I walk into the kitchen. The 14-year-old sees me, bends forward slightly and then slams her head into my sternum.
"Don't hurt yourself," I said, pretending I'd felt no pain. I gesture to my chest. "This? Titanium. Mixed with adamantium. It's an alloy. Coated in...what's Captain America's shield made of? Vibranium? Yeah, it's coated in that. And then dusted with Kryptonite."
"My goodness!" she says, trying to look admiring. She can't quite make it, and laughs instead. The idea of a 14-year-old seriously using "my goodness!" as a mild expletive makes me laugh. Which makes her laugh, which makes me laugh. And then she laughs some more. And I laugh some more.
"Okay, pal, go get dressed!" The birthday girl hops off the couch and run down the hall.
Octonauts has just ended, so the Golden Weasel and I are going to run to the grocery store. It's a tradtion in our house that the birthday girl gets to pick her breakfast and dinner—and, oddly, make her own birthday cake, which has led to some VERY attractive cakes over the years, I can assure you—so we need to run and pick up the ingredients for this morning's feast. We also need to pick up saline so Top Management can put her contacts in, so she can go to yoga. No big deal: we've got plenty of time.
Nearly half an hour later I hear Dora and Boots singing, "We did it!" and I realize the Golden Weasel hasn't yet appeared. I find her in the bathroom, immaculately dressed in her trademark princess-meets-bag-lady style, slowly, methodically, happily brushing her hair.
I have seen the future...and I'm not sure I care for it.
The heart is a weird thing.
Top Management and I had been an item for months. I liked her a lot—in fact, I was pretty crazy about her. She was the funniest girl I'd ever known, the most insightful, erudite, patient, understanding, fun...if there was a positive superlative, she was it. She was the best actress, a lovely singer, a stunningly good writer, always laughing...and I found her freckles and almond-shaped eyes utterly irresistible.
And yet, for some reason I can't even begin to fathom, it was seeing a few shots a photographer friend of hers had taken a year or two before we met that tipped me into huh...I could maybe spend the rest of my life with this person.
Why? I don't know. They're lovely shots of a beautiful young girl, of course, and that's far from nothing.
Maybe it was the first time I'd ever seen her not smiling? (A state she couldn't keep for even three photos.)
Years have gone by when I've been unable to find these; we've moved at least six or seven times and she does most of the packing and unpacking and they've never held the same magical mystery for her they do me, so careful as she is with her Anne of Green Gables paperbacks, these priceless treasures don't warrant the same respect.
Yesterday, out of the blue, I started getting authentically panicky, realizing I hadn't seen them since we moved her to SoCal over six years ago, and wondering if that was it, they were really gone this time.
And then this afternoon, I went into a closet I've opened maybe thrice since we've been here, looking for some old comic books to send to someone, and there those photos were, right on top of the comics. Fate and the universe once making its will crystal clear.
I hear the brood come home. Because they've been gone for almost two hours, I have no choice but to go out and make sure nothing horrific has happened to them during that span—even though, yes, Top Management and I have texted several times in the interim.
We chat as I move the laundry from the washing machine to the dryer and I hear of the dire consequences the Golden Weasel suffered due to forgetting The Store Rule ("no running")—a bumped head and much embarrassment and grumpy contrition.
Top Management goes off to get lunch for the ever-starving chicklings and I go back in the office. I shut the door, sit down and actually gasp in astonishment as the present waiting for me on the keyboard, the same kind of present that would sometimes be waiting for me when I got back from class in college.
She loves me. She really loves me. And I have the proof.
(Well...I had the proof.)
It doesn't happen often, but whenever my just-turned-four-year-old does complain about naptime—which starts off, generally, with him lying on a bed, under a quilt, in a quiet room, cuddling with Top Management—I always think the exact same thing, every single time: that, right there, is proof positive that the male of the species has something very, very wrong with it.
So we've got a New Year's Eve tradition in this here household. Since we've lived in SoCal, we've not only let the girls stay up (if they can) until midnight, but the past several years we've picked a classic film to enjoy as we await the countdown. We take stories pretty serious around here; we rarely just channelsurf and let them see something great starting in the middle. So some thought goes into our New Year's Eve selections. These are, generally speaking, movies that they've just become old enough to watch—The Princess Bride was the first, I think, years ago, Raiders of the Lost Ark another, Back to the Future a third, and so on.
Although 2012 is almost certainly the best year I've ever had, the last few weeks have been difficult ones, for various and not terribly-uncommonplace if not terribly pleasant reasons. Some things fell by the wayside, one of which was the careful selection of the New Year's Eve film.
