A few nights ago we had some friends over for a barbecue. We were chatting after eating when it was suddenly all too clear that it was time for my little girl to make her way up those well-worn stairs. She busted out into one of those epically embarrassing tantrums that only a human that isn’t quite three-years-old can muster. Total physical collapse, steady gaze, and an ear splitting scream. It doesn’t happen often but when it does it’s enough to jar even the calmest of folks. However, like a Stockholm automaton, I turned the jarable part of my being off and passively gathered my recklessly emotive spawn. I didn’t speak. I glided up the stairs with speed and uncharacteristic grace. I undressed, sponge bathed, tooth brushed, and pajamaed her all while she went through the varied and diverse stages of tantruming. As adeptly as I had turned this robot father on I switched him off. I looked at my daughter in her wet tear stained eyes and said firmly and directly “that’s enough”. And it was. She turned the routine off as well. We sat in silence for a moment before I grabbed “Green Eggs and Ham” (her current favorite) and made my way through it (tonight I opted for the food hater to sound like Gregory Peck and Sam to sound like Ronald Colman). When I finished she suddenly grabbed my face and said…
“Daddy you’re very good at scaring off monsters”
“Thanks honey. I’m always here to do that”
“I’m good at scaring them too”
“Of course you are”
“We both scare monsters off for our friends”
She then proceeded to roar at various invisible monsters and grabbed my hand to join her. We bellowed and yawped. We sat there in her white corduroy rocking chair that has been hers since she came home from the hospital and hollered at the wall. The same chair I fed her in and rocked her to sleep in and sang Monty Python songs to her in and read from Maurice Sendak to her in. It was one of those crystalizing events…at least for me. She’s already braver than I am. It’s in every fiber of her being. I looked at her and saw countless challenges unfolding over the years and for good or for ill she’ll always have the strength to look her problems in the eye and take them on. I hope that our culture or my own fumbling as her dad doesn’t rob her of this most useful of tools.
My mother is the first to admit that she wasn’t always calm when I was growing up. When I was no older than my son is now she had taken me to a local park to play. As she tells it she was sitting under a tree reading a book and letting me have at the 1980’s rusted metal playhouse that sat at the far end of Arbuckle Acres Park in Brownsburg Indiana. I was the only one playing when a pickup truck rumbled around the corner and parked by the swing set. My mother said a large man exited the cab and began walking towards me. She immediately stood up and ran towards my location. The guy saw her and got back in his truck and drove off. Now her memory of these events could be hazy and the guy might have just been looking for a place to sit and enjoy a sandwich when he was scared off by my mother but regardless of his intentions it marked a change in how my mom approached my freedom. She became much more guarded towards me and the taking of risks. She checked in much more often than she had with my older sisters and could be very nervous around strangers and new places I found myself in. Now by today’s standards my mother (even with her change) would be seen as downright passive. I was still allowed to ride my bike all over the place, go over to friends’ houses, and have a mostly normal 1980’s childhood (see “Stranger Things” for reference…minus the supernatural aspects) but her tolerance for my taking risks was markedly lessened. This difference at such a young age crystallized a lot of things for me. I don’t blame my mother for being more cautious (and as a result making me more cautious) she was a good parent and doing (as all of us parents do) the best she knew how. But. But now I’m faced with the realization that I can continue the spirit of aggressive caution with my brave daughter or I can develop my parenting vocabulary to encourage bravery. It’s, by the very definition of it all, daunting. I can’t look at this young human trumpeting at the unknown with both strength and tenacity and then rob her of that. The boundaries and rules my wife and I continue to set up will have to be enough. My fears can’t be hers. There are so many ways to screw a person up but projecting fear can’t ever be one of them. Although she did say I was good at scarring monsters. My nearly three-year-old daughter might see something in myself that I’ve had a hard time seeing for decades. I can be brave. At least I can be brave for her bravery.
Any parent will tell you that the first few years of raising children are heavy on biology. Here in no particular order are my top five potty stories. If you’re the type to be grossed out by bathroom humor you might want to skip this one. Here there be dragons.
