Last spring, I was painting my daughter Abigail’s room a couple of shades of green. It was part of a general sprucing up of her room that would also include some moving around of furniture, a new TV and, eventually, a new desk.
I’ve painted a lot of rooms in this house since we moved in fifteen years ago. Every room and hallway at least once, and this room three times. Sand beige with blue trim in 1999. A kind of shocking pink with white trim when Abby moved into it in 2007 or so, and now green. It occurred to me that this could very well be the last time I’ll paint this room. Abby goes off to high school in September of this year.
I can remember painting her baby room in 2000, the room across the hallway we now use as a guest room. When I was painting her room, I didn’t know that her name was Abby, and I didn’t know that she was a girl. Our obstetrician knew she was a girl, but we had asked her not to tell us. I was painting the room yellow, a neutral color, with blue trim.
The baby was due in a few weeks, so we already had a lot of baby toys and a crib (yet to be assembled) and furniture and clothes. We had things that I didn’t even know what they were yet, like a Diaper Genie and a BabyBjorn. We had a musical mobile for the crib and a music maker that hung on a doorknob.
I wasn’t terrified, but I wasn’t calm either. We were having a child, and I kept telling myself, This is happening, you’re moving on, this is a thing people do, and it’s going to be okay. Though really, who knew? Maybe everything wouldn’t turn out okay and this was but a quiet prelude to unimaginable horror. My experience with children — anybody’s children — was very limited. Until then (and I was thirty-seven years old) I had never really even held any babies, due to a superstitious fear that the child might choose that one specific moment to break down or malfunction somehow and I would be guilty of the mishap by association.
The music maker was a little brown plush bear with a plastic hook at its head, so you could hang it from a doorknob, and another plastic hook at its bottom, which, if you pulled it down, would cause a wind-up musicbox inside to play the simple lullaby, “Rock A Bye Baby.”
I was painting the room, squaring off new sections of yellow with my paint roller, but also, every thirty minutes or so, going over to the door and grasping the little plastic ring beneath the bear and pulling it, starting the tune again, “Rock A Bye Baby.”
* * *
A lot of the things we would do with Abby, our first child, were things we wouldn’t bother with when Owen arrived three years later. We were putting latches on toilet lids and plastic hooks on drawers and and shields on outlets. We had a theory (imparted to us by our pediatrician) that natural healing and medicines were best. We would enroll Abby in a Baby Gym Class at eight months so she could lie on her back in tiny tunnels and try to sit up amidst big foam cubes and circles.
But you realize pretty quickly that your baby is never unsupervised, so they never stick their fingers in sockets or drown in a toilet. And the colloidal silver just turns your baby blue and the Baby Gym Class is no more or no less stimulating than sitting on a blanket in the back yard.
Most of the things you plan for never happen and most of the things that do happen catch you completely unprepared. You have a baby and you go around thinking This is the rest of our lives here! This is forever! Heads up, people! We have to do everything perfectly right from here on out!
But it isn’t forever; it goes by in the blink of an eye. The mobile comes down and the crib goes in the attic at Grandpa’s and the door that had always stayed open at night because the dark is scary, is one day closed, then it’s closed all the time. Posters for things you never heard of go up on the walls and the landline phone rings, but it’s for your daughter and then the phone rings all the time, but it’s your daughter’s iPhone. Your kid has a whole interior life you’ll never know anything about, and then a social life you won’t know much about either. There are a million lost opportunities, and if you can get four or five important things right, you’re doing pretty good. You get your chance to childproof the light fixtures, and then it’s gone.
* * *
I looked for that musical bear recently, but I couldn’t find it. It’s in the attic, packed somewhere, but crawling around in the attic on my hands and knees is surprisingly painful anymore. The rough planks, the low ceiling, the inevitable stray screws and wood chips and insulation fibers lacerating my flesh. So I let it go. It’s the memory of the bear that’s important anyway, its little hopeful tune playing over and over while I was turning the walls sunshine yellow and the future was an unfathomable gulf.
This year, Abby goes to high school. She applied for admittance to an exclusive vocational communications high school in our county, a school that specializes in preparation for careers in media and the arts. Each year, five or six hundred of the best of the best, A+ kids from honors programs across the county, apply. The school accepts one applicant from each middle school in the county (30 in all), and then fifty more based on a combination of grades and test performance.
Abby is a reader and writer and artist, so all the verbal stuff was a breeze for her. But the math had to be A+ too, and she had to ace the math portions of the admissions test. She worked so hard. She stayed after school for extra math tutoring and took a kind of “math gym class” on weekends. She applied and took the admissions test and then we waited. We tried, my wife and I, to temper Abby’s expectations. One kid from the whole school. Eighty out of 600 super-qualified kids.
And she got in. Abby was accepted. Her acceptance letter arrived in the mail and I read it out loud, and my wife cried, because of course she did. Abby goes to this communications vocational school in the fall. Every day, the bus will pick her up at our house and drive her a half hour away to a school full of kids she hasn’t met yet, and terrific opportunities she can’t yet imagine.
Her real life, her adult life of college and career and being her own self apart from us is beginning.
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