Because I love being a good uncle to my nieces and nephews, people often ask me why I chose not to be a father.
While the answer is complicated, I can say that I used to harbor serious doubts about my ability to be a good teacher or mentor. Those doubts were dented several weeks after my wife and I adopted our first dog, Louie.
While Louie bravely trod the ground floor of our split-level condo, he skirted timidly around the airy spiral staircase that sweeps from the center of our living room up to our artist’s loft. Sensing how intimidated he was at first, I swept him up in my arms and carried him up the stairs after which we’d share a raucous romp on our rooftop patio.
As much as he enjoyed our nightly open-air play, Louie couldn’t bring himself to scamper up those stairs. However invitingly I called out to him from the loft, he remained frozen at the bottom of he staircase.
One night, I decided that my desire to help my boy overcome his fear of our stairs was greater than my self-doubts about fathering. After lavishing Louie with treats for sitting calmly at the base of the stairs, I loosened my belt, got down on my hands and knees and - in the most awkward climb ever on four “legs” - showed Louie how to climb our stairs.
After reaching the top, and still on four legs, I turned toward Louie and coaxed him to come up and join me. Louie looked down at the stairs, then up at me. He placed his left front paw on the first step, then snapped it back. Louie then emitted a series of shrieking barks which - through my anthropomorphic filter - I heard as: Daddy, I’m scared! This is frustrating! Can’t you see that I want to.
I padded my then 56-year-old body face first halfway down the stairs (a lot more difficult going down than coming up!) and set down a treat for him. Slowly, I withdrew back up the stairs, setting down treats on every other stair. Between looking up at me and down at the treats, Louie’s head moved up and down like a dashboard bobble-head.
Louie put his left paw on the first step again, then earnestly placed his right paw on the second step. We locked eyes. I nodded.
“Yeah, boy, that’s it,” I said softly.
Louie licked his lips and panted. His muscular legs quivered, but he held his gaze with me. He then set his right hind leg on the first step along with his left front paw and pushed off meekly, reaching for the third step with his left front paw. Louie grazed the lip of the third step, yelped as if he’d touched a hot stove and quickly backpedaled down to the floor.
I closed my eyes and sighed, remembering how scared I was at the thought of leaping across a ten-foot span of swirling river to join my encouraging friend perched on a rock. It was only by trusting my friend’s faith in me that I was able to ultimately make that leap.
Before I could open my eyes, I heard the sound of nails clicking on the stairs alternately with the slurping up of treats: click-click-slurp, click-click slurp, closer and closer, until . . .
Louie! My boy had scampered up the stairs all by himself! His eyes glistened with pride and his tongue unfurled through his jaws like a scroll hailing the spoils of courage. He smiled, cocked his head and licked my face. I hugged Louie and he leaned into my arms.
I’m glad I wasn’t too old to become a father.