13 September 2010

Big Tough Guy

I wrote this following a July 2006 "incident" with my niece. I'm posting it now because my Hobbit started Pre-K today.

I’m speeding down the Palisades Parkway with a baby screaming her lungs out on the seat right behind me. They’re the kind of screams that only a baby can make; the kind that slice right through the skull to run down the spine; the kind that put any pathetic slasher-film fake scream to shame. And she’s been screaming like this, nearly non-stop, for two hours. The worst part is, we – we being my mother, father and I – can’t figure out why. Her parents brought her to our house to stay for a few days, so they can get a few full nights of sleep, and so Noni and Pop-Pop can spoil their first, and only, granddaughter. Now, mere hours later – sans spoiling – we’ve packed the baby and all her clothing, toys, food, and various other supplies into a minivan – a suddenly very small minivan – for the 45-minute trip back to her parents house.

When she started crying we checked “the usual suspects.” Food in her belly? Check. Clean, dry diaper? Check. An uncle to comfort her? Check. Noni and Pop-Pop to make faces, and talk to her in baby talk? Check. Anbesol? Baby Tylenol? Gas drops? Check, check, and check! Amongst us, we have more than half a century of child care experience, the vast majority of which belongs to my mother. She has raised three boys of her own, and helped raise a menagerie of other children for days, weeks, even months at a time. But, we’re all stumped on this one. The only thing that is certain – my niece, Becky, is in pain.

So, I drive as fast as I can, and I pray silently. Praying is not something I do very often. In fact, it is a rarity. I’m sure, if there really is a God, that he did a double–take when he saw my button light up on the old prayer switchboard. Usually, when I invoke God’s name, it is only to take it in vain. On those rare occasions when I do pray, I never request things for myself – my hypocrisy does have a limit. I prayed for my father before his cancer surgery, and before his hip replacement, and before his shoulder surgery. I prayed for my brother before his gastric bypass surgery, and I prayed for a friend’s mother before her hip replacement surgery. But tonight? Tonight I’m asking God to take Becky’s pain and give it to me. I tell God that I’ll happily bear whatever she’s suffering in order to give her peace. To me, compared to what I live with every day, more pain is nothing. To her, however, three days short of five months old, the pain is consuming her world.

And it is consuming mine, because I’m failing my mission; to help protect and raise this little girl. I’m 6’3” and built like something akin to a tank, and I’ve been trained by the Army to destroy people and things. If a dozen wild Gypsies, or any of the deranged killers from the aforementioned slasher-flicks, kicked in the front door and tried to kidnap Becky, I could easily defend her and then stack their limbless torsos like cordwood in the backyard. Right now, though, I feel a fear that I haven’t felt since my days traipsing around the jungles of Panama, because none of my supposed destructive capability can stop the cold sweat from running down my face, or the hairs on the back of my neck from standing up with each scream Becky lets out. I can’t protect her from the pain coming from inside her, and the helpless feeling is eating me up.

I call her “Hobbit,” and I watch over her with a Gollum-like obsession. I’ve told my mother that, once she starts walking, I’ll wrap the baby in bubble-wrap to keep her from getting hurt when she falls down, and Mom just laughs. She tells me that I can’t protect the baby from everything. It’s a long time until Becky turns 18, and there will be some pain and crying along the way. That’s just life.

When Becky was born, I joked with my family that I’d never change her diapers, only because I wished to respect the child’s privacy. Now I change them every day…several times a day. It seems that this child is full of poop. Of course, as anyone who knows my family will tell you, my whole family is full of poop. It’s not that I enjoy changing diapers, but it’s really not that bad. It’s part of life, and poop wipes off with enough Baby-Wipes. Another, more distressing, challenge we’ve encountered is that Becky is happiest when she’s naked on the changing table, or when getting a bath. If this trend of joyful nudity continues, it will become a real concern for her father, and her Uncle Boo, in the coming years.

