My world hasn’t been the same since the girl in this picture entered into it, sixteen years ago this week. She makes me smile, makes me laugh, sometimes make me shake with anger, but at the bottom of it all I’d do anything to keep her happy and safe. Being a parent is like that. Happy birthday to the best thing that ever happened to me.
I have to admit that, many years after they were fashionable (if they ever really were in the first place), I wear Crocs. They were big among children, but somehow adults wore them, too. Crocs now has lots of shoes that don’t even resemble the ugly Crocs of yore. But mine are those ugly Crocs.
I picked mine up at a rummage sale for cheap–very cheap–and mostly slip them on when I take the dog for a walk. But I also took them along on a weekend trip, because I don’t own any sandals and I refuse to wear flip flops. So an old pair of Crocs was what I had with me recently, as my ten-year old wanted to go shell collecting in a Wisconsin river.
The shells that were available, at the sandy bottom of a cold and shallow stream, were little spirals that resemble colorful points. They were gray and brown and white, and completely lacked any sort of vibrancy. But they were shells, and my daughter wanted to look for them at the bottom of the river. I’m grateful that she’s still in such a place in her life, because she won’t be for very long.
She couldn’t just go down to the river on her own. There’s no real risk of a current or being swept away or anything like that, but the days of a kid just wandering off from an adult’s view are long past. I agreed to go with her, and as she scoured the water, collecting her precious finds, it occurred to me that childhood is really a great time in a person’s life.
Children don’t really know how good they have it. They want to be like the older kids and, eventually, like the adults, and they’re like a loaf of bread that wants to hurry its own baking process along. But once they reach the state of being baked, there’s nothing more to do but sit around getting stale, or eventually get either consumed or thrown away. If you’re a loaf of bread, there is no happy ending for you.
But to the baker, who assembled the bread dough and then put it into the oven to bake, it’s another story. The bread smells good when it’s baking, and there’s a sense of satisfaction that you did what you needed to do in order to make that happen. So sitting on a little metallic dock, and watching my daughter’s hunt for little shells, felt a bit like waiting for bread to bake. And I would like to think that I’ll remember it always.
But back to the Crocs for a moment. The haul of shells–the plunder taken from the river–reached forty, thanks to my daughter’s dedication to the task. She gave them to me for safekeeping, but they were more than even my hands could hold. It was made very clear to me that the shells were not to be lost, however. These were the results of her labors, and she wanted to take them home with her. I promised her they’d be safe, and I instinctively removed one of my Crocs to put the shells inside.
When it came time to leave, I walked along with one hand holding hers, and the other carrying the treasured cargo. I smiled at the thought of turning an unusual shoe into a storage container, and decided that wherever she goes, and whatever she does, I’ll be there, ready to do what I can to help her along. That’s what being a parent is, after all.
I remember this picture well. It was taken in late December of 1999, as we had traveled to Sanibel Island, Florida, to celebrate the coming of the new millenium. Fears of Y2K were in the air. Remember that? It seems silly now, all these years later, but the idea that computers would get all wiggy when the year switched to 00 had great currency, at least in some quarters.
But I had other concerns at that point in my life. My first daughter was born in April, which would have made her almost nine months old when this picture was taken. We hadn’t yet gone over to digital photography–that was still a few years away–and so this picture had to be taken in to be developed. There are now boxes and boxes of these prints, gathering dust in the basement of the house, bearing silent witness to one of the many changes that have come about during her lifetime.
She looks so happy in this picture. Sitting up was probably a new thing at this point, and I think it was the first time she had ever experienced sand, too. But the little grin on her face tells me a lot. She was having fun, and as a parent that’s the best you can ever hope to see.
The little girl playing in the sand starts high school tomorrow, and the relentless march of time will only get quicker over these next four years. She’s brought me more joy than I ever would have imagined, and I hope that it’s been as much fun for her as it has been for me.
The separation process that inevitably happens between a parent and a child will become more pronounced, now that she’s around older kids and finds it harder and harder to live under her parents’ roof. I know that feeling because I remember it myself.
For now, I’ll smile and hope that she gets off to a good start in her new school. I hope she gravitates toward those who will build her up and make her better, rather than those who will tear her down. There are both kinds of people in the world, and learning to tell the difference between them is never an easy thing. But I’ll hope for the best, and be there to help her out in any way that I can. That’s in a parent’s job description, isn’t it?