Diaper Cheerio (March 20th 2012)
It was early to be late and late to be early when I sat in a darkened kitchen eating a bowl of off brand oat cereal. Reaching an almost meditative state by counting each and every small hoop in my spoon while watching them spin lazy circles in the slowly warming milk I was able to allow my sleepiness to wash over me. I felt only gently reminded of the blanket lined tomb I had moments before been pulled from by the sound of my waking child. My almost one-year-old son now fiddled with a miniature version of my own culinary distraction by dropping a few cereal pieces here and eating a couple there. Our ancient dachshund lapped up the fallen flotsam and jetsam that made an almost perfect sphere at the base of the highchair. Slowly at first and then rapidly picking up an aggressive bent a strong odor wafted over the silent proceedings. It was abundantly clear that this newly minted package was to be urgently removed lest its status graduate to “on the loose/armed and dangerous”. I took my boy to the changing area. The diaper station was fully outfitted and well equipped in the way that any seasoned parent would be able to tell that this was a first child. The action of changing had been repeated over the last year so many times that it became much like a maneuver one only sees in a National Geographic special. I was the village weaver or potter. My steady hands knew what to do so well my conscious self might as well have been watching attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. Then I did it. I ate a cereal loop. It was only after I chewed and swallowed that I realized what I had done. Jack had stuffed a number of the cereal pieces in his pants while in his chair. The loops now found respite in his soft infant leavings. I had eaten a poop cheerio. I stood there too shocked to even be disgusted by my absent minded action. I finished changing the boy with alacrity and then sat on the floor with him. We both played with some blocks. I suddenly remembered the taste in my mouth. So tired. So gross. Best to put it out of my mind. Move on. Rebuild.
Prune Juice (July 26th 2015)
She hadn’t pooped for two days. We had spoken to our doctor and received advice. Our first steps were to “hydrate” and to “loosen”. It was decided that prune juice, that old chestnut of constipation remedies, would be administered. My daughter never had much juice before so when she suddenly tasted the exotic Klingon approved beverage she immediately demanded more. Excited to see that this potential cure for her unfortunate situation was being consumed with relish I cheerfuly poured her another. Then like a novice bartender I poured another. Her mother walked in on our out of control juice party and swiftly put an end to it.
(After seeing the level on the juice bottle fairly low) “Honey, that’s enough!”
“We’re fine. It’s gonna loosen all that stuff up!”
“She’s tight as a drum. That’s enough”
She left the room and Irene and I played the play one might expect after having nearly 120 grams of sugar in less than five minutes. She slowed down after twenty minutes and began her nap.
I hung out with my son and putzed around the house. All was quiet (writing this only reminds me how much I miss her afternoon naps). After an hour or so I heard some strained coughing on the baby monitor and decided it was best check on her. A phantasmagorical nightmare waited for me like a thousand rabid pumas perched on the head of a rusted nail. She was standing in her crib. She had thrown up. The prune juice that hadn’t been eructated from her stomach had done it’s work in her bowels as well. The diaper must have reached a stage not unlike the Titanic’s water tight chambers did before it sunk. Her legs were so covered in nap soil that it almost looked like she was wearing pants made of brown paint. Each and every region around the immediate area of her crib was filled with some new visage of horror. I almost dry heaved if not for the sad and desperate look on her face. This was much much worse for her. I scooped her up with no concern for the meadow muffin residue that attached itself to my clothing and power walked to the bath. I cleaned her up and she was happy. So happy that I almost forgot about the work that lay before me. Then it hit me. Jackhammers must be rented, a pyre for the rug must be stoked, a thousand angels must be invoked to remove the thousand malodorous demons that now lurked behind every hidden corner. Perhaps in twenty years when I reemerged from her room she might remember me as the nice man who cleaned off the refuse of prune juice hubris. Perhaps we’d get coffee and I could apologize for not being there for her all those years.
Toilet replacement (July 25th 2016)
As a recent home owner I’ve been dipping my foot more and more into the twisted world of repair work. My father while lovably gruff and sharply intelligent wasn’t what you would call handy. He always “knew a guy” at the bar who could do a much better job with major repairs while the minor ones could be held together with his weapon of choice…duct tape. All this is to say that I learned many things from my dad but repair wasn’t one of them. This is a man who would paint over wall trim because anyone who took the time to use tape was a “chump or a bum”. So I’ve been determined to do some catch up work. Recently the surprisingly easy task of replacing a toilet fell on my lap. After I removed the original toilet (if the early 1990’s had an idea of what the future of loo pots would be…it was this hideous angular monstrosity I was all too happy to remove) I set it on a few sheets of cardboard just outside of the second floor bathroom. In the playroom. You know where this is going. I could see my daughter playing happily with her dolls as I turned to the grotesque act of scraping the remains of the old wax gasket off the rim of the flange (my if that doesn’t sound suggestive). I was all too happy to do this work because the children were happily occupied a mere four feet from the door of the bathroom. Happy and silent. Silent. The children are silent. The two year old is silent. Silent. I craned my neck around the door in time to see her finishing up. She had at least put the potty seat in place.
“Hi daddy! The potty is in the playroom!” she said while happily kicking her legs back and forth.