Around about noon I started doing some investigating. Our first three choices were all checked out at the library—as in, the dozen plus copies of each were all checked out from the entire system. Redbox had a few decent choices, but nothing that really felt right, and there was nothing that quite fit the bill on television. We thought about various options when my eye happened upon a boxset Top Management's father had given me a few years earlier.
"Hey..." I said. "What do you think about Monty Python and the Holy Grail?"
Top Management's eyes lit up. We had actually found ourselves watching it just a few months earlier, for the I don't even know how manyth time. Max had already seen it at least once and I think maybe parts of it twice. And yet the idea of cuddling up on the couch with our girls and watching it again was intoxicating.
"But...do you think the Bean's old enough?" she asked.
Although she'll be (kill me now) 12 in just a few weeks and, like most of Top Management's offspring, unusually bright, the Bean is, in many ways, like most of Top Management's offspring, young for her age. And yet in the past year she's been showing signs that her sense of humor is developing in unforeseen ways.
So we gave it a try. Initially intrigued but perplexed by the credits, she and the Rose were laughing by the end of them. Ten minutes in, I look over and I see all four of my oldest girls howling during the Black Knight scene. And I realized I had very rarely been so happy in my entire life, and that ain't a bad way for a year to go out.
So be it.
When our kids were younger, they—like the Dowager Countess—didn't understand the concept of weekends. Both their parents were freelance writers who stayed at home every day, so they didn't get how Saturdays were any different from Fridays. Thus began our family tradition of cartoons on Saturday mornings, along with Saturday morning cereals—the one and only time of the week they get to indulge in Calvin-like Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs and such. Now that the first few kids are older, they tend to sleep a bit (or much, much) later on Saturdays than weekdays, but they still loves them their weekly hit of Looney Tunes-accompanied Froot Loops and Lucky Charms and Crunch Berries and whatnot.
Most weeks over the past year, there comes a point where I look at the kids happily munching tooth-destroying cereal positively jam-packed with not one single naturally-occurring ingredient, staring at ebullient rainbow-colored cartoon ponies on screen, and I drift back to the bedroom. I grab my iPod and my headphones and as I slide between the sheets, the same thought always runs through my mind, unbidden: I have never been this happy before. And then I usually laugh at myself because, of course, that's what I think every week.
And pretty much every week, within ten minutes, this is what my quiet, music-laden oasis looks like.
As Lionel pondered, Why in the world would anybody put bairns on me?
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants kindergartners.
Sad but true. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness must always take a backseat to the Second Amendment. Everything must. Even keeping the skulls of 5-year-olds intact.
So the Bean and I are headed home after running errands. We're talking, as people will, and I say something and she, to my shock and horror, responds with a (genuinely funny) sarcastic remark.
"Why?" I ask. "Why would you say such a thing? Why would you hurt my feelings thusly?"
She grins. "Oh, I'm sorry; I didn't know you had feelings."
I scowl. "Please. If I didn't have feelings, I certainly wouldn't keep all you little ragamuffins around. It's not like that's the fiscally prudent decision to have made."
"Well," she says, pursing her lips in thought. "You never know. I might invent something someday that'll earn a million dollars, and then I'll share it with you."
Ignoring the fact that a half million dollars a decade hence won't come remotely close to making things all square financially, I say, "Ah, but how do I know you'd share the money? After all, you'll be under no legal obligation to do so."
She thinks for a moment, then nods. "You're right. That's really more the Rose's style."
Fleeced again. In advance, even.
Just waitin' for the money to roll right in...
So the fireplace is Base, that magical place all children (humans?) instinctively recognize as utter safety, where not even the growling bear that is your father can touch you, no matter how close he might get or how loud he might roar. The toddler has been getting ever closer to me, taunting me, before running, shrieking, back to Base, at which point he always yells, half-defiant, half-terrified, "Base!" As I'm in the process of making a cuppa tea for Top Management, who's still fighting off a nasty cold, I'm not doing much more than headfakes in his direction, or maybe the occasional move of a foot in a hasty manner, but it's enough to keep him on edge.
I finish with the tea and, having delivered it, head back towards the office. I expect him to follow, so around the hallway corner, I duck into the girls' room, the Blue Room, and wait, eyes narrowed, claws out, ready to grab; he'll learn not to mess with the bear.
Only then the bear hears something in the wall behind him. As it's the time of year—when isn't it?—that San Diego's local tree rat population looks for someplace warmer to shelter, this is not an entirely unknown sound, but it's not a terribly common one, and is an entirely unwelcome one.
