We spent a few days at a vacation rental in Washington, and in the backyard was a small pond with a kayak. I asked my 11-year-old Norah if she wanted to go around the lake in the kayak, and she looked nervous. She’d never really done anything like that, and she is known to be pretty cautious about swimming in natural bodies of water. Like her mother, she doesn’t like it when she can’t see below the water.
“You don’t have to go, but if you do, I’ll keep you safe,” I said with a wink, adding, “You can trust me.”
She was in jeans with a unicorn on the knee, with a matching unicorn T-shirt. She thought about my offer for a moment, kicked the grass in the backyard of the house, and then cautiously agreed. She anxiously stepped from the dock to the boat, and then was visibly nervous as I pushed off. Her hands shook a little as we put distance between us and the dock, and finally I said “Let’s turn back. You’re trembling.”
She reached out for my hand and said, “No. It’s fine.”
Then she said something I didn’t realize I needed to hear as a father.
“I trust you,” she said.
When I was her age, my father was long gone. He’d cheated on my mother when I was nine. He had a pretty nasty drug addiction, and spent most of my high school years in and out of jail, and in and out of my life. When I was 16, he went to jail for 18 months. This was his longest time behind bars, and sadly, it was the best relationship I ever had with him. I knew where he was, and I knew when he was available. He often called me from there, because by this time in his life, he’d burned pretty much anyone he’d ever had a relationship with. I was the only one who would answer the phone.
He died when I was 19, and I didn’t cry at his funeral. I didn’t actually cry until years later, when I realized that the real tragedy of his life, for me anyway, was that now that he was dead, he’d never get the chance to get clean and become the father I always longed for.
One thing I know for sure about my relationship with my father was this: I never trusted him. I couldn’t. I knew not to depend on him. I knew that he’d never really, truly, be there for me.
When I became a father, I felt this deep longing to never, not ever, fail my children. I knew that I needed to be there for them at all times, and I knew that if I was going to be a better father than the one I had, I was going to have to build that trust. I was going to have to show my kids that they can, without a shadow of a doubt, without hesitation, know that I was 100% all in. And having my daughter so casually say to me, “I trust you,” felt so pure and honest, helping me realize that I was doing exactly what I set out to do when I first held that little girl in my arms.
We were well out into the pond by that point. I hadn’t started rowing. We were just drifting, slowly, the sun shining.
I smiled at her and said, “Are you sure? It’s not a big thing. We can go back. It’s not like riding in a kayak is going to show up on your college application.” I laughed, and then she took a breath and said it again: “I’m okay because I trust you.”
We spent 45 minutes on that lake. We chased ducks, and we saw fish. I showed her how to paddle, and how to keep her balance in the kayak. We got a little wet, but we never fell in the lake. We talked about school, and about her friends. For a long time we just sat in silence, listening to the wind flow across the lake and into the trees along the bank. And by the time we got back to the dock, we were both laughing. We’d had a very nice morning, just the two of us.
We pulled the kayak onto the shore together, and then I asked her if she’d like to go out again after dinner, and without hesitation, she said, “Yes.” And in so many ways, what she really was doing was confirming that trust I’d spent years building on.
So I gave her a high five, and said, “It’s a date.”