Text to my wife: … I’m not trying to say I’m the better parent, but Art just tried to tip me $2 for being a good dad…
Her response: Damn…why doesn’t he ever try to tip me?
And mine: … it was so cute. He came into the bathroom with the allowance that I gave him yesterday and said, “here.” I was all, “What’s this?” And he said, “I know having kids is a lot of work and you do a really great job.”
Artie came into life like a storm, a pendulum that swinging wildly in both directions.
Sometimes he’s Super Fudge, Ramona and a wrecking ball – all rolled into one mega-tool for destruction. I used to joke that Artie was the kid that childless people point to when justifying their decision not to have children. With Artie, I can be both the best and the worst dad in the world in the same day…possibly within minutes. His feelings are as sudden and overwhelming to him as a tidal wave: they come on in a moment, and are gone just as instantaneously. Other times with nothing but earnestness, he busts out two bucks for some solid dad-ing and I’m left dumbfounded.
Artie talks incessantly.
Nimbly hopping from one subject to the next, the words seem to pour out of him without so much as a pause to inhale. I used to say that he wouldn’t know how to breathe unless words were coming out of his mouth. And occasionally, if you listen…you’ll find a gem: like the time he told me that his teacher was a hunch back, or the time he got mad at me because I wouldn’t put a panty liner in his underwear. For his fifth birthday, he asked me if I could surprise him by popping out of a cake at his birthday party. And once, when the pediatrician asked him how many times a day he pooped – he responded with, “Once. How many times a day do you poop?” [I literally collapsed onto the floor, crawled under the table, and died of embarrassment…and not for the first time. In fact, I am writing this from beyond the grave.]
And of my three, he’s also responsible for the most grey hair … like the time he got swine flu at seven weeks old, and again two months later. And this. The time he stopped breathing, and lay lifeless in my arms.
It was a Sunday morning when he was just three years old. He had been quiet all morning. He had been down with a low-grade fever – lethargic and tired, watching reruns of Sean the Sheep. It wasn’t anything terribly worrisome, but since my partner was heading out for the afternoon, I asked her to pick up some children’s Advil while she was out. In the meantime, I decided that I would take a bath with him – to help him relax and to make him more comfortable. As we sat in the bathtub, he started to perk up a bit. He was interactive and relaxed, talking and playing—but mostly talking…
Since he seemed to be feeling better, I thought I would get him out and we could spend the afternoon napping and watching a movie. As I stood up to get myself a towel, I saw him slump over. I didn’t give it much thought, but it seemed a bit out of the ordinary, so I asked him what he was doing. As I turned to talk to him, he slumped over into the bath…his face completely submerged in the water as though he’d lost consciousness. I yelled, “What are you doing?” But he just stayed there, slumped over and lifeless, his face submerged in the bath. I picked him up and he was completely limp. He’d stopped breathing and he was losing consciousness. I didn’t know what to do, so I slapped him. Hard.
I couldn’t have him lose consciousness.
I laid him on the floor and I put my ear to his mouth. I could hear him gasping for breath, but unable to breathe. The thoughts that ran through my mind terrified me: why couldn’t he breathe, was he dying, was this what happened that caused my sister’s mental retardation, if he didn’t start breathing, was he going to have brain damage, how long did we even have? The rest of the morning was a blur. A 9-1-1 call as my boy’s face turn blue. Barely managing to put pants on before an ambulance arrived. A trip to the hospital. A talk with the doctor. Calling my wife over and over. I was on autopilot. Holding myself together but by the grace of God, and with the most fragile of strings.
And then, like everything else with Artie —the storm subsided and it was over. He was up and talking, running around the hospital room—and yelling at the iPad because it was taking too long to load.
Later when I returned home, I walked into the bathroom. The tub was full and floating in the bath was the towel I had stood up to grab. And in that moment, autopilot switched suddenly off – and what was left was the feeling of my lifeless child in my hands, the fear that I would lose him, and a sense that we would not come home from the hospital together. So I sat down on the floor and I cried. For days afterwards, I would lie awake in bed thinking of how narrowly I had escaped one of life’s greatest tragedies: how easily I could have walked out of the bathroom even just for a minute.
But the thing is, I never wanted a boy. Whenever I envisioned myself as a father, it was to girls. The idea of raising boys filled me with a sense of dread. Being the dad of boys was for sports players who knew what a draft pick was and looked at car magazines…not for the stars of high school musical theater who were understudies in their sisters’ dance routines. What does a theater-starring, off-off-off-off-off Broadway dance understudy know about raising boys? Or what does this theater-starring, off-off-off-off-off Broadway dance understudy know about raising boys, anyway? I’d barely made it through my own adolescence in one piece…physically or emotionally.
Over time, I’ve learned to blend a little better than I did as a kid—at 38, I am no longer understudy in my sisters’ dance routines. I haven’t starred in a musical since high school. And the only singing I do is pantsless in the kitchen while cooking dinner. My own masculinity has been a hodge-podge jerry-rigged approximation of never quite right interests, and never quite right observations. I don’t have a lot of friends – and of the few friends I do have, most are women. And so it is with this stitched-together, Franken-masculinity that I was assigned the task of raising a boy. The poor kid didn’t stand a chance.
And yet, to Art—my Franken-masculinity is what it means to be a man.
Men fix things around the house, but they also cook and knit, dance and sing. Men kiss owies – and can fashion a mean man-bandaid…or mandaid…out of duct tape, because a dad is crafty AF.
NPR had a segment on parenting once, a hundred years ago—and though I can remember nothing about the topic, once sentence stuck with me. “We like to think of ourselves as molding our children,” the speaker said, “but that’s not true. As parents, our job is to step back; to watch as our children’s personalities unfold in front of us.” And so it is with masculinity. Thankfully the meagre dose of masculinity I was born with doesn’t have to be doled out…or rather rationed between my now two boys. Whatever masculinity my boys have is uniquely their own: a combination of observation, reflection and experience. As a dad who stumbled through his own growth into manhood often unsure of his own role in masculine circles—I may not be able to emulate the correct version of masculinity, but I can step back and make space for his to unfold.
Photo: Getty Images