I turn and see that closet is mostly but not completely closed. And I see something moving in there. Something a bit larger than a tree rat.
A butt appears, covered not in fur but in a pretty print dress with flowers on it. This is followed by a back, covered in a much beloved pink sweater. Soon the Golden Weasel's golden locks come into view, slowly. She backs out of the closet and into the room carefully, holding something a bit too large for her to carry easily. She eases it down onto the floor and I can now see it's her bin of art supplies, recently reorganized for her by her loving mother.
I wait for her to turn and see me. But she doesn't. She's too intent upon her task, digging through the supplies, looking for just the right thing.
I realize that if she turns now, I'm going to scare the living hell out of her, and not in a good way. So I take one last look, then back out of the room myself. Once out in the hall, I peek back in, and she's still kneeling over the supplies, hard at work.
There's nothing quite like observing wild creatures in their native habitat.
And when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you, with googly eyes.
Sure, there are some who will claim there were other reasons, and in a nation as large and varied as ours, that may indeed be so. But the result is the same: she's stuck with me for at least four more years. And for that, I—if not she—thanks you with my whole heart and soul.
So Top Management is having a crisis because she's a writer and that's what creative people do.
No problem. I've been a (theoretically) creative person for 20+ years and, much more important, in addition to being married to a legitimate artist, I've been an editor for much of that time and have dealt with creative people and I get it. I know how these things go. I know that it's not unusual for even the most creative of creative people to hit a wall, for whatever reason, and worry that they've lost it, that this isn't working out, that they're never going to be able to do anything worthwhile again, that that's it, it's all over. Usually, a little talk gets them off the ledge and a (generally very productive) day later, it's as though it never happened and I mean that: often I think that just a day later they literally don't recall feeling so deathly despondent no more than one day earlier.
So Top Management and I talk but it's the witching hour, as she used to call it. It's the evening, and the kitchen needs to be cleaned, the dinner dishes done, homework overseen, hair washed, laundry folded and put away, kids slammed into bed, the whole shebang. So I listen for ten minutes but then I just, I have to go, I really do, but I promise to come back in just a bit and angst with her some more.
Fifteen minutes later I walk in, things semi-taken care of, temporarily. "I'm ready to be understanding!" I announce heroically.
She slowly and silently looks up at me as though I've got three heads, one of which is speaking Mandarin, another Swahili and the third vomiting blood. "What's wrong?" I asked, actually worried for the first time.
She just keeps staring for a few more very long seconds. "I'm writing," she finally manages to mutter, after painfully switching from the right hemisphere to the left in order to be able to process and answer my question.
All righty then.
Man, I'm good.
So the other night I tell the 3-year-old to go pee, which he knows means he's about to get ready for bed, a prospect which pleases him not at all.
"Newmit," he grumbles. Then, pleased with it, he mutters it again several more times, sending his three oldest sisters and his mother into near hysterics.
"Newmit," of course, being a combination of "Newman," my most common expletive, and "dammit," the runner up.
Now it's Top Management's most favorite curse word. Newmit.
My wallet's falling apart. My wallet seems to always be falling apart, even though Top Management is wonderful about getting me a new wallet every seven or eight years, whether I need one or not. Within a few months, it seems like the new one's in only slightly better shape than the old one. I don't know why it happens, really; it's certainly not like my wallet gets used much.
Trying and failing to find my library card earlier today—although, inexplicably, I noticed I still have my Virginia library card, which expired five years ago—I stopped and looked at the only thing in my wallet I really love.
It was Easter Sunday 1997. We were in the hospital; our oldest, Max, had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia eight days earlier. We didn't know it then, but we'd be in the hospital with her for most of the next nine months.
Two of my brothers, the ones who lived within four hours of us, had left their families before dawn to come spend Easter with us—this despite the fact they'd done the same thing one week earlier...and that despite the fact that I'd initially told them not to come. Knowing me better than I knew myself, they ignored me and had left before dawn to spend as much time with us in the ICU as they could.
A week later, we were out of the pediatric intensive care and in a regular room on the pediatric oncology floor. The staff had tried hard to make Easter as enjoyable as possible for their Christian patients—a large percentage of the patients, maybe even a majority, were Jewish, Muslim or Hindu, giving the playroom an amazingly New York melting pot feel—and holding an Easter egg hunt for nauseated little bald kids hooked up to IVs with pretty limited portability is no mean feat.
