“DON’T JUMP IN THE CACTUS”

Fatherhood is basically an extended version of what we called OJT in the Navy. That’s short for “On The Job Training” and it consisted of learning a job while doing a job, most often with little advance explanation. Under that time-tested system, the most enduring lessons come from mistakes, which hopefully didn’t result in the loss of too much respect or any body parts.

So, as I’ve stumbled through the past 20 or so years of parenting, I’ve basically made it up as I’ve gone along, even as I encountered situations I never imagined possible.

One day, I decided to give my hardworking wife a break and take my sweet daughters, then 6and 4 (I think), to the park for a little fresh air and sunshine. As we disembarked from the family SUV, I retrieved a training-wheel-equipped bike for my eldest and unfolded the blue canvas jog stroller for her little sister. After I’d buckled her bike helmet, Haley rolled away, handlebar streamers flapping in the breeze and Hannah settled into her stroller.

It was a beautiful day to be at Austin’s Dick Nichols Park with its paved path winding through cedar trees and fields still dotted with wildflowers. Haley would race ahead then pause for us to catch up while Hannah kept up a rolling commentary on things she was seeing. As we worked our way around the park, her running patter took on an insistent tone as she began to press for her turn on Haley’s bike.

I asked Haley if she was game for a swap and she agreed, pressing the helmet onto her sister’s head and taking her spot in the stroller. Hannah wasn’t quite big enough to be comfortable on the bike, but I didn’t want to be that overly protective parent whose kids grow up to be wimps, so I went along.

It just so happens that we’d chosen to orchestrate the vehicle swap at the beginning of a downward slope that, although slight, was steep and long enough to overwhelm Hannah’s limitations as a cyclist. So, within seconds of mounting up, Hannah was out of control, rolling down the hill, feet held high to avoid the whipping pedals, screaming for help.

As protector, I reacted quickly, stopping the stroller and sprinting after Hannah, reaching her just as she wrecked in a patch of gravel and Texas succulents. (aka cactus.) As I reached to pick her up, over her sobs I heard a cry of “Daddy” and turned to discover that the stroller had also succumbed to the combination of gravity and downslope and was picking up speed as a look of terror washed over Haley’s beautifully freckled face.

Setting Hannah down, I raced back toward Haley, too late to stop her progress, and watched as the stroller went off the paved walkway, the front wheel stuck in a trench and my firstborn was literally launched through the air into a patch of cactus.

In an instant, a serene scene of a responsible, loving father guiding his daughters through nature became a maelstrom of tears, screaming and cries of “Daddy, why?” In short, it was a G__D__ nightmare. One could even say it was almost Solomonic in nature except that, instead of cutting a baby in two, my lack of situational awareness had allowed simultaneous injury to my precious girls.

So, I did the only thing one can really do in that scenario: gather them both up and comfort them, being careful to avoid driving the cactus spines all over them from being driven farther into their flesh. We limped back to the car and headed home.

Just thirty minutes prior, my wife had sighed as the door closed and she embarked on what she thought would be a couple hours of peace and quiet. Imagine her surprise when the front door burst open, revealing two sobbing, bleeding little girls and a flop-sweat-soaked husband battling a mix of embarrassment, fear and frustration. However, as she has done literally every single time she’s faced a tough situation in the 30-plus years I’ve known her, so handled it.

She calmed the girls, got them a cold treat, tended their scrapes with a cool cloth and got everyone back to baseline. She may have given me a shot of whiskey, but my memory of that is cloudy.

Our littlest, Hannah, was the easiest to clean up as her injuries were mostly scrapes and bruises, but Haley was a different story entirely. She had cactus spines on her back, in her scalp and God knows where else. Our attempts to pluck them were met with screams and incredibly powerful resistance. (A longtime trypanophobe, Haley was known for her ability to kick and wriggle her way out of anything pain-related, to the point my theme song for her was A Boy Named Sue, as she “kicked like a mule and bit like a crocodile.”) So we gave up in frustration, knowing a few spines in the skin were better than permanently traumatizing our daughter.

That night, we waited until the girls were in REM sleep (I can’t remember if Benadryl was involved, but it had helped us in enough other challenging situations that I’d be surprised if it wasn’t) then crept into Haley’s room with a flashlight and a pair of tweezers. Amazingly she slept soundly as we plucked what seemed like hundreds of spines from her tender flesh.

I had a hard time going to sleep that night, turning the day’s events over and over in my head, beating myself up for allowing my girls to be injured. If only I’d refused Hannah’s entreaties to ride a bike that was too big for her. If only I’d chosen a more level surface for that ride. If only I’d turned the stroller sideways against the slope to prevent a rollaway. The self recrimination went on for what felt like hours.

When the girls woke up the next morning, I cuddled them both, apologizing profusely for the previous day’s disaster scenario and promising to do better next time. In their child’s innocence, they both said they forgave me.

As we do in our family, we began to relate the story to others and I drew my daughters into the telling by saying “so the girls decided to jump into a bunch of cactus the other day.” They’d indignantly respond, “no we didn’t: you threw us in the cactus” then we’d continue the narrative, describing them as the brave children who encountered danger and handled its consequences with stoic bravery.

On walks that followed, it became a family tradition, when seeing a patch of prickly pear, I’d say “now, girls, don’t jump in the cactus, please.” They would beg, “please, daddy, can we just jump in it for a little while” and I’d sternly bark “no cactus for you” and we’d continue on our way.

In short order, the scars from that crash healed and the pain faded, but the sense of helplessness I’d felt remains tangible to this day. It’s a helpful reminder that dads have limits and even the most conscientious father is going to end up in situations beyond his ability to control them. In that case, all one can do is be honest, be humble and take SOME kind of action on your child’s behalf. Then, stick with them as they process it and recover, owning your role in the situation. Most importantly, keep praying and seeking God’s wisdom. After all, it’s His example of unconditional, sacrificial love we’re called to emulate and He’ll strengthen us to do so.

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