The nut slipped from my fingers and fell. The little bastard went right into the pocket near the starter motor, a deep nook where small things easily hide. It was not a terribly important nut, just one from a battery terminal, and posed no threat to the motorcycle as it sat quietly. But once the bike was barreling down the road at 70 mph, that nut could make its way into the open primary and damage a pulley or even explode the belt. To make matters worse, it was aluminum, so the magic wand with a little magnet on the end for removing steel bits from tight places was worthless.
God damn nut.
But the real issue was not a rogue nut. It was the sloppiness that came from feeling rushed. Since my son had been born, time spent working on bikes grew scarce. Riding too. Being a father occupied the bulk of my time, leaving little room for tinkering on two-wheeled joy. So when I did manage to get into my shop, everything was done at a fevered pace. The pressure was on. The clock was ticking.
And nuts were dropped.
Gage was born fifteen months ago after a change of heart. For years my wife Elizabeth had not wanted children. Their crying drove her mad, and the suggestion of being anchored to a totally dependent life form was ludicrous. Her opinion was different only for a brief period when we first lived together in Baltimore. At that point, she wanted to have, as she put it, “an entire hockey team of kids.” Elizabeth had played ice hockey in full gear for years and loved recounting the times when she checked some guy into the boards or knocked out somebody’s tooth. They were good memories for her, which at the time played well with the idea of kids. But as these memories waned, so did her desire to have children. And soon she convinced me to keep it just the two of us. It was an agreement that stood for a decade.
Then she changed her mind. Countless reasons could have fueled her sudden desire for motherhood – a ticking biological clock, friends having their own, a genetic hardwire to nurture – but they all came to the same result: Elizabeth now wanted a baby. The idea had been nagging me too. It seemed to be something that I wanted to do in life. An experience to be had before growing old. And so it was not long before we agreed to parenthood. We commenced the best part of the process, then settled in when the deed was accomplished. Nine months later our son arrived.
Gage was a great baby. He seldom cried, slept like a champ, and quickly learned how to smile, a power he skillfully used to diffuse tension. In fact, he seemed to have an innate ability to wield cuteness each time we were just about to wring his neck in frustration. Sometimes it was a giggle. Other times it was a warm coo. And from time to time, a fart far louder than ever believed possible from such a tiny person. For two people who had been reticent to become parents, our son was clear proof of Nature’s shrewdness in doling out kids.
Gage became the second person for whom I would freely give anything. Elizabeth was the first, but for her it was not the same. She was an adult and could take care of herself, making decisions and fending off the daily threats of life. As a rule, I always waited to defend her because she was a fierce competitor who fought like a cornered badger when pushed. Gage, however, was helpless. Dependent in every way. And it was this helplessness that cultivated in me a willingness to give unconditionally to another person. For him, there were no limits. True, there were times when I grumbled about missing some motorcycle event for his benefit, but there was nothing I would not hand over for him unquestioningly. Including my life.
Such radical changes in perspective come with fatherhood. And while the transformation is natural, it can not be explained. It can only be truly understood through experience.
This was best described to me by a fellow I met one day in the park. He was a lanky man with dark curly hair and a worn baseball cap adorned with the computer company logo of an apple missing a bite. We stood talking as our boys played together in a sandbox.
“My wife and I were on our way home to San Francisco and had to stop,” he said. “My boy Sagan was about to go thermonuclear in the back seat, so I pulled off the highway and found this park.”
“Sagan.” I said. “That’s an interesting name. Where did it come from?”
“Are you an astronomer?”
“No,” he replied. “I just love the show ‘Cosmos.’ Growing up, I would sit and watch it for hours. It changed my life. So when my wife and I were picking a name for our son, I cajoled her into going with it.” He smiled as his wife theatrically scowled at him from behind his back.
The man and I silently watched children go about their park business until I asked my favorite question of other new dads: “Have you had a hard time adjusting to having a kid?”
“God yeah. Life’s changed in just about every way. It’s crazy now. Overwhelming. And I sometimes feel like I hardly know my wife anymore. We just go about taking care of this new, little person inhabiting our home.” He paused in thought, then continued, “But as hard as it gets, it’s worth it. The good stuff outweighs the bad. And honestly, I never thought I’d enjoy being a father as much as I do.”
I nodded, noting the way he looked at his son. The way he spoke. His sincerity. It was not the lip service given by some parents hoping to project enlightenment.
He continued, “I used to try explaining to people without kids what it’s like being a parent, but you can’t. It’s like trying to explain LSD to someone who’s never done the drug. They just gotta do it themselves.”
“Good analogy,” I said contemplating the idea. “Mildly disturbing, but good.”
“The fact is,” the man said as he prepared to leave, “that people just can’t understand how difficult having a kid is without doing it. How some moments are so stressful you want to smash things and scream. How every facet of life feels rushed.”