My brothers arrived bearing far too many gifts and gave Max far more laughs in a few hours than she'd had in a week; Max was always an unusually serious baby, and almost the only uncontrollable bellylaughs we'd ever seen her have were courtesy her beloved uncles.
Back then Max wouldn't even try candy, but she was happy to sort Skittles by color for hours, and her parents were more than happy to be the ones eating the Reese's eggs for her.
The hospital kitchen was open, of course, and brought a tray up but there was little to nothing on it Max was interested in, and that went double for the rest of us. So we ordered in from the only restaurant open on Easter: a Chinese restaurant, of course.
It was fantastic. Max was happy, the food was tasty, and for a few minutes the terror went away, at least a little.
The nurse came in to change Max's IV. Noticing the unopened fortune cookies, she said, "Aren't you going to read your fortune?"
"Oh, no," I said seriously. "I had a fortune cookie the night before Max was diagnosed and now she has cancer. I'm not doing that again."
The nurse's eyes got very wide before Top Management hit me and explained to her that I had an odd sense of humor.
After she left, Top Management and my brothers and I had our cookies, reading our fortunes aloud. They were the usual pleasant platitudes, common sense advice.
"Aren't you going to open Max's?" my brother asked, looking at the last cookie left on the bed.
I shrugged. Max didn't eat cookies, so I didn't see the point.
"All right," he said, grabbing the cookie. "I'll do it. Here you go, buddy, this one's yours."
He broke the cookie in half and took out the slip of paper. He started to read it out loud, then stopped. He handed it to the other brother, who looked at it and said, "Oh my God."
They handed it to me.
I'm not a superstitious guy, in general. But other than taking it out today to scan it, I've had it in my wallet every second since.
It's now permanently stuck to the photo we took of Max a few weeks later, also always in my wallet. The photo was taken right before we cut off her ponytail, as her hair was falling out. Behind her you can sorta see, if you know what one looks like, the blue IV pump that she spent much of the next year hooked up to, as well as the bedrail that had to always be up, as she was considered too young to be allowed to sit on a bed without rails. On her neck is the bandage she got the first night in the hospital, when they stuck a tube in what I think was her carotid.
When we first read that fortune, we were still weeks away from learning that Max hadn't actually been handed the death sentence we'd thought, still weeks away from being told by the head of oncology that it was possible for her to be cured, and not just have her life extended by a few more years.
In an hour I'm heading to the airport to pick Max up; she spent the summer about 1200 miles away, in Austin, at an intership at a software design firm. In my pocket as I drive will, of course, be my wallet. And in my wallet will, of course, be that fortune she got so long ago, fifteen years now, back when an extra five years seemed wildly optimistic. Do I think the fortune had anything to do with it? I do not. But I am also never, ever letting it go.
The wiimote dies. The Boy requests help. Naturally, I call for one of my seven thousand daughters to do it because Allah forbid I go to the trouble of finding new batteries and taking the cover off and replacing the old ones and so on.
The Bean comes right away and cheerfully hooks her brother back up.
She picks up the book she'd been holding and I see that she was about halfway through the last chapter. "Oh, jeez, kiddo, I'm sorry," I say, and for once I mean it. Getting interrupted when you're 97% of the way done with a book isn't cool.
"No problem," she says, and as usual she sounds like she means it.
I shake my head. "Oh, Bean. You are just too impossibly wonderful. We don't deserve you."
I stop and think. "You're a con man, aren't you?" I ask, coming to the only logical conclusion. "A grifter. You're working the long con, right? You're planning on taking us for every penny we're worth? Which, obviously, isn't much, but that's your scheme, isn't it?"
"Well," she replies. "First of all, I just like to make people happy. Secondly, I don't like when people are mad at me. And third, you're my dad."
She picks up her book and heads off for her room to finish reading. I shake my head in wonder.
An hour later, I realize she never actually answered the question.
Caught in the process of artfully luring more unsuspecting marks.
It's after dinner. As usual, the kids go out in the backyard for a while—depending upon weather and moods, somewhere between forty-five minutes and two and a half hours.
After a while, the Bean and the Golden Weasel go for a walk. The Boy comes in for the night. So the Rose is in the back with the toddler all by herself.
I take pity, and once I finish the dishes, go out to keep her company. The moment she sees me, she starts looking for a tennis ball.
I come in and get the last one from the can atop the fridge. I bring it out and toss it to her.
She winds up and uncorks a wicked fastball with the velocity and accuracy of Nuke LaLoosh. The ball disappears somewhere behind the tool shed. Which is to say, the overgrown area behind the tool shed festooned with black widows and thorns, sorrow and pain.
