‘The truth is, like every dad who ever lived, I’m winging it’

If you have children, Trent Dalton’s description of an average school-day morning will ring eerily true: “like eating a bowl of Weet-Bix inside the first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan”. And if you don’t have children then apologies for alarming you with this Sunday-morning reimagining of the Oscar-winning film.

The lights-out moments are the best. Those quiet chats. The long hugs goodnight. Sometimes at lights-out I play a quick and silly game with my two daughters where I toss up incomplete sentences for rhymes and the girls have to fill in the blanks.

“There once was a man called…,” I say.

“Scott,” says my youngest, with a smile.

“Who cooked up a crab in a…” “Pot!”

“But the crab was carrying a…” “Knife!”

“So Scott had to call for his…” “Wife.”

“And the crab got to run for his…” “Ummm… Mitsubishi Outlander?”

A game of ring toss

It’s a game about wingin’ it. Truth is, like every dad who ever lived, I’m always wingin’ it.

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Honestly, fatherhood is one big game of ring toss. Every day from 6am I’m just tossing my red, rubber rings at that board of random numbers called adolescence and hoping they’ll hook on to something. Hoping they’ll hang in there for a point to be made. Some rings are rocks, some are diamonds and some are a trip to the emergency ward in an ambulance, apologising to those brilliant paramedics that you couldn’t drive the kid to hospital yourself because you tied one on for Grand Final day. Real classy, Dad.

Some rings are unnecessary solo standing ovations for your daughters at the poetry Eisteddfod. Some are rushed homework checks, Vegemite sandwiches with no butter, spaghetti jaffles for dinner and half-arsed Book Week costumes. No, that’s not a girl wrapped in a frayed bed sheet, that’s a Dickens Ghost of Christmas Past.

It’s about how close you stand to the board

I’ve been tossing rings for 13 years and it’s only now, as I write this, I realise the secret to the game. It ain’t about how many rings land on the number hooks. It’s about how close you stand to the board.

COVID-19 put me closer to the board. I haven’t always been able to be so close. Responsibility is a b*tch. Mortgages, fees, our hopes, their dreams and ours… these things pull us further from the board. But you gotta get close to that sucker. Work is temporary. Fatherhood is permanent. You gotta toss those rings at an arm’s length at the very least. You can’t land a single ring from a distance.

The school-day mornings are interesting. Sort of like eating a bowl of Weet-Bix inside the first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan – drama and debris and shrapnel flying from all sides. Stay low. Talk less. Smile more.

I once prided myself on preparing school lunches, but I get so much bad afternoon feedback lately that I’ve been reduced to some kind of washed-up nervous butler figure standing in the kitchen and second-guessing every peeled rind, every contained seaweed cracker.

It’s about all of it

Afternoons and dinner times are rarely dull. It’s all about pick-ups and drop-offs between suburban schools and ovals, soundtracked by gentle reminders that escalate rapidly in intensity. “Don’t forget to do your maths, sweetie. Have you done your maths? Do your maths, please. Maths. I won’t say it again.” (I always say it again.) “Maaattths!”

But the lights-out moments are the best. Quiet chats. The long hugs goodnight. The quick and silly games. Truth is, Father’s Day was never about us. It’s about the lights-out moments. It’s all about them.

And that’s what tonight’s incomplete poem will be about. He loves you more than you will ever… He loves to watch you learn and… He will love you ’til he’s old and… He thanks you for this Daughters’…

All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton (Fourth Estate, $32.99) will be available from September 29.