Becoming a Grander Father
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because staying up in the cycle of life is not as easy as it sounds.
By Eugene S. Robinson
My life is a matrix of measured time. My kids peg me on the spectrum, but routines are what have made it possible for me to do anything of worth in my life, and so it is that, in general, I’m a prime candidate for assassination since my schedule varies very rarely. My paranoia prevents me from keeping any kind of calendar that anyone else could get a gander at, but doing the same things at the same time is both predictable and pleasant.
So as a divorced, though remarried, father of three, the evenings I have dinner with whatever quorum of kids can be rousted up is a welcome routine to me. Especially given that two of them are off at college — one in a school close by, another farther away and one still in high school. All with their own lives, interests and activities. I realize dinners together are rarities so they’re treasured, even if only one kid shows up.
Pulling into the kitchen I drop my bag on the floor against a long dinner-table leg, chatting with my youngest, who is now 15. Fifteen with a wicked sense of humor that’s as sharp as it is quick. We’re talking about the day’s events, the jokes and conversation flowing easily as we put the plates, glasses, flatware and condiments on the table. It’s the house special: pasta, olives, tuna, capers.
Plates of food moved to the table I take my seat and start to move some of the kid clutter off the table. Old school assignments, mail and, for the first time I notice, some paper from the medical center emblazoned with the word “maternity” on it.
In the kitchen with her back to me, she asks, “What?”
“This.” I hold it up and wave it. “It says something about ‘maternity.’ Whose is this?”
There I am. In the middle of a Madonna song. A Madonna video. “Papa Don’t Preach.”
I’ve been told they belong to my oldest daughter. A 21-year-old at a prestigious public university.
“Yeah, yeah, but what’s this maternity thing about?”
“I don’t know.”
So I start texting. First the oldest daughter. Then her mother. Then I call. First her mother. Then her. Finally getting ahold of her.
“Where are you?”
“Heading back to school.”
“What’s this maternity thing?”
“Those are my papers. What are you doing going through my papers?”
“Hahaha … papers that you left exactly where I sit and have sat for as long as we’ve had this house. Freud would say they were there because you wanted them there specifically so I could see them. So, what’s the story?”
“Well, I’m pregnant. And it’s well past the time I could get an abortion, so …”
“Are you out of your fucking mind?” It was a well-placed question, asked at probably the exact right time. “Are you even listening to yourself?”
And there you are. There I am. In the middle of a Madonna song. A Madonna video. “Papa Don’t Preach.” But, yeah, yeah, she’s keeping the baby. I actually think about Madonna and the responsibility she shares for this. But even more than Madonna, all of a sudden the very real politics of the abortion debate are thrust into the spotlight where I can see the pro-life movement’s most significant “success”: the conflation of abortion with murder.
But while this explains some of the reluctance to “take care of this,” it doesn’t explain it all. I say something dark and resigned, as is my habit in moments of extreme emotion: “Oh, well.” And we ring off. Turning back to the meal it looks like sawdust and my youngest is nowhere to be seen. She comes back, and we have a discussion that she describes later as one of the most depressing ones she’s ever had. But having had to shoulder the emotionalism of adults when I was younger, I had promised myself to never make my kids have to do this. So I cut the caustic short, stab my way through a listless meal and go off to my house a few minutes away, where the real rant begins.
“You know … I would rather she have MURDERED someone,” I say to my wife. “At least with that she gets OUT of jail instead of being stuck in one forever.”
“Are you out of your fucking mind?” It was a well-placed question, asked at probably the exact right time. “Are you even listening to yourself?” I guess I hadn’t been. A point hammered home in a phone call with my mother.
“Look. You just can’t go throwing people away because they do stuff you don’t like,” she said in response to my categorical resignation in the face of unchanging facts.
“Really? Why not?” I wasn’t asking because that’s what I had planned. I was asking because it seemed like that was the best time to throw people away.
“Not people you love. And for one simple reason: You don’t want to end up like your FATHER!”
Check and mate.
My tortured relationship with my father had been a constant warning, always, to take the other direction. So at the end of Week One, this is where I was. Then this: a friend of mine who was a combat medic with nearly a decade deep in the blood and offal of Afghanistan asking me why I seemed out of sorts. In the face of my explanation, he sets me straight with a quickness. “This is to be celebrated. This the cycle of life, and you’re a part of it. A great part of it. To not enjoy it would be a big mistake.”
So I asked to meet with her. Apparently, I’d been the last to know, there being a general reluctance to tell me for reasons that are largely occult to me but explained to me by one of my other daughters: “You’re scary, Dad!” Like I should know. But maybe that’s a father’s job. Superego style.
We met in the parking lot of OZY and sat in the car and talked. I was reasonable, sane even. Or at least sane enough to explain, from my side, that I wanted her life to be easier than it would be now. And she, from her side, assuring me that having chosen a major and laid out a plan, she was more together and focused than ever.
An hour passed and we took our leave. “Get out of the car, kid.”
She got out, trembling. “What the hell are you trembling for?”
She laughed, nervously. “I don’t know, I …”
“Look. I’m your father. I love you totally and unreservedly. So give me a hug.” She did, and as she got back in her car, this: “And don’t expect me to be changing any diapers.” We both laughed.
And beyond the laughter, six weeks on? Me geeking out over baby clothes, meeting the father’s parents and exulting in the macro of our family expanding and the micro of knowing my grandson was hearing my voice at dinner in utero.
A few weeks later, she would have a son, the first born into our family since me, and I would have my first grandson. And yes, life is grand.
Note: Kai Jones Peek was born March 4 and his grandfather is insane with joy and loves him beyond all measure.