Mel, my wife, was at home taking an online exam, so I was at the park with all three kids. Norah, my six-year-old, was playing on the swings. Aspen, our 11-month-old, was crawling around on a large patch of grass. And Tristan, my eight-year-old son, and I were passing a soccer ball. It was late in the summer.
Tristan gave me a wild pass, and I ran for it and rolled my ankle.
I sat down in the grass for a bit, telling myself that the blinding pain was just temporary. Surely I hadn’t sprained it. But deep down inside, I knew I had. This wasn’t the first time I’d sprained my right ankle. Between snowboarding and mountain biking in my teens, I’d probably sprained that sucker a dozen times. However, this was the first time I’d ever sprained my ankle alone at the park with three kids.
The ball rolled off into the grass, near the road, and Tristan cried, “Dad! Get the ball.”
He was in black soccer shorts, blue cleats, and a blue Mario Brothers T-shirt, one hand on his hip, shaved head tipped to the side. His face seemed to say, ‘Dad, get your shit together and get the ball.’
“I sprained my ankle,” I said. I grunted. “I can’t walk.”
He gave me a flat-mouthed, furrow-browed look. He clearly didn’t care, or didn’t understand, or something, because he let out a long breath and said, “Just get up and get the ball.” His tone sounded like mine every time he’s told me how bad his tummy hurts two minutes into cleaning the living room. I think he was trying to catch me in a lie.
Norah crouched down next to me and asked me to push her on the swing.
She started tugging at my shirt, “Come on, Dad! Give me an underdog.”
She was in a pink hat and a sparkly pink princess dress with black faux leather boots that completely clashed. I told her about my ankle.
“I can’t walk,” I said.
She thought about what I said, her blue eyes moving side to side. Then she gave me the sweetest smile, and I thought for a moment, that she understood.
“You could crawl,” she said in a simple and soft voice. In her mind it was a 100% genuine solution to my problem.
And as I looked at her, and listened to Tristan ask me, once again, to get the ball, I had an icky feeling inside. A deep pit in my gut that told me my kids don’t care about me. How could they treat me like this? I thought. I was legitimately hurt, and all they wanted was for me to push them on the swing and kick a ball. In fact, they wanted me to do both at the same time, when I couldn’t do that normally, let alone with a sprained ankle.
I let out a breath. Then I noticed Aspen was wrist deep in what looked like dog poop.
She was really happy about it. She was giggly. I crawled. It was a good 50 yards to Aspen, and I crawled the whole way, favoring my good leg, and telling her, repeatedly, to not put it in her mouth.
Once I reached her, I sat down, and pulled her into my lap. I was afraid to touch her hands because the thought of having dog poop on me while having a sprained ankle was just too much. So I grabbed her forearms, and it was then that I realized it was, luckily, just mud. Normally this would have bothered me, but considering I’d originally thought it was poop, I felt grateful.
But there was still the fact of figuring out how I was going to carry her to the car.
Norah and Tristan were huddled around me now, arguing over who was going to get what first. Tristan wanted me to kick the ball, and Norah wanted me to push her on the swing, and Aspen was now eating mud.
It was then that I did something my mother often did. I clapped. I clapped a few times. And cried out, “Hey! Stop it. You. Need. To. Understand. I. Can’t. Walk!”
I clapped with each world.
I hated when my mother clapped because it always was the beginning of a lecture. Going into parenting, I told myself I’d never clap to get my kids attention, but sitting on the ground, unable to do much, I did it. And suddenly both Tristan and Norah were staring at me in full attention, and I realized why my mother clapped.
I explained to them what a sprained ankle was. I told them about how bad it hurts, and how difficult it would be to put weight on it. And as I spoke, I could feel it swelling in my shoe. And as I told them about my problem, my pain, I realized that they’d never seen me hurt bad enough that I couldn’t suck it up and be a dad. I’d been sick around them, but I’d always still been able to walk around and help with this or that. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about me. It was more that they just didn’t understand that dad could, in fact, get hurt enough to become a useless slug.
“I can’t play,” I said. “What I need is help. I need you two to be my helpers. Can you do that?”
They both nodded.
I had Tristan carry Aspen to the van, and I had Norah open the doors. I could slightly hobble now, so I worked my way to the van and strapped in Aspen. And once we were all in I looked in the rear view mirror, and both Tristan and Norah had a content look. They didn’t seem mad anymore about having to leave the park. They seemed to understand.
“Thanks, guys,” I said. “Let’s go for a drive until Mom finishes her test.”
“Can we get a treat?” Tristan asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “You’ve earned it.”