We were driving to school last week, daylight savings responsible for pushing sunrise back to the spot where the glare driving east mucked up early morning traffic for almost a mile. The predawn sky was cloudless, all hazy yellows and oranges, and the sun, unsticking itself from the horizon like molten lava, was shining right into Simone’s eyes, too low for the passenger-side visor to be of any help.
She shielded her face, did a mental measurement of how tall she’d need to be to enjoy the benefits of the visor, and realized she was nearly there. Simone is already as tall as my mother and sisters.
It was a little less than a week before her birthday, and turning 13 was definitely on her mind.
“This is my first big birthday in awhile,” she said. “The last one was when I turned 10. The next big birthday will be my sweet-16. And then I’ll be 18. And then 21.”
I blamed the judder and snap of my foot hitting the brakes on the truck stopping suddenly in front of me, but we both knew the real culprit.
“I forgot to tell you,” I said, “your birthday has been cancelled. You can’t turn 13 next week. You’ll have to wait.”
“You’re just not ready for me to be a teenager,” Simone replied, a knowing half-smile playing off her lips. “I get that.”
I’ve written often lately about my geek goddess daughter, awkward and beautiful as she makes her way toward adolescence. How she is defining herself, generally at odds with the girly-pop aesthetic of her female peers. How her love of paleontology and anime and sci-fi/fantasy makes her uniquely awesome and painfully nerdy.
So this time, I’m going to talk about me. How becoming the father of a teenager is hitting me sideways, forcing me out of the moment from time to time, unable to resist looking backward and forward.
I’ve always wanted to be a father. From my childhood, when my greatest joy was making complex breakfasts for my little sisters before our parents woke up, to my own teen years, when I was a kick-ass babysitter, to my time as a young adult teaching elementary school, I knew that I would be a good father someday.
When Simone was born four weeks early, after a long, joyful day of hand-holding, phone calls, anticipation, and a sudden rush of activity, the fact that I was a father didn’t even enter my mind. It was all about Simone and her mother for the next 48 hours — giving Simone her first bath in the hospital, kissing her mother goodbye and heading home at 1am to start washing all of the baby blankets and other items we’d received the day before at our baby shower. Dragging myself out of bed a couple hours later to run into work, get the latest edition of my newspaper section out before deadline, then drive to the furniture store to buy a crib and arrange delivery before finding my way back to the hospital to see my little girl and new momma wife. Making sure the house was ready for my ladies was my sole purpose.
It wasn’t until they were home, Simone squalling in the night and me sitting up with her mom every two hours while she nursed our little girl, that it started to hit me. I was a dad.
But, even then, I’m pretty sure I didn’t think about Simone turning 13. Then 16. Then 18. Then 21. And I’m certain I didn’t ponder the implications of being a father of a teenager someday.
I feel too young to have been a father for 13 years. That sounds like a really long time. It still feels like Simone was just born a few years ago. That is, until I go through the years, gingerly peeling back the memories, like looking through an old photo album, where the yellowing plastic page protectors stick together, coming across little gems of wonder or sadness.
There’s me driving Simone home from preschool. She’s in her carseat in the back, and I’ve asked her what she wants for dinner. She mulls it over, but answers the same way she always does (even now), “Um...salmon and...broccoli.”
And here I am, pulled over to the side of the road on the way to work. It’s early fall, and the sun is warm coming through the car window. I’m weeping. I can’t stop crying because I can still hear Simone wailing “Daddy, Daddy” as the preschool teacher carries her away from me and into the classroom.
Or I’m on the carpet in Simone’s room, and she’s reading to me from a book about dinosaurs. She’s actually reading the words, sounding out the complicated names of the prehistoric beings she loves so much. On the walls are dino posters and her own illustrations of cartoonish creatures. Akiva the mighty black cat (who turns 15 soon himself) is sprawled across our laps.
And then it’s 8:30 at night, and Simone is still fighting me about finishing her math homework, which she usually breezes through. “I don’t get it,” she shouts at me, “and you’re not helping me understand!” She’s tired and should be getting ready for bed. I’ve tried to explain the concept three times, but she stopped listening the second time through, convinced that I’m doing it wrong.
But there’s Simone, morning after morning after morning, sleepy and warm as I wake her gently, kissing her forehead and her cheek, her sleep perfume changing slightly over the years, but still hers, still recognizable. I wonder if she’ll smell the same all her life, if her children will nuzzle her neck the way she does mine, taking in the scent that is so familiar and comforting.
Simone is 13 today, and I may have cried a little bit when I woke up this morning. I’ll be picking her up at school for birthday lunch in a couple hours, and I’ve promised myself I’m going to keep it together for the 45 minutes or so I’ll have with her today. I won’t be mushy or maudlin, but I’ll give her two or three extra hugs as she heads back into her school afterward. She won’t grasp at my shirt or cry that she doesn’t want to go. She’ll tell me she loves me, but probably only after I’ve said it to her. I don’t even know if she’ll turn and wave as she walks away.
My teenager. I love her so much.