One throw. Ball lost forever. Game over.
That, it sometimes feels to me, is parenthood in a nutshell.
A few minutes later, the Bean and the Golden Weasel return from their walk. The evening has cooled from its warm but not really hot high of the late afternoon and it's just about the perfect temperature, but they walked up the big hill nearby, so the Bean goes off to take her evening shower.
The Golden Weasel comes over to me. She's a bit sweaty and sticky from her day, and so am I from washing the dishes in hot water in the hot kitchen, but she climbs into my lap even though (I refuse to admit this) at age six and then some, she's a bit too big to really fit as comfortably as she did even just a few months ago. She wiggles the top of her blonde head into the hollow of my neck as she throws her arms around me.
"My daddy," she says sweetly and sighs, content.
That, it sometimes feels to me, is also parenthood in a nutshell.
The tub has been draining more and more slowly over the past few weeks. So with a heavy heart, I take off the drain cover. I don't even need a flashlight or a snake. I just reach in and pull out and pull out and pull out a mass of hair which finally reveals itself to be about the size of a baseball.
"What is that?" the six-year-old asks, properly horrified.
I look at all the long, long hairs making up the wretched clump and even in its state of semi-putrifaction it's clear that once upon a time the hairs had been a golden blonde.
"That," I sigh, "is love."
Why, just look at all that golden blonde love, simply biding its time.
I do something simple, like unlock the car using the keychain thingie. "How'd you do that?" the six-year-old asks, impressed.
"Magic," I reply dramatically. This gets a good response, so I repeat the word several times, trying out different voices. Deep and mysterious, high and Monty Pythonesque. The audience is properly receptive.
We're inside the car now, buckling up. As I put the car in reverse, she says very matter-of-factly, "But people can't really do magic. Nothing can."
I blink. Is it gone already? So soon, the delicious full-time oh so willing suspension of disbelief? I know it has to happen at some point—heck, at some point, it's dangerous for it to still be hanging around. But so soon? Really? I put the car in drive and pull forward sadly.
"Except for fairies," she adds in a duh tone of voice. "Obviously, they can."
"Your father threw out his back," Top Management informs the offspring, as though they hadn't noticed the heavily-medicated daze I'd been in for the previous twenty-four hours, or how I'd been hobbling around like Quasimodo. "So you girls are going to need to be his hands and legs for him."
They look at her blankly. She sighs.
"What I mean is, I need you to do whatever it is he'd normally do at this time of night to get the younger ones ready for bed." She pauses. "What's he normally do at this time of night?"
The Bean grins, a wicked gleam in her eye. She turns to the 3-year-old. "Move it, maggot!" she bellows.
So I step on something hard in the middle of the hall and emphatically do not curse (at least for the purposes of this story).
I look down and see half a crayon. I kick it out of the way and notice another half crayon near—but not in—the trash can. I walk out towards the living room, limping slightly, because crayons are far harder than you'd think and also because I crave sympathy or at least a bit of drama. I notice another half crayon near the front door, and some crayon powder nearby. I look at the 3-year-old happily sitting in the sun on the front stoop.
"Hey," I say. "Are you breaking crayons in half?"
He looks up at me. "Yes," he says softly.
This throws me. I'm not used to honesty, other than when people tell me how I look. "Well," I say, thinking quickly. "Don't do that anymore."
Having thus dispensed my daily Mike Brady-like fatherly wisdom, I look over at the 11-year-old. "Why would he do that?" I ask, shaking my head. "Why would someone break crayons in half? What was he thinking?"
"Well," the Bean replies. "It goes back to The Great Crayon-Pencil War of 1953. There was a dispute over territory and one thing led to another and when the battle lines were drawn, he felt he simply had no choice but to side with the pencils."
My mouth drops open. She smiles. "Can I have the leftover cheesecake for lunch?"
[She later reported the cheesecake was delicious.]
The toddler walks in with his new acquisition.
ME: You have a battleaxe?
He nods grimly with a small satisfied smile. His little fists loosen slightly before tightening up again on the axe handle.
I play along.
ME: Don't chop anybody's head off with it.
He looks down at it, then slowly back up at me. He tilts his head quizzically, a disappointed look on his face.
HIM (sadly): Why?
He's got it. But, I'm guessing, at least kind of wishes he didn't.
I wonder if there's anyone who can watch this without getting at least choked up.
The two middle girls return from a long walk. “There’s someone outside who wants to speak with you,” the older one says.
I go out and see a woman standing there. “Hi,” she says. “Your girls were standing at the intersection over there, and they threw something at my car. It hit my window. There’s no damage but I thought you should know.”
