Something about being a father (or maybe just a parent in general – I don’t want to be exclusionary here) seems to change your chemical make-up in ways that are both unforeseen and mildly embarrassing.
For example: you can find yourself getting choked up during commercials for laundry detergent.
In this commercial, a handsome young father is teaching his son to walk, watching his son waddle clumsily, cutely along until he takes a tumble in the grass, and the dad whisks the boy up, peels off his son’s shirt and tosses that shirt in the washing machine – the implication being that only Tide with Bleach can get out those pesky grass stains – but for me it’s too late, I’m already choked up at the notion that the man couldn’t stop his son from stumbling in the grass, that it will always be like this, I, too, will always be a little too far away to protect my son Finn, and maybe next time it’s not just grass that’s the bad guy, maybe it’s a grade school bully that’s pushed him down, and then later it’s the baseball team that he didn’t make, and later it’s the beautiful girl that breaks his heart, and it’s just too much to bear.
Then Liz comes in and glances at me and then at the TV where the commercial is long gone and replaced with a commercial for a cell phone with that little green alien hovering happily and she asks if I’m okay and I say yes, yes, I’m fine, that there must have been a wee bit of acetone in my cereal and it’s causing my eyes to water up a bit.
There is no real antidote to this problem of parenting, of course. But I’ll tell you something that helps – it helps to remember yourself as a child, and how you survived all this yourself, and half the time, more than anything, you just wanted your parents to leave you alone.
As luck would have it, then, last week I had a chance to do a couple of readings in my home town of Poughkeepsie, right there on the campus of Vassar College, where I grew up. It’s funny going to places you’ve known since you were a kid – you end up saying things like “Oh, they put up a new statue!” pointing at some art installation that’s been there since 1994.
The first reading I was doing was for a group of highly, wonderfully enthusiastic middle schoolers from New Paltz. For some reason, the most rabid fans I have for Little Princes are middle schoolers. One might guess that it’s because my writing level is about at that level, but I prefer to think that in me they see a kindred spirit, one who, like them, freaks out at the idea of having to poop in a field.
The other funny thing about visiting your hometown, where you last lived when you were in middle school, is that you think that you recognize other middle schoolers. As if the friends you left behind stayed frozen in carbonite, awaiting your return. And these kids were engaged, happily chatting and questioning and hooting along as if I was a bearded classmate.
That was a fun reading.
The evening reading was for the college itself. That was especially memorable in that my father – a professor at Vassar College for over two decades, recently retired, and a well-published poet himself – introduced me.
He spoke about me as a child. He read my favorite poem, Taking my Son to School, which we have framed in our house – it’s about me as a five year old boy, my father dropping me off in Kindergarten, the anguish he felt in leaving me there, wanting to race back and gather me up and protect me. He talked about how that feeling never really leaves you. It begins when the child tumbles in the grass, and stays with you, even when your son is 36 years old and awaiting the arrival of his own daughter.
It was a poignant moment, one of those moments when you can see into your own future and the pain that you will never stop feeling because of how very deeply you love your own child. And what a beautiful, terrible, lovely thing that is.
To that end, as my wife did in her own blog, I would like to include here a poem my father recently wrote for my son, his grandson, Finn, at two years old, as Finn awaits the imminent arrival of his baby sister Lucy.
I should note that I haven’t asked my father’s permission to include this here – but did I ever ask his permission? Will Finn ever ask mine? So, by Eamon Grennan:
Waiting for Lucy
(To Finn at the End of Winter)
Dear Finn, I know it must be hard to imagine
that from under these leaf-shrouded shreds
and patches of impoverished grass will come
a single snowdrop, never mind a daffodil or
golden crocus. But in time it will (imagine!)
happen, just as even a prince of a lad like you
will grow up in time (it has to happen!) and
have to share his throne and princely crown
with one who’s travelling towards the nest
your Mom and Dad have been for ages
preparing for her–so she’ll have, your sister (yes!
that’s who!) will have a place to rest herself.
And isn’t that how you rested when you too
came to them in this same season when the
first green shoots had hardly peeped out over
all the dead leaves, the muddy grass as famished
as what’s under all our feet this minute
(yours too, can you feel it?), but which will
and you know it will, be soon a space you’ll
run and run in, and run across a green world
of grass that’s made a comeback just for you
because you’re TWO, and soon big enough,
Lord save us, to help a sister sit up so she can
see the realm you plan, being royal, to share
with her, and give her, royally, the run of it.
And surely–take our word for it–she’ll look
around and about at it and she’ll see it’s good,
all colours as it is, and how still it is, as the sea
can sometimes be when we stop and look at it
and see it is all light, the steady tide come in
just at its turn, when change happens, as change
comes to your world that’s widening as you take
each quick minute of it in so you grow and grow
(you will! you do!) into exactly who you’ll be:
big brother to the little one who’ll soon be here,
and over her you’ll keep good watch, the two
of you at home together here, and us watching.
Eamon Grennan, 2011