I stand at the corner of Grand Street and Queens Boulevard, waiting for a bus to take me home. It is 5:30 in the morning. It has taken me a small eternity to get here on the subway from the Upper East Side. The sun is just starting to peek out from behind an abandoned furniture warehouse on the other side of the Boulevard. The weather is surprisingly mild for this time in November, brisk but not freezing. I am hoping to get a few hours sleep before I return to the hospital and visit you. You are two hours old. I am profoundly exhausted. I have been for a while, I’m sure, but I am only now reaching the point where my adrenaline is fading.
Standing here in the early morning sun, shivering more from fatigue than cold, I am gripped by a sudden, profound sense of This is real, isn’t it? I’ve already held you in my arms, heard you mew (you didn’t quite cry when you were just born; you let out a plaintive, almost cat-like sound), seen a small cut on your eyelid from the trauma of being born and felt a pain I’d never known before.
But it’s not until this very moment that the enormity of it all crashes down on me. You were anxious get here, almost six weeks premature. At this very moment, I don’t feel ready for this. I don’t understand that no one, in the history of time, ever has been.
Looking back, I feel this is my last singular moment, my last time feeling something selfish like What does all this mean for me? I go home and sleep a few deep hours, wake up, and go back to the hospital, feeling nervous the entire time, like this is when things will get real. But I arrive and see your mother and hold you in my arms again, and I have no anxious, crushing feeling of me. There is only we.
We’ve dressed you in pink and brown. It is our vain attempt to combat the tyranny of All Pink when it comes to girls’ clothes, trying to avoid the pervasive Princess Thing that bothers us for a multitude of reasons. We don’t yet know that the world intrudes, and things have a way of sneaking into your universe whether we like it or not. And also that, while the Princess Thing isn’t entirely harmless, it’s easy enough to counteract.
Your cake is pink and brown, too. Chocolate cake, strawberry frosting. Everyone is prepared for your first adorably messy encounter with birthday cake, cameras cocked and loaded and aimed at you. I fear you’re going to cry. When I was growing up, it seemed every little kid in my family wailed once the lights when down and the candles were lit, overwhelmed by the attention. You manage to keep it together, but our hopes for cute, disastrous pictures of destroyed cake are foiled when you take a few stabs and give up. You have no sweet tooth yet. You don’t have many of any kind of tooth, really, or much mobility either, for that matter. You only recently started crawling. I find this small triumph astounding enough, to see you pad across our kitchen floor as I desperately try to remove pitfalls from your path.
By Christmas, you’ll be full-on running and chomping down on every snack left at eye level. You will take a set of toy keys and try to use them to “unlock” every doorknob in the house. I can’t say it happens overnight. It seems much quicker than that. I turn my back one day and suddenly, you are everywhere, doing everything.
My grandmother just died a week ago. I took pictures of you at the funeral home, watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” with your little cousins on a TV the funeral director set up in a waiting room to keep the little ones quiet and out of mourners’ hair. You sat on the floor in a beautiful dark blue dress, legs crossed, watching silently, no doubt thinking this was why you were there, to watch cartoons.
It still seems too soon to celebrate anything, even your birthday. Nonetheless, we have presents for you, and I buy you an ice cream cake from Carvel on my way home from work. You still don’t quite understand the concept of blowing out candles, or of ripping open presents. I have to start many of them, tear a bit of the wrapping paper before you get the idea that ripping things is okay, at least at this time and place.
Your name is a tribute to two people. My grandmother was one of them. By the time you were born, she was already ravaged by Alzheimer’s. She knew most everyone in her family and could recall the occasional detail from The Old Neighborhood, but was otherwise sadly, infuriatingly not the person I grew up with. She would occasionally ask about my grandfather, who had been gone for years. At first, we’d remind her of this fact, but then we realized by telling her this she’d feel the pain of losing him all over again. So for the most part, we took to skirting the issue as much possible.
I remember taking you to Thanksgiving when you were less than a week old and showing you to my grandmother for the first time. I told her we named you after her. “Really?” she said, and for a moment the terrible disease loosened its grip, and she looked like a kid who just got exactly what she wanted for Christmas.
The other person we named you for, my aunt, is gone now too. My grandmother’s death seemed a relief. My aunt’s was anything but. She was a beautiful person gone too soon, so full of kindness and stories and laughter and life that her loss seems a denial of life itself.