Come to think of it, that’s the entire job description.
This picture was taken in about 2001. The girl on my back is now a teenager, and I’ve had the pleasure of being her dad for many, many years. I’ve learned a lot about her, and about myself, and about the world that appears in such vibrant color behind us.
The exhilarating part of being a parent is showing a child new things. My little one in this picture is probably a bit freaked out about being so high off the ground. But she had nothing to fear, as I wouldn’t let anything happen to her. The smile on my face speaks volumes as to how good that moment felt. And it hasn’t changed since then, either.
Today started off with some of the best things I know: A hot cup of coffee, an old classic on the radio (Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” if it matters), and a brilliant sunrise that defies an easy description. I thought of it as Daybreak over Chicago, and it was beyond beautiful.
My little one was on the ice at her skating rink, and I was making a water run for her when I saw the sun rising. I went inside the rink, gave her the water, and told her all about the sunrise. She wanted to go and see it, but there wasn’t enough time to get her skates off before the moment passed. These things don’t last for very long.
My daughter then wanted to do a handshake with me, which is actually a semi-elaborate series of jumps, shakes, and an ending where we do a hip bump and call out “Booyah” It’s something that’s only ours, and a combination of a secret ritual and an inside joke. It makes all of the tribulations of being a parent worthwhile.
At the end of our handshake, and after a shared laugh and a smile, my daughter told me it was going to be a Booyah day. I thought about the sunrise, and the coffee, and the music, and the city, and the love inside my heart, and told her she was absolutely correct.
Sometimes parenting takes patience, or creativity, or understanding. Sometimes it requires a combination of all these things, and sometimes it requires something else altogether. It’s an ever-changing puzzle, trying to get a handle on what a child needs. And once in a while, it makes for a good story. Such was the case with my eight-year old this morning.
She and her cousins and a friend were playing outside, in a wooded area on Cape Cod. They were putting out food that fairies would want to eat. Somehow, the rule was that things people would eat wouldn’t be appealing to the fairies. My daughter was getting frustrated that she didn’t have anything to offer the fairies, and I knew that she needed a little help.
I was in the process of making french toast for the fairy food providers, and I had a full array of foods at my disposal. The problem was that if we could eat it, it was off limits to the fairies. But, uncertain of how it would all play out, I called my daughter into the house.
“What’s the matter, Sweetheart?” I asked, having some idea of the issue, but still curious to hear what she would say.
“I don’t have anything that the fairies want to eat,” she said, on the verge of tears.
“Well, let’s see what we have in the kitchen.”
I knew that I was on the clock. I scanned the food cupboard and focused, like a laser, on some beef bouillon cubes inside a glass jar. I decided that was going to have to do.
“Oh, look at this, all wrapped up in pretty red foil,” I offered, confidently. “The fairies will love this.”
“What is that?”
“It’s bouillon, sweetie.” I left out the beef part, because humans eat beef, and we couldn’t have that.
“Can you eat it?” she asked, clearly unaware of what the cubes were for, but willing to consider what I was going to say.
“I wouldn’t eat that if you gave me all the money in the world.”
The tears had stopped falling, and her mood brightened considerably.
After breaking through the inner seal and extracting a red cube of fairy food, I placed it in her hand and she was on her way back outside. The crisis was over, and in a few minutes’ time everyone assembled on the patio for a breakfast of french toast and lemonade. And there was no need to worry about the fairies wanting any of that.
The kids moved on to something else after breakfast. For all I know, the fairies may never be spoken of again. But if they should happen to come back again, I’ll know just what food to offer them.
It’s a typical Saturday morning, and around my house that means ice skating. My older daughter had a lesson with a coach at one local skating rink, and my younger daughter had another lesson at another rink. It’s a good thing that we have two cars and two drivers to acommodate them.
After I drove my little one to her practice, paid her coach, tied up her skates, and made sure she got onto the ice OK, I stood and watched her for a few minutes. I was bursting inside with my feelings of pride and love for her. Earlier in my life, before I had kids of my own, I would have considered such thoughts sappy and suspect in some way. But now, having crossed over to the other side, I completely understand them. That’s just how it works.
