On Taking Your Picture

I grew up before the age of the cell phone, thankfully, and so my exposure to cutting-edge hand-held technology consisted of the camera and the video recorder. Because my parents would not be considered shutterbugs, I looked at those devices and reacted as most people do to things they were not raised to value: I found all the reasons not to like them. I smugly concluded that my friends’ parents, with their faces buried behind cameras and video recorders, were taking themselves out of the very moments they appeared to value so much. Why couldn’t they just experience the moment?

My son is not quite 18 months old, but I have 2,800 pictures of him on my phone. He’s been alive for approximately 540 days, so I have more than 5 pictures per day of his life. And, full disclosure here, those 2,800 pictures are the pictures that made the cut! Those special moments are catalogued by dozens of picture clicks, and subsequently curated to reflect only the finest aspects of his beauty and majesty. Hypocrisy does not begin to describe my sin. I have become what I mocked and judged, and them some. I am humbled by my weakness.

At the risk of self-serving rationalization, I, nearly 3,000 pictures and videos in, have a better understanding of what my friends’ parents were trying to accomplish as they snapped and flashed and focused. Sure, it’s a visual diary of your child’s life, it may be valued by them some day, and it can help distant family stay connected, but, ultimately, it’s the losing gambit to capture the moment and trap it in amber. The day to day mechanics of parenting — feeding, bathing, dressing, cleaning, protecting — never relent, but those chores fade to the background, dwarfed by the all-encompassing love you feel for your child. The preciousness of that bond is, in turn, threatened by the inescapable passage of time. They grow, they change, one stage begets another, equipoise always just out of reach. The shifting ground beneath your feet serves as a reminder of the fleeting nature of the arrangement. You’ll always be their mom or dad, but there are only so many Cheerios to balance on their nose, only so many rocking chair naps, only so many hugs and kisses untempered by human complexity.

You can’t stop it, can’t fight it, can’t change anything. And so you become a cliche, focusing and clicking your way on the off chance that, inside that frame, you’ll capture the essence of this love that you cannot control and cannot quite articulate. That, years later, as they pay their mortgage, you might just be able to recapture that magic. To take your head and your heart back to those moments of seemingly unfettered happiness. On my son’s first birthday, I wrote that he has given me a sort of invincibility, because I completely understand that I can never experience a greater love, a fuller contentment, and more pristine joy than my experience with him. It is physically, mentally, and emotionally impossible. But it’s a double-edged sword, for if this is the mountaintop, if this is as good as it gets, isn’t that worth savoring? Saving? Maybe even containing as much as you can inside the four corners of a photograph?

Of course you can’t trap it for posterity. If you could, it wouldn’t mean as much. But my love for my son has made me a fool in so many ways, so I’ll keep clicking. And maybe one day, in the distant glow of my golden years, I’ll have the wisdom to understand that, rather than an unsuccessful attempt to capture the essence of my love for him, my innumerable photos will stand as a compelling testament to the fact that I was blessed to have a son. And that will be enough.

On Twelve Months of Fatherhood

Five years ago, I sat in a sanctuary, listening to an a cappella singing group from my husband’s alma mater. The songs, ranging from pop to holiday, were entertaining enough, but that night my attention was snagged by the toddler several rows in front of me. The music held little allure for the tike, but that didn’t stop him from having a good time, as he treated his dad’s body as his personal jungle gym. He had a face right off a Gerber jar, and I found my eyes repeatedly falling on the precocious little boy.

Between the songs, the group members introduced themselves, sharing their name, college major, and career goals. The singers’ goals were impressive and expected — architect, doctor, teacher — until two-thirds of the way through the group, a lanky young man introduced himself. I don’t recall his academic major, but, when he announced his career goal, he won over every member of the audience by saying it was “to be a good dad.” In that moment, as his words still bounced around my ears and my eyes again landed on the little guy a few rows up, something coalesced inside me: I wanted that. After sleeping on this personal chrysalis, I would admit it to my husband the next morning, only to discover that he, too, had been thinking the same thing during the concert.

Tonight, I tucked in my son after celebrating his first birthday. After a four year adoption wait and a first year full of joy and love and tenderness (and some sleeplessness), I was caught off guard by the tinge of sadness loitering on the periphery of my birthday revelry. I never expected to think he was growing too fast at one year old or to not be ready to let go of the baby version of my son. Seeing your child grow and thrive is the dream of every parent, and there I am, like a walking, talking cliche, bemoaning that my little boy wasn’t o-so-little anymore. If I’m feeling this at one, will I swoon in depression when he starts elementary school, require institutionalization as he begins high school, and just completely decompensate when he leaves for college? I’m not so sure I was prepared to sign up for this emotional rollercoaster.

