Hair Leaves


It’s always interesting to me to read a blog, where you scan down and each entry, some weeks or months apart, begins with an apology. As if there are countless fans hanging on every word, and when you don’t drop some wit and wisdom on them, they wander aimlessly through other blogs, clicking back two or three times a day, breathless with agitation, just to see if maybe you’ve posted your take on the midterm elections or your recipe for pumpkin muffins. I suffer no such delusions, but my apology is more to my kids. Should this record survive, and I’m pretty sure it won’t, but if it does, it’s a shame to have missed so much of what happened after Marlena was born, before Barnaby turned four.

But I can’t summarize, I’m just terrible at it. So, I can’t tell you “how it’s going” or anything. Also, I know that right now, my life, everything that is said to me or that I experience, is being filtered through fog colored glasses, and any summary I could do right now would probably include things that are about 20% true, that I have blown completely out of proportion. So, no apologies to any current readers, and no summation. I’ll just tell you a story.

Uncle Ian was coming to visit and he stays up at Gramma Linda’s apartment when he comes. Gramma Linda has two settings, she’s either completely calm and reassuring, or her hair is on fire, and Ian’s visit had inspired a moment of the latter. What I understood from her monologue, about how she was much older than we knew, and that she was on the precipice of suicide, was that her apartment was uncomfortably cluttered. So Barnaby and I spent an hour or so helping her clean the place out, and I vacuumed, and suddenly she was back to telling me that everything was gonna be fine and I shouldn’t get so worried.

It’s late fall, and there are leaves everywhere, so I asked Barnaby if he wanted to go kick some leaves. He said, “Oh! Sure! That’s a good idea, and, except, FIRST! I need to play some DRUMS!” and we went in his room to his little drum kit. He’s not a prodigy or anything, I don’t believe that you can pass on musical talent to your kids any more than I believe that such a thing as “talent” even exists, but there is a way that his body behaves when he’s playing drums that is surprising.

He does subdivisions and fills with uncanny precision. He will just bang away with his foot on the bass drum while he plays eighth notes on the toms and snare and high hat. There’s a particular rhythm he likes to play – straight quarter notes on the bass and then snare on two and four, and the tom playing eighth notes starting on the upbeat of two, ending on the upbeat of four. It’s kinda hip-hop. But the really cool thing is that his wrists are loose, not locked, and he hits the drums right in the center, using the bounce back to time his next hit.

And sometimes, he plays cymbal fills for three minutes.

We got to the end of the drum session and he wanted to go kick leaves, so we made sure Marlena was okay with Gramma Linda (“Of course she is, Sean! Don’t even worry about it, go have fun!”) and we went out in the front yard. Everything here is cement, of course, but Barnaby and I started kicking all of the leaves from the sidewalk into the street. I grabbed a broom and started wooshing all the leaves out into the gutter.

Barnaby was running up and down the street, and I heard him yell out. He had jumped on the leaves on the sidewalk and slipped and skinned his knee, and he was really howling, screaming, “PICK ME UP PICK ME UP!!!” I grabbed him and we went back inside. I put a band-aid on his knee, and he started saying, “I want to stay here, I don’t want to go back outside.”

So, I said, “Sweetie, the most important thing, when you fall down or get bumped or bruised… the most important thing is that you get back up and you go back out again. If you hit a wall, just take a step back and keep going at it.” He sat for about five seconds before saying, “Okay, daddy. Let’s go back outside.”

This time we went to the park because I knew he could play in the leaves and not fall on the cement there. We’d been there about five minutes when he stepped over a hidden branch and then caught it with his back leg, which hit the branch into the back of his other knee and he went face first into the dirt. Again, sobbing. He wanted to go home and get a band-aid and watch videos, and I figured we might as well.

See, everything I read about parenting is the story up to the part where you say, “You gotta get back out there”, and then everyone writes and comments on what a great parent you are. But one skinned knee is never what happens, I’ve learned. Not just in parenting, but in life. You think you have reserves, but you have no idea, you panic and you despair when something truly dreadful happens, and then, as if God wants to teach you a lesson, a whole new series of gobsmackingly awful things happen, to make your earlier despair look like the mewlings of the pathetic coward.

