Dad was rarely part of our quiet domestic life on the east coast of Scotland. He was based in Germany, but his work inspecting pipelines for hairline fractures took him all around the world; and away from us for long periods. But Dad would always bring us back gifts from the places he visited. One time, just before yet another trip, he promised to bring me a petrol-fuelled, radio-controlled car.
It was the early 90s and I imagined the radio-controlled car to be something out of a Mad Max movie – beefy tires with deep treads, a makeshift bumper adorned with spikes, shock absorbers laid bare, and a rugged paint job telling tales of a post-apocalyptic world. I visualised this beast of a toy screeching across our driveway at 30 mph, belching smoke and spitting gravel in every direction. It would leap over ramps and conquer the miniature mountains I’d make from cardboard and old mattresses. But I had to wait for his return.
The clock was cruel, turning weeks into months. He was a phantom presence in the home, leaving only the smell of Old Spice and cigarette smoke in his favourite space on the sofa. Yet, as I had done countless times before, I waited. I hoped.
“Dad’s coming home today,” Mum announced one sunny Friday morning as I was heading out the door to school.
The prospect of school was now unbearable.
“How could I sit still in a classroom, trying to focus on fractions and verbs?” I thought.
“Off to school, now,” Mum chided gently but firmly. “It’ll keep your mind busy until he’s home.”
And I did. But at half past three, I shot out of the classroom and was first in line waiting to get on the school bus. The ride home felt like an eternity. I envisioned the warmth of my dad’s hug, his usual denim shirt and jeans wrapping around me, and the thrill of holding the controls of my new petrol-fueled car.
When I reached my stop, I leapt from the bus with my backpack and sprinted the final mile home. As I ran, the pens and sharpener in my backpack jostled against the inside of a metal pencil case, clattering with each stride.
But Dad’s car wasn’t in the driveway.
“Dad’s at your Grandmas. He’s staying for dinner,” Mum said. I could tell she was angry at what he’d done.
“Why would Dad go to his mum’s when he knew I was waiting for him? Didn’t he miss me as much as we missed him?” I thought.
I’d was counting down the days, the hours, the minutes to his return, but it seemed I wasn’t his first priority.
I waited all evening for him to return. I was his child; didn’t I deserve his first hug, his first smile?
Suddenly, the familiar grind of tires on gravel was louder than the angry thoughts in my head.
Dad was home!
I dashed out the door, racing to reach him before he could even swing open the car door. As I flung my arms around him, he laughed and I forgot all about what he’d done.
Inside our home, the air buzzed as me, my brother and sister chatted excitedly at him, our words tumbling over each other in a desperate bid for his attention.
Our house was complete again. His return was a reassurance that, despite his absence and prioritising his mum over us, he was ours and we were his. It felt so good, so right, to have him back.
“Here’s something for you all,” he said, handing us a plastic bag with something light and soft inside.
“There’s no way that there’s a radio-controlled car inside there,” I thought.
I was right.
Instead of the long-awaited mechanical beast, I pulled out a tracksuit and a bum bag.
“It’s one of those new shell suits that everyone is talking about,” my dad explained, seeing my disappointment.
I didn’t reply and stomped back to my room. I threw the tracksuit and bum bag on the floor and climbed into bed. The cheery colours and shiny material seemed to mock me. I lay awake replaying the day over and over. I fell asleep exhausted from the waves of anger and joy.
The morning light seemed to soften my rage. With calmer eyes I saw past the absence of the promised radio-controlled car to the presence of my Dad’s love. Simply having him home, however fleeting, was enough.
While my father’s unfulfilled promise still stung, I loved my dad and discovered a love for the unexpected gifts he gave me. Perhaps it was the sleep that washed away the raw intensity of the disappointment. Maybe dreams I couldn’t remember had subtly adjusted my expectations.
The tracksuit became my second skin, comforting and easy to wear. I took the bum bag everywhere, filling it with small treasures: sweets, pens, pebbles, and pine cones. They became symbols of him: functional, cool, and lovingly chosen.
Looking back on this memory, I realise now how my rigid expectations trapped me, shackling my joy to one specific outcome – I was fervently fixated on getting that petrol-fuelled, radio-controlled car.
An array of my Dad’s unfulfilled promises ingrained a valuable lesson in me: the universe seldom bows to our expectations. Experience taught me that disappointment often finds root in rigid anticipation, and so I learned to loosen the ties binding my happiness to specific outcomes or promises. Instead, I discovered how to embrace uncertainty, to find joy in the unexpected twists and jolts that life so often presents, and to thrive in the unscripted moments of life.