His words ran through my mind as I tried digging the nut from the motorcycle. First I used my fingers, but that failed. Next, I tilted the bike left and right until the bottom frame rails touched the floor. No nut. As a last ditch effort, I stuck the air hose in the deep recess and blasted away at different angles. Nothing emerged beyond puffs of sand from a long past trip to Mexico. Defeated, I plopped onto my shop stool and glared at the bike.
When confronted with a problem like this, I often refuse to walk away. Fixation clouds my judgment. Pressure builds, followed by frustration, which sparks anger with a dash of self pity. This, in turn, bleeds into my view of everything and everyone around me. I curse the bike for not working. I curse the tools for failing to do their job. I compose fictional arguments in my head. Sometimes these are with my boss over something at work, other times they are with a family member over some annoying thing that family members do. My mind formulates these spectral confrontations in painful detail, entirely diverting my attention from the real problem.
That day I chose to conjure an argument with my wife.
Phantom Elizabeth walked into my shop and in an annoyed tone asked, “Aren’t you done yet? Wouldn’t you rather be spending time with your son than these motorcycles?”
Squeezing a greasy shop rag, I bite back in exasperation, “I haven’t been in here for six weeks! I never get time to work on my bikes anymore. For Christ’s sake, can I just finish this battery so the damn bike runs?”
“Your motorcycles always need something fixed. Why can’t you get one – just one – that runs without problems?”
“Why can’t you leave me alone?”
“And your wasting the little bit of time I have in here.”
Needing to have the last word, she hissed, “you’re such an ass,” then turned and left.
But the fictitious argument did not end there. Angry that my point was not made, I began mentally fabricating a whole new conflict. And so the cycle continued. And anger grew.
Allowing myself such fits of hypothetical nonsense is unacceptable. They solve nothing and only breed anger. And it was anger that slowly dominated my father as he aged, consuming him by the time I was twenty five. Before then, he was jovial and his temper only surfaced in discrete episodes when he was stressed or us kids did something stupid. It came out once when I was eleven and took an ongoing squabble with my brother too far. We had been at each other for days when I walked into our den and found him laying on the room’s brown shag rug watching television. My dad was laying next to him. At hearing me, my brother turned his head and said something biting, the type of comment older brothers use to expertly attack soft spots. In retaliation, I stood over him and feigned preparing to spit on his back. I had no intention of doing so, but simply wanted to establish some kind of authority. Or maybe save face. My father looked at me and grumbled, “Don’t you dare.” I should have walked away. But as a kid who routinely tested boundaries, I dredged up phlegm and released it onto my brother’s back. The moment it hit, I turned and ran, knowing my dad would be coming for me. But at the door, my juvenile brain told my body to turn around and check. I had just enough time to register my dad’s closed fist before it hit my face. My body flew across the hallway and onto the cold tile floor of the bathroom. He must have stayed the full force of his punch because I was still conscious. Had he not, my dad – a massive football player drafted in the first round by the Green Bay Packers – would surely have knocked me out. Unable to move and staring at blue stars twinkling on mottled waves of blackness on the ceiling, I felt the warm flow of blood from my nose.
“How’s it going?” Elizabeth asked mildly as she walked into my shop holding Gage.
“Agh,” I bellowed, temporarily confusing the fabricated and real conversation with my wife. Then after a deep breath, I said calmly, “I dropped a nut in the bike and can’t fish it out.”
“Sorry,” she said frowning. “Anything I can do to help?”
“No. It’s not a big deal. I’ve just tried everything and can’t get the damn thing out.”
She smiled understandingly as Gage pointed to me and lunged. Still unable to speak, it was his way of asking to be put down.
“I just need to stop for a bit and collect myself,” I continued.
“Then let’s get out of here. How about dinner?”
She set Gage on the concrete floor and he walked towards me. He had just learned to move on two feet and did so like a tiny drunk sailor, wobbling while making forward progress in fits and starts. He let out a chirp of excitement as he neared the bike containing the lost nut. Gage loved motorcycles and wanted nothing more than to sit on them. His desire to be around bikes was unquenchable and he always fussed when taken from them.
Clearly the nut had not fallen far from the tree.
After dinner, Gage and I returned to the shop. Using the tip of a flathead screwdriver, I easily caught the nut and with a flick of my wrist shot it out the side of the bike onto the floor. Seeing it land, Gage left my side and toddled around the bike. He squatted, then gingerly picked up the nut between his thumb and forefinger, looking at it as a child does when examining something new. He noted the flat edges. The threads. He stuck the tip of his little forefinger in the hole.
Once he was done, Gage stared at me with his fresh blue eyes, then put his head down and shuffled back around the bike. In front of me, he looked up and smiled.
Then extended his arm to hand me the nut.