As fraught as the future seems, I take considerable solace in those perfect moments the last twelve months afforded me. Perfectly ordinary moments that filled me with an extraordinary feeling of love that simply lay outside my capacity to anticipate before he entered my life. The first time he held my hand. The first “DaDa.” The squeals of delight as I tickle him. The smile. The coos and serene peace as he sleeps on my chest, his head gently rising and falling with my breath. The quiet as I rock him to sleep in the rocking chair. The prior four decades of my life had not earned those moments, did not deserve those moments, and, yet, through chance and luck and good fortune and all other things mystical, here I am, permanently transfixed by this wonderful little boy, my son. It’s a strange type of invincibility he has given me, for I can love nothing more, feel no more, be no more.

So, tonight, I think about that young man on that stage, dreaming of being “a good dad.” Only now, five years later, can I appreciate how that young man’s goal far outpaced the surgeon, the marine biologist, and the scientist, for it is an endeavor that gobbles up your soul, wraps your heart around the tiniest of fingers, and dares you to be better than you have ever been. I hope I get there.

Holding On

My eight month old son typically falls asleep in his crib, grabbing my weary hand and pulling it to his tiny chest. Some nights he just holds my hand close; other nights, he wraps his arms and legs around my hand and tucks into the corner of his crib. And I stand there, a prisoner of his sleep ritual. I inventory the dirty dishes and unwashed laundry, and acknowledge that I have things to do beyond standing and listening to his increasingly heavy sighs and murmurs. But just as I go to extricate myself via Chinese acrobatics from his straight-jacket hold, I consider how ephemeral the moment is, how I will never again experience the intoxicating combination of need, defenselessness, and innocence, how every day I come closer to him not needing me like this. It’s inevitable, but there I remain, selfishly absorbing every detail of his face, his gently moving lips, his safari nursery, his firetruck pajamas, opening every sense I have to its fullest capacity in the futile attempt to indelibly etch the vanishing moment in my mind. I can only guess this is what love is, for I know all that will remain, one rueful day in the future, is a vague impression of this fleeting moment.

I stand in the darkness and watch my little boy sleep, and I realize I am now holding onto him.

The Weight on My Chest

The best moments of my life are spent with my infant son sleeping on my chest. His breath is slow but rhythmic, a continual whisper reminding me that I will never know a greater happiness. His head bobs with the rise and fall of my chest, and I steal kisses, trapping his locks between my lips. His small hands knead my chest hair unconsciously, as if to return the favor. His unspoiled goodness humbles me. His gentle lip quivers amuse me. His mere existence strips me of everything but gratitude. I close my eyes, breathe in that baby smell, wrap my arms slowly around him, nuzzling his warm, pink flesh, and, with all my senses engaged, let go of it all. He changes everything. The weight on my chest makes me float.

On the Families We Want

There’s an urban legend that Ernest Hemingway once won a bet among fellow authors over whether he could write a six-word story.  As the story goes, he won the bet by passing around the table a napkin upon which he wrote: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” No proof exists to substantiate the tale and it’s almost certainly completely untrue, but it entices, in part, because the six words evoke such a strong reaction in the audience.  We don’t know if the infant in the story died or never came to be at all, but the pain and anguish are universal.

More than three years into our adoption wait, I frequently think of Hemingway’s story, especially as I walk past the nursery or contemplate buying baby baubles. Every adoptive parent struggles with the wait and fears that it won’t happen. Most stories end happily, but the very real possibility that some don’t is the sad fact that makes Hemingway’s story so potent.

As I wonder when my son will arrive, it’s uncomfortable to consider the bad luck my family has encountered when it comes to meeting sons. My great-great-great-great grandfather, John Hargis, was murdered by pirates while on a trading cruise down the Ohio River on October 17, 1838. Eight months after his death, his twelfth and last child was born, John Arnold Hargis, my great-great-great grandfather.  History would repeat itself two generations later in 1904, when my great-grandfather, James Arnold Hargis, was born one day after his father, James A. Hargis, died. Hence, I’m exercising, eating healthy, and avoiding pirates.

