A Trip with My Dad: A Lesson on Sacrifice

Being 11 in 1997 wasn’t like it is now. It wasn’t defined as being a “tween,” it was merely the purgatory you suffered between childhood and teenage years.

As I struggled with finding out who I was that summer, I experienced a few new things. It was the first time I wore a spaghetti strap tank top. It was the first time my hair achieved Sun In blondness instead of crispy orangeness. I fit into my mother’s sandals, and it was the first time I went on a trip, by myself with my father.

My dad was never really a “kid Dad.” He spent his weeks as an over-the-road truck driver and whirled in late Friday nights to crash after killing himself to get home as soon as possible. Most weekends, this resulted in him sleeping for extended periods of time and not knowing what to do with an 11 and 8-year-old. Mix all of this with the fact that I’m almost certain Red Foreman from That 70’s Show is a watered-down version of himself, he didn’t really have much to say to children.

But, the summer of ’97, my mother had her fill of my prepubescent attitude and sent me for a week’s travels to El Paso, TX riding shotgun next to the man I both loved intensely and was vibrantly terrified of.

As I stuffed my bag with Pop-Tarts, Tiger Beat, and Fun Dip, my little brother flopped on my bed full of questions.

“What are you going to talk about?” he asked, genuinely wondering what an 11-year-old girl could possibly have in common with her dad.

“I don’t know,” I said, dropping my Walkman as the reality of my situation dawned on me.

“Maybe he won’t be crabby,” my brother said as he saw the fear creeping across my face.

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” I said as I grabbed a few more handfuls of cassettes in case the stifling silence is too much. Up until this point, I hadn’t even spent an evening with him sans my mom and the thought of doing so made my belly flipper. I figured I’d better be safe than sorry.

However, when we geared up, honked the horn as we turned off our dirt road and headed South, it was comfortable. It was both of us learning about each other in ways we never knew. He learned that I loved to stop at every truck stop and buy $17 worth of Fritos and I found out that he actually is quite funny. We laughed about the stifling 119-degree weather, our broken air conditioning and the fact that our drinking water was one notch below boiling.

While we got the AC fixed in Texas, he surprised me with an overnight stay at a motel. Looking back, it really was a roach motel, but it had a pool, and we spent the day running barefoot across scalding blacktop and him teaching me how to dive. I can still perfectly see him standing on a plastic end table at the edge of the pool in his cut-off jeans (his only swimsuit to date). His body had the trucker tan of one, bronzed left arm that donned an ancient eagle/snake tattoo. He wasn’t a big man, but his hard exterior made him someone you wanted to know; someone that intimidated you into a conversation.

I laughed and laughed until my skin pruned and burned in the pool that day. That night, we collapsed in our itchy beds watching Crocodile Dundee and eating food my mother would never approve of. I remember staring at him thinking I wonder why I was so nervous about this trip. This was utterly perfect.

“Dad,” I said watching him check the locks one last time, “This is such a fun trip. I want to be a truck driver when I grow up.”

My dad froze there at the door. He took a deep breath before turning around and saying, “Hon, this is not a fun job.”

“But, you get to sleep in hotels and eat such good food,” I said with a mouth full of Snickers.

“I don’t do this stuff when I’m alone,” he said. “When I’m alone I try to get back as fast as I can. I was so exhausted last week I accidentally ate a burger with the paper still on it. All I think about all week is getting back to you guys.”

“Well, that’s sad,” I said as I fell asleep. The reality was hitting me more and more as I grew up.

One night, on our way back to Wisconsin, I heard scratching as we slept in the tiny, twin sized bed in the cab of the truck.

“Dad,” I whispered. “I think there’s a raccoon on the truck.”

“Go to sleep,” he said in his deepest, firmest voice.

He waited a good ten minutes, thinking I had drifted off to sleep before getting out of bed and hollering through the closed door.

“Get the hell away from here!” he screamed.

It wasn’t until high school Social Problems class that I realized that the sound wasn’t, in fact, raccoons but the five-inch long fingernails of prostitutes looking for their next John. I remember the sickening feeling in Mr. Kirchberg’s class as I realized just how depressing my dad’s job truly was.

That summer was a turning point for me. I learned to understand what my dad had to go through alone all week long. He wasn’t gone because he wanted to be. He was gone because he felt he had to be. While we enjoyed our time together, I realized how lonesome he must be for most of his days. How exhausted he must have been trying to sleep as little as possible to get home to my mom, my brother and me.

I grew up that summer learning about the sacrifices my father made to ensure I never had to go without. Up until that summer, I had this violent disappointment when it came to my dad. He missed so much. Many of my events, concerts, and dinners at night had an empty chair where he was supposed to be. I didn’t understand his perspective. His greatest fear was my suffering, so he spent nights listening to the drunken, drug-induced tittering of hookers and calculating how many more miles until home. He lived on Big Macs and truck stop hot dogs just so I could afford a new flute or designer school clothes.

When I grew up, I swore I would never marry a man who wasn’t home every night. The pain of my dad missing out on so much was still so raw all these years later. While I got my wish, I know now that even if he wasn’t there every night, my dad taught me that parenting isn’t always being with your child each and every day. Sometimes, parenting is making sacrifices just so your kids never have to go without. Sometimes parenting is making those calls that both hurt and help at the same time. Sometimes parenting will break your heart. You just need to know that it’s worth it.