A Note to My Son on His Third Birthday

Dear Son,

Last week, you told me butterflies are scary.

You didn’t say it in fear. You weren’t crying. And you didn’t run into the shelter of my arms, not that I would have minded. No, you shared your observation rather matter-of-factly, the vroom and zoom of your big yellow dump truck on the back deck unbroken by your admission.

I admit I didn’t know what to say. As you motored away, oblivious to my silence, I recalculated my evolving mathematical equation of parenthood, deciding that it was now twenty-five percent distraction, thirty percent exhaustion, forty percent the range of bodily functions, and a solid five percent of not knowing what to do or to say. I’m sure the math will change over time.

The beauty of my equation is that it is 100% correct. That’s because the dirty little secret of parenthood is that no one knows what the hell they are doing. Write any formula for being a dad, and, congratulations, you’re right! That said, three years in, I’ve got some tips and tricks. I know a few of your weaknesses. I understand that a Goldfish snack is a wonderful peace offering, and I learned that you can’t take too much time ensuring a diaper is secure. I discovered that suspenders are a hassle, hats can be an iffy proposition, and washable sneakers are almost a miracle.

Still, those small victories, those insights helped little as you circled around me, honking and beeping for your dump truck, mumbling about scary butterflies. I guess I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t want to know what to say. You see, to me, it takes a spotless soul to fear the fragile beauty of a butterfly. Curved, colorful wings slowly waving on the branch — if that is what scares you, then, my son, you are of an innocence beyond my reach.

The truth is that, three years in, you’ve made me a babbling brook of cliches. I still get a lightning charge of electricity up my spine when I get to talk about you. I am certain my colleagues are tired of hearing about the “best thing to ever happen to me,” and I’m fairly sure I’ve told you how much I love you often enough to wrest all meaning from the words. And, yet, it never feels enough. The unalloyed joy casts a shadow of doubt, a feeling that it isn’t possible to do enough for this little boy that rules your heart.

I hope, one day, you have a little boy or a little girl of your own. Only then will you grasp how much your daddies love you. And, just maybe, you will hear that your child is scared of butterflies. And you’ll understand.

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.

On a Chorus of Frogs

Last week, the heavens opened up and sheets of rain crashed about our house for hours on end. The torrent was such that the idea of the entire tri-state region beckoning the storm with an effective group rain dance could not be ruled out. So plentiful was the moisture in the air that walking along the sidewalk would have been more akin to a swim. You get the point, it was rainy.

During a relative lull in the downpour, I stood at the kitchen sink when a frog’s ribbit echoed through the kitchen so loudly that I startled myself motionless. Understanding that I was not in a bog, I ruled out frogs at my feet, but, upon closer listening, I deduced that the infringing croaks originated right outside our kitchen window. Moreover, as I crept closer to the window, honing in on the amphibious squawk, I realized that it was not a ribbit solo but, rather, a chorus of frogs outside my window. I dashed out to the front porch into the soupy night and was greeted by the rumble of thunder, the splatter of heavy rain, and an anuran ensemble. I spotted one of the singers near our bushes; compared to their powerful croaks, these toads were tiny. I couldn’t understand how such tiny bodies produced such booming, echoing croaks! I laughed at the preternatural spectacle of the moment, and, as I stood on the porch listening to the storm and to the show, I also thought back to 1983.

In 1983, or thereabouts, my family took a trip to St. Louis, Missouri. I remember precious little from the trip, but, with clarity, I recall three things: going up in the Gateway Arch, swimming in our hotel pool, and Dad becoming upset that neither my sister nor I showed much interest in the botanical gardens. His frustration aside, I suppose we weren’t unusual for seven- and four-year-olds. No matter how beautiful the blooms, most kids just aren’t going to go wild at the prospect of flowers, trees, and bushes.

My ambivalence to nature remained strong throughout my childhood. I was not opposed to being outdoors if it meant playing sports or perhaps earning some spending money by mowing a lawn or two, but I certainly didn’t feel the call of the great outdoors. Camping seemed unnecessarily uncomfortable, and gardening or planting flowers involved getting dirty. I didn’t see the appeal, yet there was Dad, working in the yard, planting flowers and bushes. I always recognized that our home had one of the prettiest yards on the block; I just couldn’t work up any interest of my own beyond appreciating the final product. Mother Nature and I were not close.

