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. Continue reading
This summer, I looked at my daughter’s face and saw, for the first time, that she will leave us.
You know this all along in a practical, commonsense way, but you don’t really know it when your daughter is standing before a tiny Playskool Kitchen Set, making frying noises with her mouth, and then bringing you a plastic hamburger on a plastic bun. You don’t know it in your heart when you walk out to center stage with your daughter during the 2nd-grade daddy/daughter dance recital, take a bow, return to your spot in the line, and then realize that your daughter is still center stage, curtseying and waving to the crowd, listening to the applause build as she gleefully refuses to cede the spotlight to the next daddy and daughter.
You know it, but you don’t know it. And then you see it and you have to look away quickly at the sunstruck horizon, at the little single-prop planes hauling long banners across a cloudless sky. This year, Abby didn’t go in the ocean once. Swimming in the ocean, we are told, “is for babies.” She stopped playing in the sand with Owen, too. This perplexed Owen for a while and then he came to accept it. Maybe he sees it, too.
“Look at that, Owen,” I say, pointing up at one of the banners. “Free body wax. We should do that. Get a free body wax.”
Sometimes I think nothing will ever be enough.
The endless minute-by-minute supervision, the careful management of his every waking moment.
The therapists, the IEP classroom aides, the specialized summer camp, the 24-hour-a-day awarding of “points” for every quiet, decent hour; the deletion of “points” for his scarifying outbursts. The detailed accounts of meltdowns written by grammar school attendants who are clearly wearying of him.
He was conceived in the midst of an enormous storm, three days filled with bad omens.
We had a daughter by then, a beautiful, empathetic, sweet child, almost three years old, but my wife and I were already stumbling badly as 2000 turned to 2001 into 2002. In 2000, I walked away from a dead-end publishing job (Prentice Hall, it had 9 months to live) for something else that had even less of a future. I was out of work for six months, bringing in freelance money for book jackets and such, during the Christmas Where No One Spoke.
Holy Communion, May, 1970
I grew up in an apartment building in Little Ferry, New Jersey. Four rooms for the five of us in a featureless, rectangular block of a building that was, frankly, kind of a community eyesore. My father labored nights and overtime for years to get us out of it. Which he did, in 1972, when I was 10.
I can still remember the powerful smell in the halls of that building, an odor comprised of institutional floor cleaner, cooking grease, and the ineradicable olfactory wallop of coal dust from the cellar. The building had been heated by a coal furnace until at least the mid-to-late ’60s and I can remember the excitement of a coal delivery, the coal truck arriving in the rear courtyard and extending a chute into a cellar window at the side of the house, the roar of the coal as it rumbled down the chute into the dark bowels of the building. That cellar was off-limits to us kids, so of course we were obsessed with it and were forever devising new sneaky ways to gain access to it. The identical apartment building next door to ours, occupied entirely by elderly people without kids, was another frequent target of our trespassing schemes.
Owen has his own way.
If I take a Nerf football out onto the front lawn and engage him in a game of catch, he’ll take up the game with great excitement. He’s six years old now and already has a fairly strong, accurate throwing arm. His catching, it should be said, needs some work, but he’s perfectly happy to toss the ball back and forth for five or six or seven exchanges.
After that, he’ll start to tinker with the framework of what we’re doing. First, he’ll decide that we should be kicking the ball to each other. This will send me scurrying around the yard in pursuit of errant kicks, to Owen’s great amusement. Then he’ll decide that we should be standing with our backs to each other and tossing the ball backwards over our heads. Or hiking the ball between our legs to each other.