Father’s Day weekend in New York tends to be beautiful, all early summer sun and soft breeze, some of the city’s best days. Holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are usually seen as opportunities to recognize the work of parenthood by giving the mother or father some amount of relief from their duties for a day.

But duties being duties, relief never really comes. One Father’s Day weekend about either years ago, my mother and father were in town to see our daughter Q and our son M go about their usual business. Being half the U.S. away has meant that my parents haven’t been around our kids that much in a non-holiday context; they know the social-mediated highlights, of course, but not what their rooms looked like on a typical Wednesday or the way dinner could be a struggle. It was a good time for them to come: We had much on our usual schedule, including the culmination of Ms big second-grade project on birds, Q’s final gymnastics class for the summer, and M’s last baseball game of the season. And since this was the wrap-up weekend for gymnastics and baseball and (more or less) school, there were going to be medals and trophies and a much higher tolerance for holding still and smiling for photos.

We managed almost all of that — until M broke his arm for the third time.

Okay. I was across the neighborhood with Q on the Saturday before Father’s Day when I got the call, but here’s what happened: M was riding his new bike in the park, the one with a larger frame that better fit his larger frame. He was fast on this one, but he knew the area well, so we used to let him speed up ahead and circle back. The park paths were full of pedestrians, and when he came up behind a large group of them, he rang his bell, but they didn’t make way. M swerved onto the shoulder to go around them, but the wide-set bricks caught his wheels and channeled him right into a lamppost at pretty much full speed. He tried to catch himself on the way down, as anyone would, and snapped the big bone just above his right wrist. Things could have been worse, of course. He could have fallen into the street and the path of passing cab, or could have had an end of bone jutting up through his new skin.

When Q and I arrived running from the playground, I could see the fall in his wrist. He could see it, too, having had some experience in this area (break number 3, after all), and sobs of pain and knowledge were roaring out of him. This was obviously emergency-room worthy, and my wife and Grandma took M’s bike back home with Q while I flagged down a cab to New York Presbyterian Hospital, the one with the Best Pediatric ER according to a few Important Industry-Related Magazines. The Saturday evening traffic was light, thankfully, but the pain and our thoughts of the coming cast made the ride seem interminable. Having become a part of the story, even the driver tried to console my son as he ached slowly out of the cab at the ER entrance.

By the time I had made it through the paperwork and M made it through the diagnostic X-ray, my wife had arrived. The grandparents were looking after Q (or perhaps it’s better to say that she was looking after them) so that we both could be with our son. In a sense, I suppose, they got what they came for — to help mitigate the unplanned jags of life.

The fall had kinked his arm, and the pediatric orthopedist needed to set it straight. The nurse first aimed two light doses of morphine at his pain while we waited for the on-call doctor. Then for the procedure itself, a doctor informed us in calm tones (and asked us to acknowledge via signature of being so informed) that they were going to “moderately sedate” our son, which, worse case, might cause him to “lose his will to breathe.” We were also informed (this time in a signature-independent way) that though he wouldn’t remember anything, he would still be somewhat awake and might very well cry out when the bone was maneuvered back into proper position. Given the option to stay for M’s screaming or step out, my wife and I decided that we’d look over the bulletin boards in the hallway and start thinking about ways to shift much of our summer around his cast.

It didn’t take long. By the time we successfully distracted ourselves, they had M’s straightened arm hanging by his thumb and were wrapping it in quick-setting blue fiberglass. He was still sedated, head and eyes rolling. He didn’t seem to recognize us or even know we were there, though later he would report seeing his mother and two of everything else. There wasn’t much to do but watch everything work on him, and since it was getting late, I offered to go home to put Q at ease and to bed while my wife saw the visit through.

My first Father’s Day in 2003 wasn’t supposed to be my first Father’s Day. M entered this world a perilous two months early at New York Presbyterian and then kicked himself into a hold on life at its Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. That first month my wife and I walked 68th Street so many times, as often as we could, new parents to a strange being with a confounded future. I was surprised to find how much that same trip back downtown, eight years later, felt like walking on a bruise.

Our son returned home from the ER with drugs lingering in his blood. Q, worried and sleepless, went with me to meet him and my wife in our building’s lobby. He hadn’t eaten for more than nine hours, and he had thrown up in the cab the little bit of ginger ale given to him by the nurse. He wasn’t walking well, and I carried him, wet and unexpectedly stiff, from elevator to home. Even though he was just 8 years old, I hadn’t held him in that way for some time. We wrestled off his shirt for a quick bath; he still had a monitor relay stuck to his chest. He hadn’t come back into himself yet, his body unable to remember the step into his own bathtub.

As I helped him dress for bed that night, his new right arm heavy and foreign, he said, “Sorry, dad, you have to do everything for me.” I can’t think of a more unnecessary apology. I would make myself a castle around him.

Luckily M hasn’t broken a bone since. M and Q are teenagers now, and Father’s Day tends to be a time to be all together instead of being off duty, whatever that is. I tell this story not to demonstrate that “Every Day is Father’s Day” or that fathers are made by their sons, though both may be true. I tell it only to cast these days right, to fix them in the proper shape.

I hope you all had a happy Father’s Day.

Essayist, academic, lapsed philosopher, associate dean of ice cream. Welcome, pals.

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