Last week, I had one of those professional dad moments.
Simone was in the bathtub, brushing her teeth for bed (it’s part of our routine), when she realized her loose tooth had turned sideways. It was a chopper in the lower-right part of her mouth, and had been working its way out for a couple days. But the way it was hanging (the bottom of the tooth fully visible) did NOT feel good for Simone, and she didn’t know what to do. My suggestion that she keep brushing it or floss it out was met with confusion, and then tears. She started to melt down right there in the tub.
So I lifted her out, dried her off, talking to her gently the whole time. She was suddenly scared, and her tension was exacerbated by the belief that I was going to try to pull her tooth out. Even when I promised her again and again that I just wanted to look, that I wouldn’t even touch her tooth, she shook her head and hid her face from me. I knew no amount of prodding would calm her down, so I wrapped her towel around her and told her to stand on the footstool in front of her sink so we could check out the situation in the mirror.
This only changed the tone of her freakout, from vague discomfort to terrified fascination. She couldn’t stop looking in the mirror, though she was still crying and unwilling to let me anywhere close to her face.
Finally, I hatched a plan. I told her I had an idea, to just stay right there, and I’d be back. I ran to my bathroom and pulled out a long rope of Oral B Ultra Floss—the only stuff that doesn’t shred between my very healthy, white, close-together teeth. It happens to be covered in some sort of cottony material.
I explained to Simone that all I was going to do was floss around the tooth—that I had the softest floss ever. I promised not to pull; not to hurt her. After some coaxing, she let me gently…gently…encircle the root with the floss. All it took was for me to close the loop, not even pulling on the string, for the tooth to emerge.
I put it in her hand, and her relief cooled the temperature of the bathroom by at least 7 degrees. She was calm enough to listen to me when the bleeding started, and after two or three swishes of cold water, she was ready to discuss Tooth Fairy strategy (the tooth fairy just happened to be prepared, luckily).
As I emerged from Simone’s room later, tooth in hand, new, plush dragon and a pair of JFK 50-cent pieces left under her pillow, I knew I’d experienced a moment of parental grace—where I’d handled things flawlessly, my sense of my own competence increased to some small degree (of course, the next day’s challenges brought me back down to size).
And I thought of my own father, who must have had those same moments raising his three sensitive, passionate, emotional kids.
I’ve been thinking about my father a lot, lately. His birthday is coming up, and I haven’t decided how to honor him on this, the 63rd anniversary of his entrance into the world. Some music I think he’ll like? A great book? A “blank inside” card, filled with my sentiments of love and respect?
Maybe a column will do.
By the time Dad was my age, he had a kid in college (me), a junior in high school, and a troublemaker in middle school. He was vice president of a large printing company. He was a leader in the community. Oh, and he was married. To his first wife (my mother).
I think of him as so much more grown up than I am now—I remember being able to go to him with any problem, and he’d help me think things through to a solution. He wasn’t infallible to me, not exactly a superhero, but he was (and is) incredibly wise. And he was the same age I am now—it boggles…I feel like I’m still growing up.
As much as we fought in the years before I left for college, and we had some serious blowouts— shouting, cursing, ultimatums—I never doubted his love for me. Those were very angry years for both of us, and we couldn’t talk about it for a long time. But now we can look back, with so much more understanding of why we were the way we were, and, if not fully erase a sense of regret, at least forgive each other and ourselves.
There’s so much about my father that I channel when I’m with Simone—feeding her interests by providing her with the books and experiences she craves, dozing next to her at bedtime, chasing her and her friends on the playground or splashing with her in the pool, rough-housing with her and squishing her and squeezing her close, introducing her to new foods by insisting she taste everything, sharing the music I love, teaching her to be aware of her surroundings and thoughtful about the world around her, encouraging her to ask questions. She’s so lucky I learned so much from her grandfather!
My parents always gave us the chance to screw up and learn from our mistakes—the lessons were valuable and internalized, especially after we got over our disappointment or embarrassment and were able to talk things through. So I let Simone fail sometimes, as much as it pains me, because I know that she’ll learn stuff for keeps that way.
But I also learned how I wanted to be different from my father. I was raised when it was still considered acceptable to beat your child when he did something wrong. My parents weren’t taught to separate their anger from the consequences they wrought on their children. When they spanked us, it was as much a surrender to their rage as it was a deterrent for us. I’m not giving them a free pass, but I do understand that they raised me in a very different societal context than the one in which I’m raising their granddaughter.
So I work very hard to control my outward frustration when I’m with Simone, to recognize when my white-hot anger is on the upswing, and to take deep breaths, or to leave the room. I’ll tell Simone that I’m very angry, but I’ve mostly learned to turn my voice down (not to say I don’t ever yell). When I come close to losing it, I think of the times my father’s anger took flight, and I think about the regret he now feels for those times, and I force myself to decompress. It’s not always easy, but imagining that I look to her like my dad did to me is often enough to shake me loose.
So I’m very grateful to my father—not just for the lessons and the love and the examples of how to be and how to act; not just for the advice and the rescues and even the times when he refused to rescue me (holy crap, how I learned to be self-sufficient and cool in a crisis); but also for the things he wishes he hadn’t done, and for the words he wishes he hadn’t said. He didn’t know it then, and I’m not sure if he realizes it now, but even his mistakes shaped me to become a better person, and most certainly a thoughtful, careful, gentle father.
Happy birthday, Dad.