Promises

There is nothing uplifting about a downmarket Las Vegas hotel. It’s simple living, hours in a stiff bed comforted by a flickering laptop screen, whatever junk food I could liberate from the giftshop downstairs, and the alarm telling me it’s time to escape again. On good nights, the only smell was the non-stop weed smoke from the rooms up and down the fourth floor hallway. On bad nights, sulphurous gas leaked from the pipes and whatever sewer ran below Flamingo Boulevard. Sometimes smells stick with me longer than the things I see. The sights cans can be written off as hallucinations or bad dreams. The smells present as reality, no matter how hard I try to pretend otherwise.

There were two windows. One looked out into a white concrete wall. The other looked out from the end of the shower into an alley. It was like washing in a submarine with a porthole to nowhere. The stain on the carpet might have been rust. Might’ve been blood. It was there long before me and would be there long after I was gone. The room service menu was a stripped down version of the restaurant downstairs, a TGI Fridays staffed many times by a 47-year-old double-shifting bartender who liked to flirt.

I spent two weeks in that hotel, during which time my son learned to ride a bike.

***

My wife used an intensifier in the middle of an adjective. That’s how amazing it was. Somewhere in between the prefix “un” and the word “believable,” my sweet little woman who won’t let me get by with a comma splice inserted an intensifier best left to the imagination. In the time it had taken her to walk the dog around the block, my father-in-law taught my son to ride a bike. At the time this happened, I was 2,100 miles away with an empty bag of Funyuns on the nightstand beside me. Later that night, a friend of mine introduced me to somebody with the words, “His son just learned to ride a bike today. That’s a pretty big deal. So, be nice to him.” The last time I worked the WSOP my dog died. This time, the boy learned to ride a bike. You can miss a lot of things when you’re on the road.

Many, many months ago, I made some promises. The boy wanted a skateboard. I told him I’d buy him one as soon as he learned to ride a bike. My wife wanted me to buy a bike so I could ride with her. I told her as soon as she could ride with the boy, I’d buy one for myself. I had, with no small amount of confidence, figured I’d never need to price bikes for myself.

I’ve been trying to teach the kid to ride a bike off and on for a couple of years. An early-days accident involving a chain link fence and a kid who didn’t know how to use his brakes meant my boy’s interest in taking off the training wheels was in the neighborhood of my interest in shaving with a steak knife. He didn’t have much interest in repeating the accident. And I, a father who is simply terrified of causing my sons anything resembling fear, eventually said, “When you’re ready, I’ll be here.” When he was ready, I was in a $32-a-night hotel room watching the slow-draining sink hold gray whiskers too long to make it down the sulphurous pipes.

I’m still working to come up with the word to describe the incredible pride I experienced in knowing my son learned to ride his bike. My wife shot video with her phone and eventually turned on FaceTime so I could see it happen in real time. I wanted to hold it up to everybody around me and scream, “He did it!” Problem is, it was an extreme pride iced with such sadness that it can’t properly cook down to one word.

One night toward the end of this trip, one of the good guys stood beside me with his notebook. He’s recently a daddy. He looked out across the poker room floor and said, “I don’t know how you do it. I call home, and I can only hear her laugh…” He trailed off. I babbled about how I coped. I was barely listening to myself. It had been a long time since I’d written about life on the road. I stopped because too much honesty makes me look whiny, or it scares the hell out of the people who love me. My job is a job. It’s a good one that’s treated me well. It’s one I don’t want to lose. But there are sacrifices, especially for a spirit that has its thin parts.

At the end of most work trips of any length, I give myself a day or two to ease back into the real world. It’s jarring to move from a world full of degenerates and greed into one of such purity and simple need. I need to find myself in time to stand before my boys. This time, however, my son was scheduled to go visit his grandparents. We were going to miss each other by a day or two.

***

I burned a day’s worth of pay to get on a redeye flight the moment my job was done. My son had gotten off his bike, packed a stuffed animal in his backpack, and sat with his Nanny at gate B2 of the airport. He was leaving for a week.

