My poor father has always been surrounded by women. Even the family dog and pet rats we had growing up were female. Since my older sister was busy modeling in ads for the Bon Marché when we were young, it was up to me to be the son my father never had.
Admittedly, I was never an athlete he could cheer on, and I didn’t even really want to join him in rooting for the Pittsburgh Steelers when he watched them on ESPN, but he and I would shoot hoops, mess around on the skateboard we got for five bucks at a garage sale, and play Top Gear and NBA Jam on my Super Nintendo. Needless to say, my dad’s always been pretty cool.
In my favorite picture of him, he’s in his 20s, wearing a Travolta-like expression of utter slickness — aviator sunglasses, a sweet mullet and a wide-open shirt. Today, at 52, he looks almost exactly the same. Though the thick black curls are gone — replaced by silver hair that’s more salt than pepper — he’s still got that hip, but endearingly dorky, vibe. (I give him extra badass points for his diamond stud and the tattoo of a sun that my sister and I funded when he turned 50.)
Now that you have a clear image of Tom Mathewson, you’ll understand why I thought he would love the surprise gift I got him for his birthday this year. When he came down to Los Angeles from Washington for a visit with his littlest princess, I dropped the news over beers and tacos: “We’re going bungee jumping tomorrow! Happy birthday!”
Don’t worry … I knew I wouldn’t give the man a heart attack. He had already been skydiving, so I figured he’d be totally calm about jumping off a bridge with me, right? Even though he did seem excited, I could sense his nervousness and hesitation. I told him I felt the same way, to which he replied, “Don’t tell me that! You’re supposed to be the brave one!”
What a funny thought. Yes, I had terrified my parents by jumping out of planes, balancing on ledges far too high for them to stomach, traveling around Europe and owning a motorcycle in L.A., but to a little girl, her father is supposed to be the brave one. Her knight in shining armor. Her unwavering rock.
And though my dad has always been those things for me, I’ve also seen him get very emotional. I’ve seen him pace around the house at night from irrational worries and deep-seated fears — a habit that I’ve come to learn is a product of having two daughters. Yet as tough as I like to think I am, I know that I inherited my sensitivity from my dad. I figured that jumping off a 120-foot-high bridge despite our fears would be a good experience for us: the father and daughter who usually tried to hide their nerves under bravado.
And it was. The 10-mile hike was full of the best kind of conversation — the kind of intimacy you can only have when you manage to get some one-on-one time in a loud and lively family like ours. We talked about the trials that had strained our family over the last year.
“I guess in comparison to the shit we’ve been through," he said, in between heavy breaths as we ascended the mountain trail, "jumping off a bridge doesn’t seem so hard.”
When we finally reached the bridge, my dad and I were first to jump. He was shocked that I wanted to leap before I looked and I was equally surprised when he harnessed up after me, stood on the ledge and, without hesitation, plunged towards the river. I could hear his screaming reverberate off the mountain range all the way down. They were sounds of pure joy and exhilaration.
The fear was gone. And when the instructor hoisted him up and greeted him with a bucket of water in honor of his birthday, he smiled widely and said, “That was freakin’ AWESOME.”
My mom and sister, adventurous as they are, would never do a jump like that. And even though my dad won’t experience a father-son relationship in this lifetime, I take great pride in knowing that those special moments, like chasing the next big adrenaline rush, or even something as simple as racing Lamborghinis in a highly pixelated Nintendo game, are reserved for me, his littlest princess.