Good Morning, Heartache

I just peeked in on my daughter. If any of you have kids, you know the routine. You just want to make sure they are breathing. You get stunned by how peaceful they look when they're sleeping. You see those little fists and hear the soft breaths, and every bad thing they may have done that day just disappears. They sleep deeply. They sleep free of the fear of what the next day brings. They sleep the kind of sleep you wish you could experience if only for one day. But you will never get that again because you know too much about life. The innocence was beat out of you long ago.

I never pictured myself as a father, but it's a role I cherish. Not to sound like every other jackass, but a parent is the most important job in the world, and it is the one where failure is unacceptable. At least that's how I approach it.

I have 50% custody of my daughter. It's not something I'm happy with, as I would have her full-time if I could, and actually stated that was what I wanted at one time. But thinking of it, I know my baby mama (God, I hate that term) would be torn up over that, and my daughter loves her mom. That would serve no purpose. So we have this mutually agreed upon system in place that is far from ideal, but it works for my daughter, and that's what's most important.

My friend (and co-worker, you jerko) and I were talking about nighttime rituals with our children. She reads her girl books every night, something her child will remember and do with her kids. I tell mine a story. I then explained to my friend exactly what I do.

I have this universe in my head where my daughter is the princess of the Candy Kingdom. We know the topography, what candies the various landscapes are made of, the layout of the castle, the people who live in the kingdom (including her best friends), how she became the princess and so on. These stories have been going on for a long time, and every night there is a new one. Some are funny. Some are action-packed. Some are touching. With some I incorporate any issues she's had during the day in order to help her put things in perspective, but first and foremost I make them so she'll enjoy them. I make them up on the spot, and they are done when they are done.

She loves them. Every night she wants one, and will get upset if I take my time getting to it.

My friend seemed stunned.

She told me that what I did was "special," that I was a "special" kind of dad because that went above and beyond the call of duty. I don't know about that. All I know is that this universe I've created for nighttime stories is a place my daughter likes visiting, and therefore I can't ever forget it. Does that make me special? Does that make me a good dad? I'll leave that for my daughter to decide. All I know that if that does make me "special," it's because she's brought it out in me.

When my daughter snuggles up next to me when I'm reading her a book or we are watching a movie, the troubles of my day fade into nothingness. At that point the only thing that matters is right next to me, thumb in mouth, hand wrapped in her doll's hair. Every parent has those moments with their kids. Every one.

I had a co-worker from a while ago when I worked in an elastic factory. His son had gone to the first Gulf War. He was proud of that kid. What he described as a "one-time fuck up" got his act together and joined the military. It wasn't out of a sense of pride for his country or to have school paid for. It was to find structure in his life. He wasn't the happiest about the decision because he admitted that he thought his kid wouldn't be able to do it, and he didn't know what would happen if his kid got discharged. That didn't happen, though, and his son found himself in a country he probably couldn't find on a map.

I didn't have a kid at the time, so the meaning of what he told me next didn't have the effect it should have. I mean I could sympathize and empathize, but I couldn't really comprehend it.

He told me of how as a parent, you just want your kids to do good, to succeed, to be happy. You hope you raised them well enough so that they could make good, educated decisions about the many problems life would throw in their direction. But, he said, you also have a lingering fear. You fear things won't turn out right. You fear all the things life can do. He was waking up every night with images of military men coming to his door to tell him his son had been killed in the line of duty. He would dream of his son dying in the desert and not being there to help him. He said that until I was a parent I would not be able to really appreciate the good moments in life because they were the only ones that got you through the dark ones, the crazy feelings you get because you're a parent and your worst fear is always the fear of losing your child.

I didn't know it then. I know it now. I'm intimately familiar with those feelings. The good moments get you through them, so I try to make many, many good moments.

The same co-worker, the one who said I was "special" (baby, so special), asked me a question today. She asked if there was anything I really feared. I don't know where the question came from, but my co-worker and I are in the same unit. We've all been under a lot of stress. Shit has gone absolutely topsy-turvy there and it all feels off kilter, and nobody likes it. I don't know if that caused the question, but it was a good one.

My fear, I told her, was losing my daughter. It would be the one thing I could not recover from. "I could lose a quart of blood in the toilet," I said. "I'll make more. Get that checked out. Losing my girl would not be recoverable. Things would get bad. They would not be pretty." It would be the one time the emotions would run over.

It's an irrational fear, but as a parent you get it. Whether it's bleeding out in the desert or a hundred other scenarios. You can't help it, but you remember the good times and they get you through the bad.

She's sleeping. I just heard her sigh. She does that sometimes. It's a happy sound. (She also sometimes laughs in her sleep. Any parent who has a little kid who does that will tell you that it is the creepiest thing to hear at three in morning. A child's laughter is great. A child's giggle at three a.m. in a dark house is kind of bone chilling.) It's the sound of everything being all right in the universe.

My co-worker's kid came back from the Gulf War. Not a scratch on him. All his limbs were in place, and by all accounts he had none of the usual PTSD or odd side effects when peeing thanks to God-knows-what chemicals. I don't know if the dreams stopped, but I could guess that they just kind of changed. That comes with the territory, too.

My life is better because of my child. That's all there is to it. I get angry when I hear of other parents doing wrong by their children. I get bitter when I hear parents say how much they "hate" their kids. I don't get it. I don't like it. I want to go into a rage when I hear about a parent who puts their child in harm's way. The people who are supposed to protect and nourish then become the biggest threat in the child's life. It sickens me. Like there aren't enough things out there that will ruin your child's life if given half the chance.

The good times take care of the bad. You keep telling yourself that because it's true and keeps you on an even keel. And luckily, when it comes to my child there's nothing but good times.

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