack, moving deeper into the space. All told, he’d been out of my sight for no more than 20 seconds. I asked another clerk if she’d seen a little boy going into the dressing rooms. She said she’d check. Fifteen seconds later, she came out empty-handed. I was in the back of the store. I had made the strategic error of not guarding the exit. He was gone.
The clock was ticking like it does in police dramas. Thirty-five seconds. I had never panicked in public before. I screamed “Zack!” with everything I had.
I ran to the next store. Nothing. Fifty-five seconds. I ran to the store on the other side. Sixty-seven seconds. I sprinted back into Express just as my wife was coming out of the dressing room.
She headed to another store. I ran straight out the door and to the middle of the food court, screaming, “Has anyone seen a 2-year-old boy?” Eighty-nine seconds. I ran into Express again.
And there he was, working his way out from under a circular display of jeans where he was playing hide and seek. I grabbed him and hugged him, crying into his perfect baby-shampoo-scented hair, telling him how much I loved him. I understood for the first time the primal power of love, how its alchemy fuses two beings together, fired by adrenaline and terror. I had plunged further in 90 seconds than I had at any point in my life.
Then I looked around. The mall seemed different. It was still full of people, happy and sad, adults with shopping bags stuffing their faces with French fries, drinking coffee, holding hands, dreaming their retail dreams, on the hunt for happiness. But now I knew something intimate about every one of them: They were survivors. They’d made it through childhood. There was hope.
Their parents couldn’t have been any more prepared than I was. They had to be just as lame, just as inexperienced, just as worried. And yet, against all odds, their kids had grown up.
For the next decade or so, I found solace in crowds. I’d sit at a baseball game, and when the attendance would be announced, something in my stomach would loosen. Another 26,212 people who’d made it past the slings and arrows, the meanness and innocence, the temptations and tempests of childhood. And I would sit back in my seat, put my arm around whatever kid I happened to have at the game with me and believe, perhaps against reason, that my children would outlive me.
And that is really the only Father’s Day wish that matters.
Sollisch is creative director at the Marcus Thomas advertising firm in Cleveland.