Our 4-year-old loves Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. This love grew because Cass found in our basement a DVD of Petty’s 30th anniversary concert, filmed in 2006 in Gainesville, Fla. Once I showed him the magic of this little disc – yes son, there’s an entire concert on there – it quickly became his favorite.
He likes ‘Free Fallin,’ ‘Running Down A Dream’ and ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance,’ and he always skips ahead to the part when Stevie Nicks comes out for a duet of ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More.’
There is a moment in the concert when Petty turns up the house lights and the camera pans the massive crowd.
Cass turned to me and said, “Large groups of people. We can’t do that anymore, because of the virus.”
Talk about a moment that freezes you. A 4-year-old perfectly crystallizes the new normal, and says it casually, as if crowded concerts are a relic that are not coming back. I immediately thought of all the things that have been taken away, from all of us, since this pandemic struck.
Our loss is nothing compared to those who lost loved ones. But our loss is not nothing.
For small children, especially those like Cass who don’t have a sibling in the house, it has been a complete upheaval of a typical childhood. He’s been in isolation since March. He has not played with anyone his own age. All the playgrounds are closed. There are no art or sports camps, no birthday parties, no play dates, no group field trips.
Yes, there are digital versions of some of these things, but those are weak imitations. Children need the social growth that only comes from being around other children.
Yet while I stop short of calling this a happy story given the human toll, this is a story about finding happiness in tough times, of turning challenges into cherished memories. And it’s one I believe is playing out all over the world.
My wife is a busy attorney and I am currently working part-time and mostly at night, so when the lockdown started we decided that I would take over as Cass’ primary caregiver during the work week. One thing you should know is this is my second go-round as a father. I have a grown daughter from my first marriage who is running her own successful business in New Orleans (shameless plug: you should check out www.julietmeeks.com )
Here I was, a man in his 50s charged with keeping up with a 4-year-old, with extreme limitations on what we could do. Yet those same limits spurred us to get back to basics, to doing the things human beings always have done. Yes, we did a few Zoom calls with Cass’ classmates and for an online music class, but it was quickly clear that Cass didn’t consider a laptop social life to be much fun.
Let’s Get Going
So we did other things. It started with expanding our nature walks.
We’ve always been an outdoorsy family. The lockdown propelled it to a new level. Cass and I went to a state park in Virginia. I showed him a map of all the trails and that’s all it took. He admires the logic of maps and before the pandemic already had memorized a good number of the public bus routes in Washington DC. One of his favorite jig-saw puzzles? A map of the DC metro rail system.
We bought an annual pass and have been to a Virginia state park 16 times since April 1. Including the national parks that dot our region, we’re over 30 visits.
It was not long before Cass not only memorized every trail in Mason Neck State Park, he insisted we hike every one of them. This was no problem for him. For Dad, this was a level of exercise well beyond my usual performance. But if you’re wondering whether keeping up with a 4-year-old will wear you out or make you stronger, the answer is both.
At first I was so sore that for a few weeks I wasn’t moving too well. But I kept going. That’s what Dads do — it gave me so much joy to see how much Cass loves the outdoors. I don’t know exactly how far we’ve gone since this started, but between walks and me trailing behind Cass on his scooter, it’s well over 100 miles.
One day as we were on a trail headed out to the marsh at Wilson Spring, Cass stops me and says, “Daddy did you know there are three kinds of springs? Wilson Spring, springs that are bouncy and Spring the season!”
“That’s right Cass,” I said, which I’ve gotten used to saying.
Somewhere along the way, I wanted to step up the fitness, so I started doing pushups at each bench we encountered on trails. Once I started, Cass wouldn’t let me skip a bench. That sometimes added up to a 4-to- 5-mile hike plus 50-100 pushups. It inspired other changes. I have a bike I hadn’t ridden in more than three years. I cleaned it up and did some maintenance. Last week I did 75 miles on that bike.
I don’t get sore any more, Cass and I are both stronger, and since April I’ve dropped 14 pounds. He’s trying to gain weight to hit the 40-pound mark so he can turn his car seat around and face forward. That’s big.
Oh the sights we’ve seen! We spent a morning watching five bald eagles gliding over a wetland. We’ve seen squirrels, deer, chipmunks, turtles and foxes. We saw a snake eating a fish. I even showed Cass how to tell if a snake is poisonous in North America just by looking at its head, but he wasn’t interested in getting close enough to make that call.
Not an issue with toads. We’ve come across a few. I told Cass not to touch the toad and he said, “I already touched it when you weren’t looking.” Ah, a glimpse of the future.
It’s amazing how the past comes back to find us. I grew up in Michigan, but my family hails from Alabama and most of my ancestors were farmers. Knowing how to grow food was drilled into me at an early age. We had a ½-acre garden every year.
I told Cass, “If you can grow food, you’ll always have something to eat,” which is exactly what my grandfather said to me.
In a modest greenhouse, we started some seeds. Now we have a bevy of prospering plants – tomatoes, green and red peppers, basil, cucumbers and green beans. Those are crops we’ve grown in our family for generations. Cass is quite the gardener and you never need to worry about knowing when a plant has sprouted some produce. He’s going to announce it.
We’ve played miniature golf at an abandoned course, we’ve gone fishing, we’ve picked strawberries at a local farm. We’ve converted our living room into a ‘fort’ of blankets, sheets and secret entrances. Cass has created a large amount of art work that adorns the walls in our home.
We also have a family tradition based on the TV show MacGyver that we call MeeksGyver. The rule is you have to fix or build something with items you have around the house. We’ve scotch-taped a broken cucumber plant together to see if it would live (it did), we converted perforated plastic containers into a trellis for our climbing plants and we built a squirrel feeder out of scrap wood we found in the garage. That has been a huge hit and Cass named one of the squirrels Peanut because he or she comes by every day, a little fatter each time, to see if the feeder is loaded. This morning, Peanut was sitting on our back porch.
Do we all wish this pandemic had never happened? Of course. Would I trade these past few months for anything? Not in a million years. We don’t dwell on the pandemic. We talk about what we’re going to do today.
I know that much of what Cass has learned will stay with him the rest of his life. He’ll always love the outdoors, he’ll always be a gardener, he has learned creative ways to be creative. He’s got the knack for being resourceful.
As for me and Dads like me all over the world, as we reflect on these past months, these truly have been father’s days.