I thank her and ask her to wait a moment. I pop back into the house. The girls are standing side by side, perfectly still, on the other side of the room. “Is this true?” I ask.
“Yes,” they both say.
I point towards the door. “Let’s go.”
Without waiting for further instructions, they go outside and apologize quite nicely, the 13-year-old stoic, the 11-year-old’s voice shaking. The woman accepts their apology and tells them they shouldn’t do things like that. I apologize to her again and thank her for being understanding.
I go inside and even though it’s the middle of the afternoon, I send both girls to bed, and tell them they’re not allowed to read or talk, that they just have to lay there. Without a word, they hang up their jackets and go.
I wait nearly an hour before I go in. “I am so sorry, Daddy,” the younger one says, trying and failing not to sob. The older one sits up straight, as though at her arraignment, and says, “It was my idea and I take complete and total responsibility.”
I hold up my hand. “What did you throw?” I ask.
“These little berries that were on the ground.”
I nod grimly, although inside I’m very relieved. That’s it? Just berries?
“Was that the first car you’d thrown them at?”
“No. Just the first one we hit.”
Inside I resolve to step up the number of catches we have in the backyard.
“Why did you do it? What were you thinking?”
The younger one opens her mouth to try to explain but no words will come. She just shakes her head.
The teenager also shakes her head as she says, “It just…it just seemed like a good idea at the time.”
I nod as I stand up. “I’ll be back.”
I wait another hour before returning. The 11-year-old is clearly tormented by her actions and would do just about anything to go back in time and change the past.
I sit down and say, “When your oldest and best uncle was about, I dunno, 12? He and a bunch of the neighborhood kids were playing at someone’s house on the next block. Like a lot of the houses in the New England area we grew up in, it had a gravel driveway. For some reason your uncle and some of the other boys grabbed a handful of rocks and threw them at a passing car. The car screeched to a halt. All the other kids instantly ran away, but not your uncle. He just stood there and waited for the driver. The driver made him give his name and address and then he came and talked to Grandma and Granddad. Your uncle apologized and, as I recall, was given a pretty hefty punishment. But the driver, despite being unhappy about having pebbles thrown at his car, was impressed that your uncle had stood his ground and admitted culpability, and he told your grandparents that. Grandma and Granddad, although probably not admitting it at the time, were impressed too.”
I look at them, and motion for the younger to come sit on my lap. “You guys made a mistake, a big one. But you admitted it and you apologized even without being told to. And I’m guessing you’ve learned from this and won’t be doing it again?”
The older nods seriously while the younger buries her face in my chest as she tries to stop crying.
I tell them they can have dinner in a little while, but that’s it. The rest of the evening and night they’re just going to stay in their beds without talking. And in the morning everything’ll reset.
And I leave and I stop in the hall and I look at what they’d been wearing, the hoodies they’d been wearing, now hung up neatly in the closet.
I think about what might have happened if things had just been a little, and not really all that much different. If they’d been boys instead of girls. If they’d been just a few years older, each. If the hoodies had been grey and black instead of pink and cream. If we’d lived in Florida instead of California. Most of all, of course, I think about what might have happened if they’d had dark skin and hair rather than pale skin and blonde hair. I think about how this is what kids do, they do stupid things—and this dumb little thing they did, throwing something at a passing car, is literally one of the dumbest things they’ve ever done in their entire lives and it wouldn’t have even made the Top 20 dumb things I’d done by their age, not even close.
And if those series of facts, virtually none of which they had anything to do with but which were just the luck of the draw, were each just a tiny bit different, they could very well be lying in the morgue right now and their killer free forever—because, after all, throwing something at a car is without question far more threatening an act than walking down the street with a bag of Skittles. And I think about how insanely lucky I am and how it’s just not fair.
So I’m working in the boys’ room, which doubles as my office. Someone knocks on the door. I can hear little voices peeping, so as I unlock and open the door I'm already looking down.
The Golden Weasel, a bizarrely confident and assured 5-year-old, walks past me without saying anything, her arms full of matchbox cars. The 3-year-old, sometimes called Ham both for his thespian qualities as well as his body shape, trots in behind.
She dumps the cars on the bed as Ham begins trying to climb over the still raised bedrail.
I say, "Are you...coming in to play?"
The Golden Weasel smiles at me beatifically. "Yes."
I laugh. "I'm so sorry, buttercup, but...no. Not right now."
She looks at me, shocked. Without a word, she grabs the cars and leaves. Ham follows her faithfully.
