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The Universal Dad

Rick Ryckeley's picture

The Boy amused me the other day — he often does of late. With the closing on his new house now under his belt, his upcoming marriage, and hopefully soon a grandchild or two, one would say The Boy has a lot of balls in the air. Luckily for him, he’s a good juggler.

Returning home late one morning from a long 24-hour shift at the fire department, he stumbled through the front door. It seems fighting fires, rescuing damsels in distress, and transporting patients to hospitals are somewhat taxing for the youngster. After a couple hours of sleep, he’d start working again painting and cleaning carpets. “Dad,” he said, “All I do is work all the time.”

I smiled and then asked him to sit down for a moment. I’d been saving something for him all his life; now it was finally time to share it with him. I figured he’d listen. After all, he was too tired to stand, much less argue.

Exhausted, he fell into an overstuffed chair and asked, “This isn’t one of your stories, is it? Don’t have time; gotta get some sleep.”

As the black and gray one jumped onto his lap, demanding her daily petting and rubbing, a grin slowly spread across my face. “Why, yes, son, it is,” I said, “But this is one you’ll actually want to hear.”

A sigh rose up from the chair. Not really sure from where. My guess is that it came from either The Boy or the gray and black one. Regardless, I took it as a sign neither was moving for a while. So I started my story.

Growing up at 110 Flamingo Street, I have many fond memories of time spent with my parents. Mom seemed to always be there anytime, day or night, running around after us five kids, cooking, cleaning, and toting us from here to there. Yep, I remember Mom being there. I guess that’s because she was. Dad? He wasn’t.

During the week, he left for work before sunrise, long before any of us got out of bed. If we were lucky, or unlucky depending on what we had gotten into during the day, he made it home for dinner or just before our bedtime. We’d see him Saturday afternoons and all day on Sundays. The rest of his life with us he worked. During all that time, I never once heard him complain.

Back then this wasn’t unique. It was universal. Chances are if you’re between 45 and 60 years old, you too had a Universal Dad.

It wasn’t until I was 12 that I really noticed Dad wasn’t around much. When asked why, he just shrugged and said, “That’s a choice you make when you choose to be a dad. It’s not a burden. It’s an honor.”

I told him that when I became a dad, things would be different. Oddly, he didn’t say anything else. Just hugged me, smiled and walked away into the darkness to start his workday. Then I didn’t understand.

I promised not to do the same. Working all the time? I would spend more time with my kids. Yet no matter how hard I tried, years later, it was a promise I was unable to keep.

In many ways, things are different today. Both parents work, and neither gets enough time with the kids. In some ways, things are the same. Universal Dads are still out there. They go to work long before sunrise and return long after it sets, never to complain about their lot in life because to them, like my dad, it’s an honor. Sadly, they still don’t get to see enough of the ones they love.

Now bored with the story, the black and gray one hopped off The Boy’s lap. She was off to find an early morning sunbeam to hold down and no doubt fall asleep. The Boy struggled but was finally released from the grasp of the overstuffed chair. Another groan floated up as he rose. This time I think it came from the chair. He said sleepily, “Trust me, when I have a family, I won’t work all the time.”

Without saying a word, I walked over and gave him a hug. Now fully awake he asked, “What’s that for?”

“You’ll find out one day.” I answered. Just hope The Boy does a better job of keeping his promise than I did keeping mine.

Or my dad did keeping his.

[Rick Ryckeley, who lives in Senoia, is in his third decade as a firefighter and has been a weekly columnist since 2001. His email is His books are available at]

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