The Headline Would Read: "World's Worst Father"
Have you ever had that instant and overpowering “parental regret?”
When it comes to my kids, I have not always made the best decisions. Fathers, you may be able to identify. You make a choice that seems okay at the time, only to realize a little later that perhaps you should have considered it more carefully. And by then, it’s too late to reverse the call.
Two distinct instances come to mind. The first was on a summer outing with my family to Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State. I love the grandeur and majesty of Mt. Rainier, and the 369 square miles of park land surrounding the mountain is filled with crystal clear rivers, green fir forests, meadows of beautiful wildflowers, and of course countless views of the most prominent peak in the lower forty-eight, its glacier-dominated crown rising more than fourteen thousand feet above sea level.
My family and I had been walking around the 5400-foot elevation Paradise overlook when our oldest son Andy, about 12 years old at the time, asked if he could hike up the most popular trail to the snow line. At first I was against his making the walk by himself, but he continued to plead, promising that he would be careful. After considering his request, and knowing that he had already been on several long and arduous hikes with his scout troop, my wife and I consented, but only after laying down some ground rules. We specified that he stay on the trail, and that no matter how far he hiked, when his watch showed 15 minutes had passed, he would turn around and walk back down to the trailhead where we would meet him. He promised—scout’s honor—and then took off up the path.
About 30 minutes later my wife and I, along with our two younger children, returned to the trailhead to wait for Andy. We spent the next 15 minutes expecting to spot him any second. We waited another ten minutes, but no Andy. Over the next several minutes we began to worry; we knew there was no way we had missed his return and concluded something had gone wrong.
“I am the world’s worst father,” I told my wife.
“It’s a little early for that kind of talk,” she replied. “Besides, that would make me the world’s worst mother, and I’m not ready to admit that yet.” So while she waited with Andy’s brother and sister, I went to the Ranger Station to ask for help. While I was explaining to the ranger what had happened, a fellow visitor heard our conversation and piped up. “I might have seen your son on the trail,” he said.
I pulled a photo out of my wallet and showed it to him. “Yes, that was him,” he said. “I was walking down from the snow line about a half hour ago and he was still walking up the trail.”
I looked at my watch. That meant that even though Andy’s allotted thirty minutes had come and gone, he had continued hiking higher. No one had reported any snow slides or other trouble on the trail, so the ranger recommended that I simply start up the path myself to see if I could find him.
Returning to my wife and remaining children, I informed her that the world’s worst father was hiking up to look for his son. I started up the mountain, every step filled with self-condemnation and regret. Hoping for the best but imagining the worst, I spent my hike rehearsing two speeches, bouncing back and forth between them in my mind. The first one was a scolding for Andy’s not returning on time. The second was the speech I would surely make at his upcoming funeral. As I imagined my shame in delivering that address, I suddenly looked up and saw my son walking down the hill toward me. In that strange mixture of relief and anger, I told him in a voice so loud that it made other hikers turn and look, “You had us so worried! Why didn’t you come back when you were supposed to?”
“It was just so beautiful,” he pleaded. “Every step higher the view just kept getting better. And it was so great to hike in the snow in the summertime. I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t force myself to stop.”
I paused and looked around at the scenery. He was right. It was beautiful. I realized I probably would have done the same thing had I been hiking with him. So I hugged him and then we walked down together. Maybe the “World’s Worst Father” award could wait.
And it did. That is, until the day we went to Six Flags Over Georgia, and my kids, older now, wanted to go on the amusement park’s giant “Slingshot.”
I cannot describe the “Slingshot” without getting anxious. As the name implies, a springy cable extends between two enormous steel towers. Riders perch themselves in a seat attached to the rubber-band-like cable, and when released, are catapulted bullet-like 220 feet straight into the air at near-warp speed. Once the seat reaches its maximum height, it comes plummeting back down in a stomach-turning free fall, only to bounce up and down again a few times until the seat finally comes to rest and the riders can then exit from their death-defying joyride.
I listened to the pleas of my children and finally consented to let them have the ride of their lives. I watched with a smile on my face as they gleefully climbed into the chair. Then, as the giant “rubber band” was pulled downward, my smile began to fade. I began to imagine what it would look like should their safety harness break. I could clearly picture their three young bodies flying out of their seat, soaring unprotected into the sky, so high that they become little more than specks in the vast blue yonder. My vivid imagination could hear the horrified cries of the onlookers; I could actually feel the tension in my muscles and could sense my despair as if it had already happened. I then pictured the newspaper headline: “World’s Worst Father Loses All His Children in Single Irresponsible Decision.”
I turned to my wife. “I am the worst father in the world,” I told her.
“No you’re not,” she said firmly. “It’s going to be fun.”
And it was. For my kids anyway. I was a nervous wreck. But they survived, and so did I. As the kids came running back to the observation area laughing with exhilaration at their triumph, I grabbed them in my arms and, holding them tightly, made a vow to myself never to let them do anything dangerous again.
But I have, of course. I have let them drive automobiles. I have let them travel on airplanes by themselves. I have let them go on dates with members of the opposite sex. I even let the oldest get married and have kids of his own.
And I pray that when the time comes for him to imagine vying for the “World’s Worst Father” award, that his distress will be minimal and his regret temporary. I don’t want us to have to compete for it.
© Nick Walker 2019
What about you? Have you ever instantly regretted a decision as a parent? Feel free to scroll down and leave a comment below.