The Golden Age of Obligations


My dad had a dream. He told me about it on his most recent visit to Austin.

In it, he was playing shortstop and the batter knocked a line drive toward second base.

The crowd roared and my dad dove for the ball with everything he had. Next thing he knew he was awake, flat on his back, sprawled across the floor of his bedroom, the contents of his bedside table scattered everywhere. The image he last remembered before he went down was the ball flying past his glove.

On the same afternoon that he told me about this mishap, I was lying on my own bed, drifting toward a nap, when my son, who is a toddler, hurled himself into the bedside, his loopy soft curls poking over the edge, and yelled “aehhhe.â€

“Aehhhe†is a linguistically flexible term that, in this particular context, translated as “bring me up there with you.†I did as instructed. Owen burrowed into the downy fluff like a mole. I imagine that from Owen’s perspective, mom and dad’s bed combines the virtues of a play gym and a security blanket. The pillows hold our immediate history: the scent of our hair, the oil from our skin, the stale remnants of breath, a line or two of dried drool. The sheets have an earthy smell and the blue quilt is dusted with the brownish film that dogs leave behind after they sleep. The stuff that adults make a habit of leeching from these intimate fabrics remains a seductive ambrosia to a child, offering the purest comfort, confirming the most essential bond. If my own memory serves, the scent of the parents’ unmade bed maintains its weird allure until the earliest stirrings of adolescence when, under the sudden realization of its conjugal implications, it becomes clear evidence that mom and dad are in fact totally disgusting people.

The bed was also the place where Owen could experiment with gyrations of a more aggressive nature. Naturally, there’s always the danger of a gymnastic miscalculation, an overshot sending him careening onto the hardwood floor and leaving a bump the size of a mango on his forehead. But the chances are unlikely so long as he judiciously sticks to classic moves like the vertical jump or the standard fall-onto-the-stomach-hey-this-doesn’t-hurt! stunt. Toddlers are anything but judicious, however, and once Owen found his bed legs he executed several formidable and, frankly, ill-advised tuck-and-roll maneuvers, bounding playfully across the expanse of pillows and bunched sheets. Each time he rolled, I reached out to keep him on the bed and, each time I reached out to keep him on the bed, he pushed my arm away, chanting his mantra, “ehhe, Aehhe.â€

After a while, Owen’s cheeks became crimson colored and sweat beaded on his temples. He’d wound himself into a minor frenzy, shrieking with happiness, running from one end of the bed to the other, reckless and pleased with himself.

Eventually he lowered himself down, his chubby feet hitting the floor with a slap, and left the room. I re-assumed the nap position. Seconds later he returned with three of his stuffed creatures and—no surprise here—the most amazing creature in the house: his mother. All six of us took a place back on the bed and the tuck-and-rolls resumed, periodically interrupted by that other timeless classic: the pillow-face-plant.

Then there was that Christmas morning many years later when my middle brother and I tested our most coveted gift: boxing gloves. Putting aside for now the obvious question of what kind of crack my parents were smoking to have purchased boxing gloves for three pre-adolescent boys, I wound up taking an uppercut that launched me clear across the room and into a dresser that exacted a sizable chunk out of my ear. Did you know that a cut ear bleeds like a fire hose? Well, neither did I, and as my brothers stood in frozen shock at the cascade pouring out of my head, my dad, a Vietnam vet, came to the rescue with a cool-headed plan. He ordered my youngest brother (who had been the ref) to find my ear, he directed my mom (if the ear was found) to put it on ice, and then he strapped me into his car, and—zoom!—off we went to the (by now) familiar emergency room. So, yeah, my dad was at work a lot, but when push came to shove, there he was, right on the scene, a judicious plan in mind, the car gassed up. Always.

When I asked him what he thought his baseball dream meant, he wasn’t sure.

“Something about a missed opportunity,†he ventured. He’d flown into Austin that morning for a business meeting and, truth be told, I’d forgotten that he was coming to town at all until he surprised me with a call at work. The phone rang just as I was off to teach my class, where—weirdly enough—I discussed the significance of the father-son relationship in Puritan New England. In essence, the bond between them was pragmatic. Fathers promised sons land but withheld it until the sons were ready to marry. In return, sons worked the land and promised to provide food and shelter for an elderly mom and dad after the land transfer. For a good long while, this sensible arrangement made the world go around.

After I had finished class late that morning I drove over to meet my dad at his hotel. He had a few hours to kill between business meetings and we went for a coffee. It was then that he told me about his dream, and about how it almost gave my mother a heart attack. We laughed about that for a while, as petrifying and infuriating the only woman in the household has long provided a common bond among the many men in my family.

My wife and I laughed about my driving escapades and then looked up to see Owen watching us quietly from the other end of the bed. For several seconds, he just stared. And then, as if he’d been struck with a realization of profound implications, his eyes brightened and he pointed at his mother. In his inimitable soft voice he said, “mommy.†After a deep breath, he looked at me, really looked, and he pointed at me and announced, “daddy.†And finally, completing the performance, he shuffled his feet over the covers and—with what I think might have been a twinge of a Texas accent—said, “bed.â€

In a poetic nutshell, that was it: mommy, daddy, and “bayed.†What else did a little boy need? His was both a world without obligations and a world monitored by two people who can think of nothing else but obligations—a true golden age.

Speech delivered, Owen once again started to leap all over the place. Jumps, rolls, and face-plants ensued at breakneck speed. He almost completed a remarkable somersault, but at the critical point where his butt was 90 degrees from the bed he teetered sideways towards the precipice. It looked for a second like he was about to recover on his own, and I almost considered not rushing over to grab him. But then gravity really kicked in and he was going to go over the edge so I leapt over the pillows and scrambled across the bed and just as he tried to push me away—“AEHHHE!!! AEHHHE!!!†I caught him.

At times like this I try to resist the urge to think in terms of symbols.

Nevertheless, there was no getting past the nagging metaphor that my son—like us all—will continue to fall. History (not to mention physics) guarantees it. And there was no getting around the fact that those adult stumbles are really going to hurt. But by then my role will have changed. I’ll be a free agent once again, a middle-aged man with fresh opportunities to pursue, business deals to make, another marathon to run, a mountain to climb, and the occasional line drives to dive for. And—lost as I’ll be in dreams that try to bind generations—to miss.

James McWilliams lives in Austin.