You like to tell me stories I’ve told you about my own childhood, as if you’ve discovered them and need to inform me. “Your aunt used to call you ‘Pumpkin’,” you tell me, “because you had red hair!” You think this is the funniest thing you’ve ever heard. You can’t imagine me ever being called ‘Pumpkin’ or having hair of any color.
I see you at your birthday party, dancing like crazy, trying a pair of DJ Lance glasses, retelling jokes you’ve heard from me to the best of your ability. (“My dog has no nose…”) You are the life of the party, and not just because you’re a little kid celebrating your birthday. I think of all the mornings I took you to day care, trying to teach you the colors by pointing to cars parked along the street, teach you numbers by counting the steps up to the front door as I juggled you, your stroller, and your lunch. It wasn’t long before you were telling me the colors and the numbers, asking me what different words mean, wanting to know what a sign says. You want to know so much, and you want to share it all.
I know that I gave you the right name.
You have your first “kid party.” It’s not much, just a few tables set aside at a local pizza place, pitchers of soda, cupcakes from home, a few friends from the neighborhood. Part of me knows you will think this is enough. Another part regrets not being able to do more. I saw the prices of what “party” places charge and blanched. I was laid off earlier this year, and though I found a new job, money is still s bit tight. It seems like it always will be.
In the last year, I’ve exposed you to a plethora of my own obsessions. You now love Pee-Wee Herman and The Adventures of Pete & Pete. You have watched Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Three Amigos with me. You have done the Herky-Jerky dance from Mr. Show with me, imitated the Silly Walk sketch from Monty Python. I always told myself I wouldn’t carve you in my own graven image, yet that’s clearly what I’m doing. I worry that I’m going to make you weird ahead of your time. You’ve already told me “Dad, kids at day care don’t know Pee Wee!” and said it with this exasperated sigh, not realizing that you’re the exception, not the rule.
But I see you command your friends’ attention, tell stories and jokes, reprove what you consider improper pizza eating technique. You are already confident and proactive in a way that I can barely fathom. I have to remind myself to stop referring to you as The Baby, because you’re a little girl now. I have a feeling that, for all my nerdening efforts, there is no awkwardness in you.
You’ve started kindergarten, and you love it. You’re learning new things at a dizzying pace. Your drawings become more and more sophisticated each day. You’ve left stick figures behind. Your first report card is filled with praise and it makes me beam with pride. You have no problem making new friends.
And then, on our walk to school one morning, as I try to dodge my way through clusters of loud, obnoxious junior high school kids, you say this, apropos of nothing: “Dad, some kids go into school by themselves.” You are trying to tell me that you want to walk into the school by yourself, the way some of your classmates do.
I am crushed. I think of all the things I used to do to entertain you that you now consider played out, like zipping past the bathroom door in my socks as you take a bath, or getting our destinations mixed up when we leave the house in the morning. (“Okay, you’re going to work and I’m going to school.”) I feel like I’ve outlived my novelty to you. I project into the future. How long before she wants to make the whole walk to school by herself, door to door? How long before she’ll be rolling her eyes at everything I say, mortified by my very existence?
My wife talks me off the fence. “She’s going to be more confident and successful than either of us,” she says. I agree. This is just the first tiny step towards that goal. Even the way you “asked” me to go into school by herself was brilliant. You didn’t whine or cry about it. You brought up the subject obliquely, forced me to ask you if that’s what you wanted. You were, I think, trying to spare my feelings.
That morning five years ago, I realized there was no me anymore. But realizing something and living it are two very different things. It took me a long time to truly sublimate my ego, and to realize there is still a you. My job isn’t to be constantly at your side, laying down jackets over puddles, sanding down all the sharp corners in your path, being your court jester. My job is, ultimately, to make you not need me. And if you’re ready ahead of schedule, I’ve done a good job, and I should be proud, and I am.
I kiss you on the cheek and admonish you to be good today, though I have no fears you won’t be. You try to get into the school by yourself, but the front door is a little too heavy, the handle a little too high. So I open it for you. As soon as I do, you spot a friend inside and go running off without saying “thank you” or “goodbye.” But you do think enough to turn and wave at me before the door closes behind you. It’s enough.