I’m slowly changing, though, and our move to a more rural exurb of the DC area has hastened that change. My early morning commutes are often greeted by a bubbling red sun as it peaks over the horizon, and the deer and fox are so plentiful as to create hazards on the roads. Woodpeckers, hawks, and groundhogs are not uncommon running partners as I stroll through my tiny new hometown, and the simple stretch of fields, farms, barns, and trees on my daily drives invite a slower contemplation of all that is not concrete, steel, and plastic.

I am not ready to quit my job, live off the land, and sew my own clothes. I won’t give away my laptop or stop enjoying my satellite radio. That said, promoting Mother Nature from background extra to recurring guest star in my daily life has been a healthy counter-weight to my workdays spent e-mailing, instant messaging, and otherwise staring at a computer screen, as well as my nights blogging, Netflixing, and texting. I can’t fight the creep of technology in our lives, and I don’t even want to. But, I am more than happy to acknowledge that, as I get a little older, the natural world becomes a much greater source of peace, happiness, and wonder for me. I’m old enough to appreciate that gardens, or even a tiny flower bed, take work; to contemplate the awesome natural forces that make canyons, waterfalls, or small frogs; and to consider my tiny existence in a galaxy and universe literally full of natural wonder.

And so I stood on my porch listening to the chorus of frogs, thinking about how things change, and counting the amazingly ordinary, natural beauty that populates our lives. And, next month, when I take my parents to my favorite botanical garden, I will, in part, consider it payback for Dad’s ill-fated visit thirty-four years ago. I promise not to complain.

On The Certainty I Need

Hubby is busy planning our fall vacation to California, picking the best places in Los Angeles and San Diego to visit. In addition to spending time with family, including meeting our precious new niece, we’ll relax at Disneyland and check in at the adoption agency for the latest update on our own adoption efforts. Beyond that, I have no idea what we will do, but I’m leaving the rest to him. Turning over our trip planning to my husband has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Sure, I’ve taken some amazing trips because of it, but, more importantly, I haven’t gotten my way.

Left to my own devices, there is exactly zero percent chance I would have traveled to Guatemala or Peru, or to Sedona, Arizona, or to Cape May, New Jersey, or even to the Brandywine Valley. Had those destinations crossed my mind, I would have acknowledged their interesting nature, and skated right on past. Having to compromise, though, resulted in a litany of incredible experiences, from the salt flats of Peru to the hotel nestled among volcanoes in Guatemala, from the classic boardwalk of Cape May to the red rock cliffs of Sedona. I found myself in awe of the beauty and uniqueness of each stop. The unexpected nature of my enjoyment often heightened the adventure. With every trip, I grew to understand that experiences outside my comfort zone reaped far greater rewards than those inside it.

Openness to new things is a type of flexibility,  and I fear our culture’s “progress” can, at times, stifle our flexibility. Our technology renders our daily lives more controlled, less unpredictable. Drive without our GPS and cell phones? No way.  Skip a text message and actually call someone on the phone, risking a demanding interpersonal exchange? No thanks. It’s all around us; the conveniences, the efficiencies, the progress. Along the way, we have greater control and greater knowledge, but fewer surprises and fewer incentives to wing it. Why risk a random restaurant when its Yelp review is so readily available? After all, if the meal is bad, we may not eat again for something like six whole hours.

So much of adult life — done right — is about planning and minimizing risk. We save for retirement; we guard our health and vitality via diet and exercise; and we order our lives by ideals of right and wrong to, in part, maximize the social contract by which we live together. And so, at times, it doesn’t feel natural to “go along for the ride,” to let someone else choose, to choose the unknown and risk our precious time, control, and independence. Nevertheless, the unexpected can bring unmatched rewards, a loosening of narrow boundaries, and an exposure to ideas and beauty that we otherwise would not anticipate. A solid sense of self is key to maturity, but too much rigidity and inflexibility and our lives become constrained, hemmed in by nothing more than our unwillingness to live a bigger, broader, richer life.

I’m rather fond of the admonition to not live the same year eighty times and call it a life. I am, admittedly, a creature of habit and enjoy my comforts, but I’ve also learned the great joy in trying something new, even if it’s a little scary, a little out of my comfort zone. And, so, in a few weeks, I’ll head off on vacation not quite certain of anything other than it will be wonderful, and that’s just about all the certainty I need.