And that’s the way our first Dad and Caroline Day began, as we were given the corner booth at this funky little neighborhood breakfast spot known more formally as the International House of Pancakes. Actually, that’s not quite true. I’m sure Caroline would tell you that Dad and Caroline Day began about half an hour earlier, when we played a number matching game in her room. She’d made up her mind the night before that she wanted to play this game with me before we went out to breakfast, and such plans are quite important in the world of a not-quite-four-year-old.
The idea for Dad and Caroline Day originated in late December, when I did something exceedingly rare for me and made a New Year’s Resolution. This resolution was simple but could pay handsome dividends, and could not possibly be broken in the first six weeks when most resolutions perish. I resolved to take one weekday off each three months, and devote that entire day to spend alone with my eldest daughter. No work, no other obligations, minimal phone use, no distractions. After I officially set the date of March 14 a few weeks ago, we marked it on the calendar at home and began talking about it more with Caroline. She started really looking forward to it, too, and wanted to make sure we went out to breakfast at IHOP. Our main activity for the day remained a little more up in the air until earlier this week, when a tantalizing forecast of sunny, 50-degree weather cinched the idea that after breakfast we would go to the zoo.
And so , that’s what we did. While waiting for our food, we connected the dots and drew with the crayons on her kids menu, then opened the newspaper I brought to the important section and read the comics together. I can report that Charlie Brown lost his first game of the new baseball season – an event as morose and predictable as anything on the front page, I have no doubt. Caroline then raved about her pancake with the little banana slices made to look like a smile and strawberries for eyes, which tasted especially good with a touch of what she kept calling “maple” syrup and I didn’t bother correcting her.
Then it was off to the zoo, with the Kids Place station locked in on satellite radio and us singing along to the songs we knew. As we turned into the parking lot, Caroline exclaimed “we’re here!” She kept saying she wanted to see the kangaroos first, so that’s just where we headed. After the kangaroos we saw rhinos, then a camel, then an ibex (“I… spy an iiii-bex!,” Caroline and I sang to the tune of a song by Key Wilde and Mr. Clarke, a great duo we discovered through the same Kids Place station). We walked on and saw the giraffes, then the bison, then the brown bear, then the polar bear, and more… as a dad strolling through the zoo on a weekday with a three-year-old girl, you get plenty of smiles from both the zoo staff and the moms and grandparents with kids. You also get a few strange stares from the animals, like the toad behind the glass. According to Caroline, this toad was saying “Hey buddy, what are you looking at?” After I laughed at that, suddenly the sea lions were also saying “Hey buddy, what are you looking at?” Then, according to Caroline, the lions and leopards and tiger were all also saying the same thing to us.
But Caroline’s favorite stop of all at the zoo wasn’t a “big draw” animal at all. It was a small aquarium containing some fish which, to my untrained eye, didn’t appear much different than the types you might see on offering at your local Petco. Yet Caroline stood there fascinated for nearly 10 minutes, following a single small blue fish she picked out as it swam around the rocks and plants throughout the tank. She even decided it was a girl and gave it a name.
You never could or would have predicted that the small fish tank would have been a little girl’s favorite sight on a given day at the zoo, just like it’s impossible to predict which memories the same little girl will carry most vividly out of her childhood. But the little things, the everyday mundane things, matter. Time matters. Going to the zoo isn’t necessarily the most spectacular outing she will ever experience, and since we already had a membership the price tag for this entire day was the price of one adult breakfast and a kids meal at IHOP. But the everyday-ness of it may in its own way help the memories stick.
I fully plan on sticking around this planet for another fifty years or more, but given my own history as a cancer survivor I know as well as anyone that there are no guarantees in that department. I want to ensure that, no matter what the future holds, my daughter will have warm memories of her time with me that impact her permanently. And I also never want to be one of those parents who regrets not taking the time to slow down and enjoy their kids in the present tense while they were little.
That’s why I created Dad and Caroline Day, and why she and I are already looking forward to the next one in June. This afternoon I asked Caroline what she might like to do for the next Dad and Caroline day. Her answer: “Maybe we could go to the zoo again.”