Nothing Much: The Heart and Soul of Fatherhood

A lot of my hours are spent in non-accomplishment. Non-writing. Non-production. And that, in essence, defines much of fatherhood, at least from where I sit.
06/14/2013 04:41 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2013

One Friday night, I was sitting alone in our high school theatre. Not alone exactly, but alongside no one I knew. I was watching high school students, most of whom I couldn't name, laughing at each other's skits, receiving certificates, along with a few plaques and trophies. This was thespian initiation, and my daughter Chloe had squeaked by with the minimum hourly requirements on crew to be initiated. Along with forty or so other students, she was asked to describe her favorite moment of the year. The way I figure it, I sat alone in a dark room for two hours in order to hear my daughter talk for close to twelve seconds about the highlight of her year. I can't remember what it was. I think it was something awesome. ("Awesome!" was the operative word of the night.)

Had you asked me what I did on Friday night, I would have told you, "nothing much." And that would have been just about right. I did nothing. That's not entirely true. Between dropping her and a friend off at 7, and the start of the ceremony at 7:30, I slipped away to a nearby Sears and found a very nice rubber mallet at half price, $2.50. I've always wanted one of these. Until then, I wrapped a hammer with a t-shirt or rag and banged away. Now, I can avoid dents the right way. From 7:30 until just after 9, I sat in the theatre watching unfamiliar faces and listening from afar to a slew of inside jokes. I pretty much did nothing.

But that nothing amounted to much. Nothing much because my daughter had asked me to go. She didn't really care, she said, but she thought I might enjoy it. And she did, after all, have one person in the dark audience who loved her, who cared that she had a moment to remember.

The day before, I had driven for over an hour to watch my son compete in the hurdles, a dash, and two long jumps -- about 29 seconds' worth of track and field. Jeremy was still small, and my heart ached for him because he was so outmanned in so many sports. So, for a moment, I put my arm around his seventh grade shoulders after he ran and told him how impressed I was -- and I was -- by his drive and determination. He came in second in his heat, behind a kid who was a half-foot taller. He did look good, athletic, capable, and I was there to tell him. So, how did I spend much of my day? Doing nothing that amounted to much.

It dawned upon me on Friday night, as I sat anonymously, or nearly so, in that dark high school theatre, that I do a lot of this. A lot of my hours are spent in non-accomplishment. Non-writing. Non-production. And that, in essence, defines much of fatherhood, at least from where I sit.

I've done a lot of this from before the kids were even born. Before Chloe saw the light of day, we put a light on in her small room in the back of our Chicago three-flat. And waited. Nothing much. When she finally emerged after 29 hours of labor and was whisked off to pediatric intensive care, where she spent the first week of her life, I again did nothing much: I sat next to my eight-pound daughter, with quarter-sized plastic monitors taped to her chest and needles stuck between her tiny toes, and I prayed and sang the songs of my youth -- "Amazing Grace," "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," "Softly and Tenderly." And before Jeremy was born, we prepared his crib, enjoying our last days alone with Chloe. And waited again. Nothing much. Then they put on plays in our living room. Then came sports. And concerts. And science projects in the garage.

Now, the kids are gone for the afternoon, and the house is still. Priscilla just came out and asked, "What are you working on?" I said, "Nothing much." She smiled. "No, really, what are you writing?" "Nothing much." Another quizzical smile. And then it dawned on her, and she laughed, bending down to brush her lips across my forehead. I had told her about this, how on one Friday night I pulled out some scratch paper from my pack and wrote down, "nothing much."

How could I have known that nothing could ever mean so much?