My friend Ian thinks I’m crazy for volunteering to take care of the baby. He worries about my intellectual stimulation. He thinks I should be back in college, working toward my next degree, instead of slinging Similac; or managing a college newspaper, instead of making the lion on Becky’s activity mat sing and dance like the lemurs in the movie Madagascar. He thinks that changing poopy diapers, something he and his partner Dave have sworn never to do – EVER – is not stimulating, and he’s right. But, just like in his job as a college professor, there are good points and bad points – good students and bad students. And, just as the few students who actually get Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener can make teaching worthwhile, there are things that make being a “Manny” worthwhile.

Thankfully, by the time we get on the Garden State Parkway, Becky is asleep. My prayers have been answered, or perhaps it’s just the rocking effect of the car that put her to sleep. Whether through Divine intervention, or the bumpety-bump of the highway, she’s finally getting some rest. I can relax my grip on the steering wheel, and let my foot off the gas pedal…a little bit. The quiet allows my mind to wander. I worry about what’s wrong with her. I think about what my mother said, “That’s just life.” And, I worry about a future over which I have no control.

Two minutes after we arrive at her parent’s house, Becky is awake. She’s not screaming now though. She’s smiling and laughing at us all. Her mother takes Becky to the bedroom to feed her, and her father makes his third call of the night to her doctor’s phone service. When the doctor finally returns the calls, he advises, “If she’s not crying at the moment, just wait and see.” Brilliant! This is what he went to school for 63 years to tell us? My brother decides, with some gentle persuasion from Mom and I, to wait until the next day to see the doctor in his office. Still, I can’t help but feel like Chicken Little. At our house, the sky was falling...I swear it was. But now, here at Becky’s house, the sky is blue, well (since it’s nearly midnight), black, cloudless, and right where it should be.

The next day we discover that Becky was slightly dehydrated, a diagnosis my mother beat the doctor to by several hours. So, the sky was falling, at least a little bit, and we, for all our experience, learned that we can always learn more, there are things we can do better, and things we can do differently.

I realize that Becky is going to be hurt during her life. People, events, and the world in general, are going to take their toll on her. Ernest Hemingway writes in A Farewell to Arms, “The world breaks every one.” Eventually, Becky will be broken too, no matter what I, or her parents, or her grandparents, do to protect her. Hemingway continues that sentence though…, “Afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Maybe that’s what my job – our job – is; to teach Becky, to love her, to make her strong at the broken places.

Since her birth, I’ve received a handful of new jobs: Uncle, Godfather, Lord Protector of Her Majesty’s northern possessions, etc. But what I consider my most important job is that of teacher, a job I’ve told countless people I’d never have the patience to do. During the days that I sit with Becky, in addition to Sesame Street, we watch CNN, and the History Channel, and The Discovery Channel, and I tutor Becky about what we’re watching. I don’t get much back from her in the form of discussion, but she does watch the TV screen, and I know that the human mind works in strange ways, so I’m hoping that somehow, in some subconscious way, a little of the knowledge is sticking in her brain.

She already has her own library. I’ve bought her a dozen books, starting with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I read to her every day. She’s fascinated by the story about a mouse and a cookie. And she can already reach out to turn the thick pages of a book narrated by a frog, and another about a cat and his long tail. When we watch the country music channel on TV, I sing and dance with Becky. I whisper to her that she’s going to be President of the United States someday. I try to impart some of my hard-earned wisdom to her. I try to download to her the things I’ve seen and learned, so that she can avoid my mistakes…or at least be strong at those broken places. And, most importantly, I give her all my unconditional love in hopes that, as a couple of pretty smart guys once wrote, “All you need is love.”

Despite the poopy diapers, and the crying, and her pouting, and the Similac burps, and the too-short naps, the fact that I have no time to write my own “stuff” while I’m watching her, and even the occasional scares she gives me when I can’t figure out what’s wrong, I get the better end of the deal. When she smiles and sticks her tongue out at her Uncle Boo, I get paid in a way that money, or writing a research paper on “The Legal and Social Standing of Bastards in Elizabethan and Jacobean Societies, and a Comparison of the Same in Several of the Works of William Shakespeare,” could never compensate or stimulate me. When she grabs onto the crinkly wing of her stuffed butterfly, and her bright blue eyes go wide at the discovery, it’s like watching an entire universe open up. And what could be better than that?