By Gregory Keer
The Amtrak Surfliner is very late, which means I’ve spent the last hour trying to manage Benjamin’s alternating excitement/disappointment.
“Here comes the train,” he says as he rushes toward the oncoming freightliner.
I have to dash to shepherd him away from the tracks, while balancing a 300-pound “survival” backpack of food, books, games, and (hopefully) enough extra underwear to survive the rest of this two-day experience as a “single” father.
The train finally arrives, gleaming brighter than Thomas the Tank Engine could ever hope for. We board and sit down in a nice bulkhead-like spot. The train lurches San Diego-bound and Benjamin gets giddy, “We’re going, we’re going!”
We have three-and-a-half hours before we meet Mommy, who is at a child-development conference. Sometimes, I coast a little when Wendy is around to share the parenting load. In times like these, I’m focused and notice how much he looks like his Mommy and appreciate more comments, like “Can trains fly?”
For part of the trip, we snack on healthful peanut-butter pretzels (“Daddy, you eat them”) and cookies (“These are for me”). I try to teach him checkers, but he creates a new game (“I just want to hold them”). I point out the sights visible from out window: abandoned homes littered with scrap metal, drab warehouses. Not much to see until we hit the jackpot — a parking lot for cranes! It’s all Benjamin can do to point out each one. I never knew cranes could come in so many sizes and colors. I never knew I would ever care
Then, a young woman sits down across from us. She’s heading down to a small town in the South Bay. She’s a single mother taking a break to visit a friend. She’s friendly and nice to Benjamin. She doesn’t want to talk much; she’s just enjoying some quiet time before disembarking for a night out with her old friend.
The gentle, perpetual motion of the train beckons me to sleep. I try valiantly to stay awake for Benjamin. But he soon drifts off against my shoulder. This is indeed a little slice of heaven, sitting back as the sky darkens over the industrial landscape, me and my son.
When we awake, a new person is sitting across from us. A young girl. She has candy. She gives the candy to Benjamin. Quiet time is over.
Despite my grogginess, Benjamin starts to wrestle with me on the seat. “I’m going to get you.” I pretend to go down in repeated defeat, then draw the line at, “Let’s hop on pop!” A crowded train is one place where Dr. Seuss is not helpful.
I try to curb the sugar rush with offerings of a light dinner, including cheese and carrots. He snaps off a piece of carrot, “I’m all done now!.” So I offer a walk. It’s hard enough to follow a three-year old without the wobble of a train ride. We manage to walk around a bit, annoying/entertaining other passengers before going downstairs.
He climbs on an empty seat and discovers the emergency lever. I tell him not to touch it. “Why?” he asks. “Because it makes the train stop.” He thinks about this, “I want to get off, now,” he sees, reaching for the device. I lunge for the lever and explain, “Other people don’t want to get off.” “Why not,” he asks. Normally, at this early-evening hour, I would have my wife around to spell me from this persistent challenge.
We go further up the train car and meet a very nice group of people. A woman offers Benjamin one of those foam dinosaurs on the end of a bendy wire. He picks it up and becomes absorbed in it. I get to talk to an adult for a while. She was rather cute, too, and very impressed at my fatherly abilities. And, yes, the cliché of how helpful a kid would’ve been in my single days did occur to me.
But then the inevitable statement. “I have to go potty.”
After potty, we go for another trip around the train, all the while reviewing the reasons why we cannot get off the train just yet. Finally, the train pulls into the station. Benjamin can’t wait to see Mommy. And neither can I. He still has one last question for me to wrangle, until she arrives to meet us.
“Where’s San Diego?” he wants to know.
“We’re here,” I say.
“I don’t see it,” he opines, trying to make sense of the fact that a train station cannot possibly be all there is to the city.
I’m wiped and thankful that Wendy has the station wagon she drove down the other day. We drive off to pick up our friends Nicole and Joel and go to a late dinner. I try to remain nonpartisan as Wendy takes her turn parenting, as she works on feeding our picky eater.
Then, Benjamin needs to go potty again. Feeling guilty that I have shirked all duties for the past hour, I volunteer to take him. We go in and it is then I discover something horrible — he has already gone in his clothes. And its not…exactly…tidy. In fact, it’s a Defcon 4 alert untidy.
Exhausted, distressed, and trying mightily not to let him see me sweat (we mustn’t say anything to cause a regression in the potty training), I proceed to unpeel his clothes.
Exhausted, distressed, and not at all afraid to cry, he says, “I don’t want to be naked, now!” I try to console him while I pat him down with several rolls of toilet paper in this public bathroom. A man walks in and starts to giggle, watching me try to clean up my poor son.
Then, Joel walks in. The search party. “Are you all right?”
“Does it look like I’m all right,” I say, looking fairly untidy myself.
Joel tries hard not to laugh. I tell him to tell my wife, “She owes me – big time.”
Joel leaves and I ponder the desecrated Blue’s Clues undies. I decide to throw them away. Benjamin is not happy about that, but I’ve lost the ability to reason. I shove his pants back on (though still a bit untidy) and burst out of the restroom with him under my arm. I return to the table and there they are, laughing hysterically at my predicament. Benjamin laughs with them. And I say to my wife, “I am done parenting for the rest of the weekend.”
It didn’t stop there, actually. Wendy had to work at the conference the next day and Benjamin was all mine for most of that Saturday. It turns out he had a stomach virus (the obvious cause of the bathroom fiasco) and I felt like a complete failure because I couldn’t get him to eat or have fun at the kids’ museum.
It was all of 48 hours, but in that stretch of time, I tasted a morsel of life as a single parent. It was chaotic. It was precious. It was exhausting. It was character building. Could I do it on an ongoing basis? Yes, because I treasure my son and would do everything I could to help him grow up happy and strong — in spite of untidy occurrences.