This is a true story, which I’m sharing in honor of all the dads who work so hard, and love so much.
It was late on a June evening, but the sky was still light. I was sitting with a writing chum outside of Starbucks, sipping decaf and talking over the triumphs and trials of the writing life. A car pulled into the parking lot – or, for proper dramatic effect, I should say that it roared in, because it sounded like a lion getting ready to charge across the plains in pursuit of a nice, juicy antelope.
Naturally, my friend and I both turned to watch where the car was going, and whom it might try to eat when it arrived at its destination. But it pulled politely into a parking space, and gave one final growl before the engine shut off.
It was an older vehicle, circa 1970-something, and it was a bright royal blue, almost turquoise. My friend, Elizabeth, wondered out loud what kind of car it was – maybe a Chevy? I’m hopeless about car models, and I said so. After a few seconds of speculation, we returned to our conversation.
The driver appeared, opened the hood, and disappeared from view again. He was in his mid-thirties, heavyset. He wore suspenders and moved around the car with confidence. At some point a little boy, not much taller than the trunk of the car, popped into view. Apparently he was the junior mechanic. He stood behind the vehicle, with one hand on the body, and watched the tail lights.
“Yours on!” he called, when the tail light on the driver’s side lit up. Then: “Both on!” when two lights flashed red.
Daylight became twilight, and twilight became night, and they were still hard at work. Five minutes before Starbucks closed, I was struck by an impulse to bring the man a cup of coffee, and a hot chocolate for his little boy. It was pretty late by then, and it seemed like refreshments might be appreciated. So, armed with cocoa, coffee and condiments, Elizabeth and I crossed the parking lot.
The little boy saw us first, and his face was illuminated by the friendly-but-wary expression of a child who has been properly schooled in stranger danger. “Dad!” he called, keeping his eyes on us.
The driver was kneeling on the asphalt, his head and shoulders wedged under the steering wheel.
“Excuse us,” I said, trying to be loud enough for audibility, but not so loud as to cause alarm.
The man extricated himself from the car, and stood up to greet us. I held out the tray and told him why we were there. He was surprised and appreciative. He took the tray and set it carefully on the trunk, promising they would enjoy the drinks when their work was done.
“Bennett, say ‘thank you,'” he told his son.
“Thank you!” Bennett chirped, his eye fixed on the cups. He was a cute little guy: bright smile, lively expression. He did not seem the least bit dismayed by being out so late at night.
He pointed at the car. “This is a racing car!” he announced proudly.
His father looked abashed. “I’m sure you could tell by the noise when we pulled in,” he said. “I’m still adjusting the [name of auto part which went completely over this writer’s head].”
Elizabeth and I assured him that the sound wasn’t so bad, and that the car was a real eye-catcher.
“Actually,” the father told us, “I have bought and sold this car three or four times.” He paused, then added: “I’m an addict. Sixteen months sober.”
I don’t remember how either Elizabeth or I replied to that statement, or if we said anything at all. I do recall thinking, This just got intense. We had brought over the drinks with spur-of-the-moment Good Samaritanism, not really thinking past the pleasant notion that a hardworking man would get a cup of coffee when he might need it. But suddenly, things seemed very deep.
And they were about to get deeper. “Over the years,” the man said, “I’ve sold this car and gotten it back again a bunch of times. When I hit bottom, I lost everything: my kids, two houses, my cars. On the day I got out of rehab, I had three goals in my mind: get my kids back, get a good place to live, and get my cars back. It’s taken me a long time, but I did it.”
The man looked at his child, and at the same time, his hand dropped onto the hood of the car. It was a small moment, but powerful. Past, present, and future wove together and unfurled outward into the night, and forward in time. I saw the car as something that the man had loved in his youth, perhaps during the final years of his own boyhood; and Bennett, his son, was that spark of promise for the future.
Of course, it’s difficult to say what the next few years would bring for them. Every life is an uncharted road, and addiction is a fierce adversary. But for the time being, in that moment, this ordinary-looking man had done something heroic: he had bested his demon, and reclaimed his family.
Bennett broke the spell. He ambled over to the car and tapped on the back passenger window. “My car seat is back there,” he told us. “But you can’t see it because the window has tint!”
We smiled and acknowledged the surpassing awesomeness of the tinted windows.
Before we drove away, I took a last look. Bennett’s smile was shining through the night. The car was glinting like a sapphire in the streetlamp. And in between, the father was under the steering wheel, working hard to make everything go right.
Heroes come in all shapes, sizes, ages and guises. For all the fathers who are fighting everyday battles to make a better life for their families, we say: Thank You!