I sit down to type this when there's a knock at the door, a single rap, low down.
I get back up and unlock the door. Ham comes in past me, goes right to a bookshelf and grabs 2 of the 4 cars off it and walks out.
Wondering if I'm going to have to get up yet again to unlock the door, I say to him, "Are you going to need the other cars?"
He turns and looks at me, confused. "No."
Because why on earth would he?
Not the actual event but merely a remarkable recreation.
It’s about 9 o’clock. Top Management’s still working. The two boys are taken care of, one asleep, the other in his sleeper watching Thomas the Tank Engine. I go in to read to the three youngest girls. The Bean, lying on her bed, sees me and takes off her headphones. As I pick up Return of the King and start flipping through to find where we left off last night, during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, I say, “so what were you listening to?”
She says, “Brian Eno. The Plateaux of Mirror.”
Even if we hadn’t had her DNA tested, I do believe I’d be pretty confident she’s mine.
So I stopped Top Management dead in her tracks today. Literally. Well, literally stopped her in her tracks—not so much, fortunately, the dead part.
We were out on our morning walk, pretty much the most sheerly pleasant part of our day. We have about a dozen different routes we cycle through, and this was one of the less strenuous and just plain prettiest. We say hello to distant neighbors walking dogs or watering their flower gardens or hustling their late children off to school. We hold hands until my palm gets too sweaty and Top Management subtly removes her hand and dries it off on her jeans. I retaliate by waiting until we're passing someone—preferably a male—and then casually resting my hand on her ass.
Anyhoo. We're on our walk and somehow talk turns to the recent illegal but amazing adaptation of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" someone did, turning it into a children's board book. It was gorgeous and oh so spot on. "Except for getting the end wrong," I said. "Obviously."
Top Management looks puzzled. She'd only looked at the first few pages as, like me, only even more so, perhaps, she likes to have "her" version of stories and songs, without having someone else's images implanted in her bizarrely retentive memory. Since she had even gotten to the halfway point, she didn't realize that the illustrator had erroneously interpreted the song's ending. In his version, there's a mechanical failure, and Major Tom is stuck up in space, forever.
"Well...yeah," she said. "That is what happens. His ship malfunctions and he's stranded in space. Ground Control to Major Tom, your circuit's dead, there's something wrong."
"No," I said. "No. Though I'm past one hundred thousand miles, I'm feeling very still, and I think my spaceship knows which way to go. The circuit's dead because he turned it off. He looked down at earth from up above there and he decided to stay. And he's okay with that. He feels like he's finally home."
That's when she stopped, right in the middle of the street we were crossing.
"You used to listen to that song every day."
"Every single day."
"As you were getting ready for school."
"Sophomore and junior year of high school, yeah. Ruined the tape, I listened to it so many times."
Her mouth dropped open. "And you listened to that song...and you thought he willingly decided to leave his wife down below on earth so he could die alone in space."
"Uh..." I said, suddenly realizing I was on thin ice. "Well...yeah. I mean, he still loves her and everything..."
She started to laugh as we began walking again. "You listened to that song hundreds, maybe thousands of times. And that's what you got out it. That was the interpretation that resonated with you." She shook her head. "If you had told me that part of the story when we first started dating..."
She shrugged. "Probably nothing." Improbably, unexpectedly, undeservedly, she stands on tiptoe and gives me a kiss. "I like a challenge."
I mean, come on! Listen to that! Clearly he decided to stay up there! ...right? How beautiful is that?
"I'm DOOOOO-ooooone!" the five-year-old calls from the bathroom.
I go in and she's cheerily singing a song Nick Jr's Moose sings between shows. I cannot help but clinically observe that she has taken a dump the size of Rhode Island. That kids as a matter of course pop out stool samples which would seem to have come from a professional linebacker never ceases to amaze.
"Oh, wait," she says, smiling up at me beatifically. "Was this the potty you said not to use because it was clogged?"
“Man, there are a lot of little people in this room,” I say, cuddling with the five-year-old on the bed, watching as the two boys, currently ages 2 and 7, bash trucks into each other on the floor.
Top Management walks out shortly thereafter and, without a word, the boys abandon the violence to shadow her like ducklings.
Now it’s just me and the Golden Weasel.
She rolls overs and looks up at me. She smiles.
“Who’s the best little person?” she whispers.
“What do doin’s means?”
I look up from my email. The five-year-old, the preternaturally confident Golden Weasel, as I have taken to calling her, takes another bite of mini-wheats as she waits for my reply.