I wonder if my great-great-great-great grandfather would find it fascinating that, 179 years after his murder at the hands (and hooks?) of pirates, his great-great-great-great grandsons met for the first time in a small restaurant in Huntsville, Alabama. I imagine he’d still be pretty upset at the whole pirate-murder thing, but he might find some solace in two strands of the family tree coming together.

When I met my cousin Ryan for lunch over Labor Day weekend, it wasn’t actually the first time we had ever met, but it was the first time I had seen him in over thirty years. I had vague recollections of meeting him when we were both very young, and so, meeting as 40-ish men, I think it counts as a first meeting. Now, we sat at a table next to each other, significant others in tow, sharing nothing but a common ancestry and a meal.

Over the next two hours, we covered travel, work, obscure movies, and our hopes for our children, including those present and those hoped for. I had a fantastic time; I think we all did. And I hope we get together again soon. Ryan’s wonderful girlfriend Lindsay said she could see the family resemblance in our eyes. I’m not sure I saw that, but it was enough for me to enjoy the feeling of growing my family. Hubby and I still wait patiently but eagerly for our little bundle of joy to bounce along, but the prospect of a new cousin with interests in common is pretty awesome too.

The sad vendor of Hemingway’s story didn’t get the family he or she wanted, or so it appears. And none of us do. It’s just not guaranteed; life isn’t fair. That said, moments like my Labor Day lunch remind me that family can be, to some extent, what we make it. That’s a hopeful thought and something to build on. Just stay away from the pirates.

On My Tiny House

I want to live in a tiny house.

It’s all very clear to me. Our house would be maybe 400 square feet big — a functioning kitchen, a pint-size bathroom with a composting commode and shower constructed of a watering can and old barrel, a living room/study/family room/entryway/mudroom/utility closet combo, and a set of authentic-looking canning jars placed just-so on the window ledge with lids open enough to capture all of our dreams. Life would be rambling from one vista to the next, our little love nest in tow. Home anywhere and everywhere.

This is all a vicious lie.

Sort of.

I watch HGTV in amazement as couple after couple (often with a brood of children and litter of animals) “tour” these tiny homes, squealing with delight at the abundant kitchen cabinetry doubling as sock drawers and dryer vents. As these lovers of less twirl (they can’t really walk) in their potential abode, they coo over the loft beds and appreciate the exercise they’ll get climbing the ladder into them every night. Admittedly, the necessary chamber pots can be decorative. I marvel at their excitement as they realize that they can be in four rooms at once, that privacy has been totally destroyed, and that every waking moment can now be shared, intimately, with those they love.

My sarcasm hides the truth: I’m a little envious. I’m envious that these tiny home buyers appear to have decoupled themselves successfully from the materialism pervasive in American life. I’m challenged that these tiny home buyers seem to be motivated by a different (higher?) set of priorities. And I’m given pause by their capacity to buck the system, to challenge that “bigger is better,” to give action to their ideals. Few admit to being materialistic, but even fewer actually live a life oriented away from “stuff.”

I’m sure not every tiny house buyer is a paragon of virtue. A certain slice of these buyers just likes the novelty, no doubt, and, within a year or two, super-sizes up to a McMansion. Nevertheless, my visceral reaction to their housing choice is certainly a testament to the power of the cultural message of buying bigger, buying better. Sure, it’s fair to find such miniature abodes simply not practical for most, but, as a challenge to our assumptions of what we need and what is important in life, tiny houses sure do loom large.

On A Ferry Master, Revisited

[Note: I was happy with the first version of “On a Ferry Master,” but I felt like there was a missing quatrain. I’ve added the middle quatrain, and edited the poem to more strictly adhere to a 10/10/10/12 syllable count in the quatrains. But for line 12, the opening foot of each line is a trochaic foot, but, for the other feet, I followed my ear. The quatrains follow an a/a/b/b rhyme scheme.]


Tawny, brawny arms inked with grime and black,
loading his boat he swings them front and back,
leading cars like heavy Holstein cattle,
patting the steel heifers as they park and rattle.

Bouncing ‘tween banks his doddering ferry –
doubting drivers’ faiths whispered and carried –
Master mans a hoary helm armed for kills,
fated but to now cruise round the same pygmy hill.

Temporary shepherd cross choppy water,
tending his ferrous flock his lone bother.
Master charges a small two-axle toll,
but breathing exhaust ’tis the cost to his weathered soul.