My Daughter’s Father

By Caspar Gajewski

I met Travis three weeks ago. He’s 13 years old and suffering through the recent death of his mother. She died from cancer, or suicide or natural catastrophe. Probably a combination of all three. It’s unclear to me — and to him. He lives in a home not unlike the one in which I was raised. Both of our fathers are abusive. Both have been destroyed by drink and dead wives.

He lives in Manhattan, as I did, growing up in the towering shadow of lives he’ll never lead; instead, damned by the one he does. He doesn’t complain, though, which is our first marked difference. 

When I was a year his senior, my mother died under far less complex circumstances: metastatic breast cancer. Goner from the get-go. Ruined me. But ruins are the substrate of emergent things. We build in and from rubble. I’m not that boy anymore, but it took fifteen years to grok it. Growing up is easy. Learning from it is hard. 

Travis’ future is, let’s say, capricious. I don’t know where he’s going to end up, and neither does he. He doesn’t have to. It is the adult’s job to give meaning to the erstwhile child’s life. All that children must do is be. When we say youth is wasted on the young, what we mean is regret. “You know,” we whisper to ourselves and others, “if I had a chance to do it all over again…” But we don’t. 

Travis is Oedipal adjacent. He doesn’t want to become his father. He’s afraid that he will. I understand this. Two years ago, my fiancé and I brought a puppy home, ferrying ourselves into parenthood. The first year of the pandemic was coming to a close. She was a gift, my Shadow, although it didn’t appear that way at first. 

Cantankerous, aloof, anxious, Shadow was an unpleasant puppy, not least because she proffered so little love. Of course, this makes sense, even if it is reportedly uncommon.  For an ungodly sum, we’d taken her from everything she’d ever known. Her mother and siblings? Memories pared away. I know that feeling. In her spindly rage, I saw my youth. I see Travis’. 

They were protean, those early days of fatherhood. I was so quick to anger and quicker still to guilt. My need to be loved contrasted starkly with Shadow’s refusal to give it.

Left alone and afraid in her crate, which no one can convince me isn’t a cell, she’d shit herself, torquing in and eating it. I’d come home to a nightmare form of animality, fetid, frightened and furious. She doesn’t mind baths now, though, which is the only consolation. 

That little dog, who is not so little anymore, altered the trajectory of my life, forced me to confront my greatest fear, which is my only fear: that rather than being merely my father’s son, I am my father. But I’m not. I know that now. 

Every morning, Shadow and I head parkward. For hours, she lopes and saunters and sprints through fields green and fragrant, reveling in the splendor of being alive as I revel in the splendor of keeping her that way. She is my darling girl. I feed her and bathe her, groom her and snuggle her, loving her as tenderly as she has taught me to. 

Becoming a father vitiated my impulse to anger. I have found that what I lacked all those years was imagination. Not being my father was as simple as choosing not to be. 

Sometimes, though, I do miss my former self. There was comfort in the vatic certainty of my assured awfulness. These days, the future is nebulous. But there is a pleasure in being lost. It means you might end up anywhere, might end up as anyone.

On our morning jaunts, as Shadow plays, I think often of Travis. I wish he could meet her. I wish he could know what I do: that, despite his fears, he’s free to become whomever he chooses. But they will never meet. And this is our second point of difference, Travis and I. He won’t be born until the year 2256. He is a character, growing in my mind because I have finally grown up. 

I guess, maybe just this once, someone will have a chance to do it all over again. I’m trying not to make the same mistakes.