“What do doin’s means?” she asks again.
I don’t know how to answer this. I suspect a trap.
“What what, sweetie?”
“What do doin’s means?”
“I…I’m sorry, buddy, can you ask me that again?”
“What do doin’s means?”
“No. What do doin’s means?”
“No. What do doin’s means?”
“What do doin’s means.”
“No. What do doin’s means?”
“What do doin’s means?”
“No. What do doin’s means?”
I am at a loss. I haven’t been this unable to understand her in years. Fortunately, just then Top Management walks in.
“Oh, good. Can you ask that again, please?”
“Sure. What do doin’s means?”
I watch Top Management’s face as she tries to process this. It’s delightful.
“No. What do doin’s means?”
“What do doin’s mean?”
“No. What do doin’s means?”
“No. What do doin’s means?”
Through all of this, the Golden Weasel is remarkably calm and unflustered by her parents’ stupiditity, not even the least bit frustrated by their inability to understand basic English.
By now, several sisters have gathered around to try to help decipher.
“What do doin’s means?”
“No. What do doin’s means?”
“Okay, wait. Where did you get this question? Is it something I just said?”
“Is it…” Top Management looks at the computer, which is running through the morning’s playlist. “Oh! Is it something you heard in the music? Do-do-do?”
We look at each and shake our heads. We’ve been doing the parenting thing a long time, but this one’s new and neither of us can figure out where to go from here.
“What does doin’s mean?” Top Management tries yet again, hoping to somehow force the question into some sort of syntax.
“No. What do doin’s means?”
I start laughing and Top Management just shakes her head helplessly.
Finally, the Golden Weasel realizes she’s dealing with very unbright people and is going to simply have to take matters into her own hands.
“What…do…you…do…in…meetings?” she says slowly, eliminating all contractions from the original sentence. I have the sense she’s wondering if we’re really fit to be in charge of young children.
“Oh!” we all say. “What do doin’s means?”
“That’s what I said.”
I nod. What can I say? When she’s right, she’s right.
“What do you do in meetings? Uh…pretty much just waste time. And money.”
She looks skeptical. "Then why do you go?"
“Well,” I explain. “Back when people first started having meetings, there was no email or phone. So if people wanted to get together to talk about the problem of the new sabre-tooth tigers in the neighborhood, they had to have a meeting. But now that there is email and phones, there’s really not much point in most meetings. But by now it’s just a custom. So.”
“Oh,” she says. She nods, but the look in her eye makes it clear that she’s now wondering if any adults are really fit to be in charge of young children, if they all seem to hold with such foolishness.
“Also,” I add, realizing the best part of meetings. “Sometimes there’s food.”
“Oh!” she says, her eyebrows raising. Then she narrows her eyes as she regards me, clearly wondering why I left the pertinent information for last. I suspect she's thinking about retaining a lawyer in a bid for emancipation, and wondering how much an attorney costs. And if there'll be cookies at each and every meeting.
The five-year-old comes out in just her Little Mermaid panties as I'm finishing up the dishes. "Can't find any pajamas?" I guess.
Any hope I have of her being impressed with my divine divination skills are shattered. "Well, Daddy," she says, and sighs slightly. "I can't find any pajama pants. Or pajama shorts. Either."
I can do nothing but shake my head. "Well, Daddy," she says. As if to say, "you see, it's like this."
When do they suddenly veer from being able to more or less deliver the information they want/express their needs and desires to this sophisticated, I'll-be-here-all-week style of conversation? Why, why, why do they keep growing up? Why do they keep getting older? It's so uncool.
Or would be if it weren't for the fact that, heartbreaking as each and every change is, signifying as it does the leaving behind of something wonderful, each new stage is pretty damn awesome too.
"Well, Daddy," she says, and I can hear the unspoken conclusion: "Enjoy me while you can. Because I'm leaving soon. Oh, it might not be for a dozen years, or maybe even, if you’re very very lucky, twenty. But to you? It'll be the blink of an eye. So don't blink, or I'll be gone."
So we hop in the car and I'm driving the two middle girls to piano and they haven't stopped chattering once since well before we'd left the house. I've just pulled out of the driveway and as I flip on the radio "Sweet Child o' Mine" is starting up—it's the build-up as the drums kick in, right before Axl starts singing.
The moment the song comes on, all talk stops instantly. After the first verse and one chorus, the Bean finally speaks. "Dad? What is this? I mean, what's the name of the song and who's singing?"
I look back as I start to answer and I see the 12-year-old is gently headbanging, an intense look in her eyes.
Should I be worried?