After leaving the ice rink area, I came upon a news story about Sandra Fluke, Rush Limbaugh, and President Obama. As I watched the story, the afterglow of my thoughts about my young daughter brought the story home to me in a way that I otherwise would not have considered. And of course the first thing I wanted to do was capture those thoughts in this space, before everyday life comes in and strips the story of any meaning.
I love my daughters so much that I would kill for them, if it ever came to some outlandish situation where that would be necessary. I don’t want to do that, and I’m not a killer on any other level, but I would do it without any hesitation or regret. And, on the other end of that spectrum, I would lay down my life for them, if another situation were to arise where it would be needed. I love my life, but I love them more. And I would hope that every parent feels this way.
When filtered through this lens, the difference between Rush Limbaugh and Barack Obama became crystal clear to me. Obama is a parent; Limbaugh is not. That’s why Obama called Sandra Fluke, and mentioned her parents in the phone call. It wasn’t meant to score political points for him, although surely that’s what’s happening. The reason for the phone call is that Obama has that kill for/die for thing about his own children, and he acted on that in order to reach out to a young woman who is in a difficult place right now.
And who put her into this difficult place? A man who has no children himself, and almost certainly lacks the kill for/die for thing that Obama has, and that I have, and that perhaps you have. Limbaugh could apologize, as some people seem to want, but he won’t mean it. It would be a grudging, carefully-worded sentence if it ever comes at all, and it will be done for the sole purpose of saving millions of dollars in ad sales for his radio show. I doubt that it will come, and if it does, it won’t change the fact that he lacks–and always will lack–the kill for/die for thing within himself.
Am I judging him? Not really. He is what he is, and I’m too charitable and too rushed for time (no pun intended) to try to spell that out here. And I’m not saying parents are any better than non-parents. This is not meant to put me or anyone else on a pedestal. But it is meant to suggest that Limbaugh did what he did for a reason, and Obama did what he did for an entirely different reason. And I’m glad that the one I identify with is the one who’s running the country.
UPDATE: Limbaugh did issue an apology on his website on Saturday. It was far more direct than anything I had expected to see from him. But he has lost many advertisers over this, and he deserves every bit of the losses he incurs.
I remember when the state quarters began coming out back in 1999. Before then, quarters always had an eagle on their backside, with the exception of the bicentennial quarters that were minted in 1976. When I first saw the Delaware quarter, with the picture of a man riding on a horse, I became intrigued and wanted to learn more.
My wife was pregnant with our first child at the time, and I thought the coincidence between her birth and the start of a ten-year project that was different from anything I had seen with coins before was interesting. So I acquired a map of all 50 states, and spaces for each of the states’ quarters, and some facts about them all on the back. Ten years seemed like a long way away.
As the years went by, I found it was best to keep my eyes peeled for the next quarter coming out, and pay close attention, for a change–couldn’t help myself on that one–to the coins I got back from transactions in a grocery store, or wherever else monetary transactions took place.
By the end of this process, when the Hawaii quarter had been pushed into place in late 2008, my daughter had taken an active part in locating the new quarters. It was something that we shared together, but it had to come to an end sometime. We stayed with it, and in the end we saw it through to a successful completion.
I have no illusions that this thing will be a family heirloom or anything like that. It does have some sentimental value, yes, but it’s also money, and there may come a time when my daughter raids it to go to the mall with her friends. They’re her quarters, and she can do what she wants with them. But if she wants to leave them in place, that’s great, too.
My point here is that milestones in her life–the first day of kindergarten, the first bike ride without training wheels, the first time they go to a school football game, and anything else that marks a new phase in life–have inevitably come and gone. Other milestones are off in the future, but they will inevitably arise, too. And each one is another reminder, in case I ever needed one, that she won’t be a kid forever.
Like the state quarters in the map, what my once-baby daughter will eventually do with her life is up to her. For the time being, at least, I still get to provide an example and pay the bills as needed, both of which I’m happy to do. But some day even that won’t be needed (or wanted) anymore, and I’ll have to be ready for that, too.
Unlike the quarters map, which had a target completion date of 2008, the process of being a parent does not have a defined finish line. As long as my kids and I are on this earth, there isn’t a point where I can say “That’s it. I’m finished.” This is an open-ended, ongoing, indefinite process, that the end is not now, and never will be, in sight. And, if you want to know the truth, I kind of like that. I’ll just have to always do the best that I can, and hope for the best results. And what more is there than that?