“Hi sweetheart. That potty doesn’t work right now”
“It’s working fine!”
I couldn’t argue with her. I returned to my work for a moment if only to regroup before I donned my hazmat suit and lead lined baggie.
Poop pocket (December 15, 2014)
My fifteen-month-old daughter was kicking and laughing on the changing table. We were having way too much fun for 7:20 am on a Tuesday. I was singing a fake opera about her feet and she was delighted. It was one of the grand times. The bonding moments. In sync and loving life. I finished the job, dressed her, launched her over my back, wiggled her a bit, snagged the offending diaper and bopped down the stairs while acting like a gorilla for her. We began the business of breakfast. My wife had left at six that morning for a meeting so I gulped down the remains of her now cold coffee and whipped up some French toast and scrambled eggs. I was looking down the barrel of a good day. My son was making fart noises to amuse his sister, it was an unusually warm day for December in Chicago, and Ahmad Jamals “Poinciana” (my departed fathers favorite song) was playing. All was right with the world.
I began to smell what was likely the second round in Irenes diaper. I swiftly made the quick diaper check of a seasoned professional. Clean and dry.
Laughter from both children. The smell persisted. We have a geriatric dachshund who will occasionally forget where she is and let fly a tootsie roll on the floor with little sound and hardly any fury. Nope. No doggie stink biscuit. I must be imagining….
We had recently introduced a cat into the mix. Ah! Daisy wasn’t living up to her name. Alas I had changed the litter box the night before and she failed to lay her requisite post cleaning kitty egg. Dry and clean. The radio switched to Dave Brubecks “Take Five” as the mystery hunt for the malodorous treasure began. Ten minutes passed. Count Basies “Satin Doll” underscored the now more desperate hunt.
Then… Thelonious Monks “Round Midnight”
Then… John Coltrane “In a Sentimental Mood”
Then… Miles Davis “Will O’ the Wisp”
Half way through the Wynton Marsalis “Big Train” album I was so lost and confused I jammed my hands into my oversized sweatshirts pockets. Soft. Cold. Mush. I worked whatever it was in my hand absent mindedly while I tried to figure out where the cowplop scent could be coming from.
“Hey. What was that in my hand?”
I spent a long silent moment trying to understand the physics of how this fecal family parade marched out of the diaper and into my pockets. I was bopping around a lot when my daughter and I marched down stairs. Maybe I… didn’t seal off…yes. Yes. Nearly an hour of jazz infused ordure fact-finding. My new little brown friend had spent a whole hour chatting up my pocket lint.
Burn the sweatshirt. Burn it and dance around the flames.
Hello Kitty (August 18th, 2015)
There is no privacy in parenting the very small. I used to be a fairly solitary fellow when it came to my water closet activities. Then children. No door can be closed unless there are relatives and friends invested enough in my little people that I could retreat with the door sealed. “Gone fishing” is a posted sign that lives only in my faint afternoon memories. One morning in late summer I sat on the john drifting in and out of money fantasies when my daughter burst into the room wearing only a tutu and a fake squirrel-skin cap. She did a bizarre dance in front of me, kissed one of my knees and then slapped a huge “hello kitty” sticker squarely in the center of my simian level chest hair. It was a present and done with no malice.
“I love you daddy! You have a kitty on you now!”
She sauntered off. I put a metaphoric stick in my mouth and yanked off the sticker. I looked in the mirror and saw the distinct outline of a Japanese kitten person on my chest. I picked up my fresh pair of underwear off the counter where I had put them down before my shower. I put them on. Something was wrong. Did I…did I just go to the bathroom in my pants? Dear lord. What’s wrong with me? It wasn’t until I took them off that I realized my daughter had squirted a fair amount of training toothpaste in them most likely when I showered. My daughter came back in the bathroom now fully naked.
“Honey. Did you put tooth paste in my shorts?”
“Yup! You’re welcome!”
“Peanut. Don’t put toothpaste in my underwear.”
“Ok! I need to go potty!”
I put her on the seat and left for a second to go put on new underwear and my pants.
I ran around the corner back into the bathroom. My daughter had gotten off the toilet and was in the tub pointing at the floor. I had just enough time to see her in the tub when I slipped and fell flat on my behind. My jeans were now soaking up what I realized to be urine. She had gotten off the seat to get something from the bathtub toy container mid pee.
Sophocles once said “One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love”. I’d like to think that this quote is what came to mind as my daughter handed me a soaking wet wash cloth to “Dry up!” but it didn’t. I just started singing the theme to “Sponge Bob Square Pants” at an uncomfortably loud volume. My kids happily joined in.
BONUS STORY (Various Dates)
Boys can’t aim. The end.