While he looked down at the video game in his hands, a haggard guy with thinning, messed up hair crept up the jetway and into the terminal. The man held a finger to his lips, a universal “ssshhh” to the woman beside my son. The man crept around behind the boy and looked over his shoulder to the Nintendo DS.

“Are you sure you are supposed to play it that way?”

My boy looked up from the game as if he was getting woken up in the middle of the night. He stared into his old man’s eyes and broke into a wide smile.

“Dad? What are you doing here?”

I pulled him close to me and told him I had to see him before he left. He told me he missed me. We sat on the airport floor and talked for the 15 minutes before he had to get on the plane to leave.

As they called his zone number, he pulled the backpack onto his shoulders and looked at me. “I love you, Daddy.” I told him I loved him. Before he left, he raised his eyebrows and asked, “So, how about that skateboard?”

At last, a promise I can keep.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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13 Responses

  1. StB says:

    Once again you prove how good of a father you are.

  2. Drizztdj says:

    If anyone ever asked why a parent becomes a parent, it is moments like that where words cannot describe the feeling. Sure you can put those words down on paper, but it will always lack the intensity of the pride that you feel.

    Congrats to D!

  3. Joanie says:

    You more than make up for your absences by the simple fact that you give your all when you’re with your family.

    And by the way, that skateboarder of yours is gonna give you a lot more gray hair!

  4. Terrence says:

    Wow.

    That was a great look at the other side. As one of those [1] still-single guys, the WSOP is such a great time of year for me. For the single and unattached it represents the time of year where our solitary existence is traded for actual social interaction and camaraderie. It’s all friends and all good times for us.

    But yours is the other side, the side of the family man. And it’s one I even see in my own house, with three married guys (one of whom has kids). But no one has ever quite crystalized the lamentation of the family man the way you have here. (I guess by now it should be no surprise that when it comes to conveying stories of the human condition in a poker context, no one beats Brad Willis.)

    On the gripping hand, our group gets 6 weeks out of the year to spend time with those whom we would choose to spend time with. Yours gets the other 46. So, the occasional missed bike ride notwithstanding, your deal isn’t so bad. 🙂

    [1] this is the part where I used to be able to add “young”

  5. Lori (IG) says:

    Omg I have tears in my eyes. I think you surprising him at the airport was more priceless then you being there when he learned to ride the bike.

    Life is full of sacrifices. He wouldnt be learning to ride the bike if you didnt have money to afford one. And it just may be that Grandpa was meant to teach him to ride the bike without a fall.

  6. PirateLawyer says:

    Once again Brad proves how good of a writer he is.

    I can only hope I have similar success when I teach my nephew how to skate in a couple of years.

  7. Astin says:

    You should put all the “I miss my family” posts into a compilation and send it to Caesars and Pokerstars, with a note saying “please move every event to the nearest convention center to my house.”

    I’m sure they’ll do it.

  8. Ugarles says:

    As I try to teach my kid how to use the toilet without peeing all over the walls or to use a scooter without falling over it is good to read about the future lessons I will have to teach and to appreciate the good fortune I have to be teaching them.

  9. RichD says:

    Wow Brad.

    I’ve been in your shoes but could never have articulated it as well. I am now looking at the other end of the story as mine all start leaving the nest for college. Thanks so much for the cathartic read.

  10. Uncle Ted says:

    “When he was ready, I was in a $32-a-night hotel room watching the slow-draining sink hold gray whiskers too long to make it down the sulphurous pipes.”

    Miss you, buddy.

  11. Tammie says:

    And oh yes, don’t forget the dirt bike. 😉 He just mentioned that to us today at lunch.

  12. Mike D says:

    Hope I can be as good of a Daddy as you are. Let me know when he gets that skateboard and I’ll teach him how to land and roll.

    Mike

  13. Michele says:

    That was beautiful. I never make it to final nine and few understand why.

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