He had skinned his second knee. He had TWO skinned knees. Do I stick to it? Do I tell him that you gotta get back up not when it’s hard, but also when it’s… harder? Really hard? When I’m not here, when you no longer want to, when it’s not skinned, it’s broken? When it’s broken, and the ground is frozen, when it’s broken, and the ground is frozen, and you no longer know why you’re even going, when it’s broken, the ground is frozen, you no longer know why, and there are people tormenting and mocking you for being in pain?

No. I said, “let’s go home.” I figured we could watch a video. We sat down on a bench for a second while he was crying, and I *didn’t* sit down because I was hoping he would change his mind, I sat down because he was too heavy for me to carry. It wasn’t *parenting* that led me to that bench, it was *physical weakness*.

But, I did say, “Maybe we can go to the deli and get one of those little flashlights you play with.” And he was sorta sobbing and said, “okay. We’ll go to the deli and see what they have for us…” And he sat there. And, through no miracle of my own parenting, he calmed for a minute and started just watching the wind blow the leaves around.

And we sat in silence for about five minutes. I didn’t ask him what he was thinking about, but I was grateful that we were outside, after months and months of one illness after another, of sleepless nights – not because of a newborn but because of my own inability to sleep – of Barnaby being in the hospital just after Jordana was in the hospital, just before Barnaby would be in the hospital AGAIN, I was just happy¬† to be sitting on a bench wearing a jacket, watching the leaves blow.

The sun was setting under the HellGate Bridge, and it was catching the red leaves in the trees, turning that part of the sky a thousand colors of gold and auburn and brown. I broke the silence by saying, “Do you see the trees, Barnaby? They look like your hair. Look at all the colors.” In an almost whisper, he said, “They are beautiful. Do they look like me?”

We sat silently for another five minutes. I thought, as I was sitting there, that I found myself in the middle of an unexpressable moment, for me. That I was here now, and even as I thought about what I could say about it later, I realized I had nobody to share it with. Not really. Because I wouldn’t be able to re-create it.

He had fallen once, and I was a good father, and he fell a second time, and I gave up, but somehow, I had lucked out. I was willing to coddle him and let him eat snacks and watch a video, and I was willing to buy him out, replace his pain with a toy. But, just sheer dumb fucking luck, we ended up on a bench, in a pause. We had a time-out from the nightmare. Every day is forcing a smile and getting a forced smile back, every minute is like the fourth minute on a fast treadmill that you will be on for HOURS, and every move is a neurotic second-guess about what is best for you, for others, for the kids, and what price you will have to pay when you guess wrong – and guessing wrong is the only option, ever, always.

And here we were, in the eye of a storm. An eye so large that, for a few minutes, I totally forgot there was a storm. But, of course, I immediately thought of what email list would be interested in this story (“none”, being the right answer) and how to tweet this (“can’t”) or if it could be made into a Facebook update (“sigh”) or if maybe I could share it with my closest friends and family (who have already tolerated months, years, decades of my whinging and navel-gazing and Dramatic Queenie Seanrants and who are no longer affected by it in any meaningful way) and I realized I really wouldn’t be able to share it with anyone.

But I was there. Sometimes, the mistakes aren’t my fault, they’re just mistakes. And part of being a grownup is that when shit happens on your watch, even if you didn’t mean to fuck it up, you still have to be responsible and take your licks. But part of being a grownup is that sometimes a celestial moment will flash on you and no, you don’t deserve it, but you can take whatever tiny joy is there and call it your own.

I heard a voice, which only after I heard it did I recognize it as mine, say, “Barnaby, I think I’m never gonna forget this moment.”

He said, “Why?”

I said, “Because, I’m here with you now. This is great, and I’m really happy right now.”

“Good,” he said. That was it.

We said nothing else until we got up and went to the deli. I bought him a flashlight and some colored goldfish crackers.