“Happy Thirteenth, Lauren!”
Week of June 3, 2002—
I’m in Billings, MT with a small group of HR professionals. They know your birth is imminent (I told them as much when I agreed to the gig), subsequently promising to accommodate my schedule as aggressively as possible, up to and including flying me home at a moment’s notice should your mother go into labor. Near the end of the week, she’s experiencing such discomfort that I prepare to return home early. I remember it vividly because as I say my goodbyes, the client hands me a thoughtful gift for you: a large doll in a crib. After thanking him, I begin to ponder where I’ll put the thing. It won’t fit in my backpack, and if I cram it in my otherwise small suitcase, it might get crushed (to say nothing of the fact that the bag will become so large I’ll need to check it, delaying me a good half hour at baggage claim). In the end, I board the plane with my suitcase, backpack and this unwieldy doll in a crib under my arm. It is a sign of things to come; so long, Coolsville, welcome to fatherhood!
June 8-9, 2002—
Your mother’s discomfort amounts to a false alarm, but a few days later we do find ourselves at the hospital again and rarin’ to go. On the 8th, it’s just us and some frazzled nurse with syringes and too much authority. The ward is so quiet you can hear keystrokes at the nurses’ station down the hall. It’s eerie, “The Shining” eerie, and I think to myself, “Is there a doctor in the house?” For something so big, so important, so seemingly overdue I expect a red carpet, a parade, streamers and air horns and pop guns and confetti but, instead, it’s more like I have to rap on the glass door with my car keys and awake Barney Fife to let us in while, somewhere across the 'burbs in a tony, leafy enclave, doctors sleep on 1,200 thread-count sheets and dream of sugar plumbs and timeshares.
Many fruitless hours later, your mother and this nurse (now nearing the end of her shift and the sun’s arrival) mutually decide it’s time to escalate the delivery and get the gosh darned doctor down here, stat. Upon conferring with the powers that be on the other end of the phone, the decision is made to perform a C-section and so, nearly a day after we arrived, your hornet of a mother is wheeled into the big show, a million dollar operating room with stage lights and enough machinery to silence Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor.
And then literally, within seconds, the doctor stands there, I am told to stand here, on this side of a vertical sheet and, blammo, your slippery body is placed in my arms. I am completely aghast…awed by the procedure’s precision, the speed with which such a circuitous and arduous ordeal has reached its conclusion, and confused by the fact that this bowling ball has been handed to me so abruptly without requiring any training, testing or certification on my part. “Here she is,” the doctor pronounces, and the hands that dropped many a high school football are holding this squiggly and squirmy and stretching life form. Just like that, the old trope, “Yeah, my parents dropped me on my head when I was a kid” could have become your Chapter One.
Beyond your weight, I make two additional observations: your density is so high you must be made of lead! And your toes; you have your mother’s toes! Eventually, your mother and I make it to a holding cell, you are zipped through the baby wash, and we are united for one sleepless day before I tape you in bubble wrap, insert you into a sheepskin-belted car seat with clicky buckle (NASCAR!), slip sunglasses and a tiny bonnet of your head (both of which might have come with a recently received doll), and drive you home in the right lane at 5 mph.
You are our constant companion. Constant. I learn to wash dishes and sterilize pumps with my eyes closed in the dark. You cry, we rock. Sleeping aids are purchased. A rotating nightlight that casts stars on the wall and plays “Twinkle Twinkle” becomes a prized possession. Pacifiers are to you as Precious is to Gollum. I learn what love smells like: Johnson & Johnson baby lotion. Your foot-in pajamas are the cutest things ever, especially as you begin to outgrow them in every direction, testing the tensile strength of seams at your belly, shoulders and toes like a ripe caterpillar. What amounts to expensive and organic gruel and, a couple years later, messy spaghetti dinners followed by bath time are blasts. Round, chubby silverware and rubber-bottomed bowls, banged on a plastic tray by the short prisoner from atop her high chair is adorable. Your johnny jump-up, from which you dangle and prance and preen and spring upward into the air like a grinning madwoman in Cirque de Soleil brings tears of laughter to our eyes. Your crib, bassinette and our bed become, one after another and in rotation, fair game on any given night. We spy on you with a wavy first-generation B&W camera and static-y eavesdropping monitor that looks like a walkie-talkie I had when I was nine and played “Starsky & Hutch.” At ages four and five, we awake to find you swaying in your white nightgown while standing silently beside our bed; you are sleepwalking, we deduce, and it is freaky to the fourth power. Though you never do, I joke that one night you will surely bring us a steak knife, your shuffly walk accompanied by choppy violined horror music. Fortunately, you outgrow this nocturnal phase (sorta), become a world-class cuddler (entirely) and, several weeks after beginning kindergarten, have your first existential crisis. Having tucked you into bed and said our prayers together, I turn to leave the room and you ask, “Is this all there is to life?” I am momentarily dumbfounded…stunned…processing…and inquire what you mean. “You know,” you say, casual as khakis, “getting up, brushing my teeth, sitting in plastic chairs all day long while a teacher talks at me?”
From that moment ‘til this, whether watching you at ballet, soccer, piano or beyond, I note the duality we all possess. Sometimes, it would seem that you are an adult, jaded and cool. Other times, you are huggy and warm and I am reminded that your life has just begun and a girl needs her dad.
You are a great listener, a sweet friend, and the most loyal movie-watching buddy. Your humor and comebacks rip your mother and me to shreds and your knowledge is profound and eclectic. You frequently correct me and question. We watch lots of the same shows, including “ABC News,” “Charlie Rose,” and “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives” featuring the perfectly charismatic Guy Fieri. You are witty, a strong speaker, and both figuratively and literally a tireless cheerleader. You are abundantly creative and if you set your mind to something, it’s a done deal. Above all traits, however, you have the most innate moral compass I have ever witnessed, a conscientiousness that points so robustly and rudderfully and magnetically and incorruptibly northward that it is equally awe-inspiring and humbling. Like some zealous, inexplicably reincarnated puritanical Amish elder first born in 1850, you will be the equivalent of a seeing-eye-dog for one whose compass might be erratic or point too inward or south. Rather than hearing you say, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have,” I usually find myself saying, “Live a little, Lauren!”
You have the next decade of your life in mind, but I encourage you to savor your youth, to relish it. Do not worry about tomorrow. Remember what they say: worry doesn’t take away today’s troubles, it takes away today’s peace. Nearly everything of significance begins with the decisions and choices one makes, whether proactive and volitional or reactive and in response to the curve balls life throws your way.
When you were seven or eight, I watched you tell your mother about a girl whom you didn’t want to invite to your birthday party because every time she came to our house she stole more and more Polly Pockets. Dawn paused, knelt down very deliberately on her knees, stared purposefully into your big blue eyes and said, “Choices have consequences,” as if you had the vocabulary, wisdom and understanding of someone who would know what the heck that meant.
If I were wiped from the face of this earth like a bug off a windshield, I would have lived long enough to see that you, indeed, know exactly what that means. Just the other day I was brusque with someone and, in the moment, you were gracious and kind. Moments later you said to me, sure as a sensei, “You hurt his feelings, Dad. You should say you’re sorry.” And so I did, and so shall you be fine. Better than fine, in fact, for you are becoming a fisher of men.