A humiliating encounter happened to me recently at a massive Southern California shopping mall on my maiden voyage to Babies R Us. It seemed odd that as a veteran journalist who has placed himself in harm's way encountering Maoist guerillas in the Peruvian Andes should suddenly be gripped by a full on panic attack in a forest of onesies racks. Yet it wasn't the PJs that triggered the anxiety, but the cheery and solicitous saleswoman who approached me.
Her question cut into me with rapier precision. "Is this your first grandchild?"
"No," I said, fighting the desire to flee to the bar of the nearby TGI Fridays, which was no small measure of my desperation. "It's my first child."
I prepared myself for one of the looks. I get them about 70% of the time after making this admission. They range from amazement that someone of my years can still function in that way, to sympathy that my golden years will be spent at soccer practice or uselessly refusing to buy my daughter a pony. Or even revulsion that I'm probably an old reprobate college professor who knocked up a grad student in the course of academic sexual blackmail.
"How old?" She asked, rather guilelessly.
This was too much. "Me?!"
"No," she laughed. "Your child."
Well, this was more like it. Evidently, they get all kinds of new dads in Babies R Us and the staff is trained accordingly. "She's about six weeks away."
The salesperson beamed and beckoned, disappearing into the forest of pink-tinted racks. She said something like, 'she's going to love daddy'. Was she actually flirting?
It turned out she was referring to a collection of onesies all with variations of "I Love Daddy," "Daddy's Girl" and "Daddy's Angel." I was so grateful I bought six.
Fifteen minutes later, my partner Emily returned five.
So, as the Talking Heads' David Byrne once so eloquently posited it: "Well, how did I get here?"
It's the old story. I wasn't paying attention and fell in love. It hadn't happened since my twenties and, at first, it was hard to recognize. It wasn't obsessive and destructive or irrational but grew from physical attraction to admiration and appreciation for her work as a writer and then to total awe for her for her as an intellect, a woman, and a mother.
Yes, she had a child when we met—a beautiful, perfect little boy of two from her previous marriage. The first time I met him I could hardly let go, even though he could not respond. He didn't know anything about me except that my chest emanated animal warmth and I sang a few off key Grateful Dead songs to make him relax. Ronan was born with Tay Sachs Disease, a genetic disorder that robs young children of their sight, their language, their cognitive skills and finally their lives, usually within two to three years. Emily warned me that I wouldn't have much time with Ronan. She didn't say, "Don't fall in love with him." It was too late for that and she knew it.
I'm not going to write here what I felt or what Emily suffered when we lost him. That might come in another essay. And Emily wrote about it so eloquently in her book, Still Point of the Turning World, I am hesitant to add my limited experience and perspective. Suffice it say for now, we were with him when he passed and he was loved to his last breath. There's not a day or night that goes by that one or both of us doesn't think about him, talk about him or dream about him.
I don't recall any discussion about what happened next. It was a primal need to create new life. I'd had thirty years of dithering in relationships that couldn't possibly survive; semi-serious relationships that had resulted in unwanted pregnancies; relationships designed to avoid commitment; and relationships that were, well, just stupid. I sped past my half century mark sipping wine and listening to Coltrane alone in the carefully insulated hive I'd built for myself out of a former church in small town New Mexico.
But then came Emily. And Ronan.
And now comes Charlotte.
Charlotte Mabel Elliott Black to be precise.
Our friends were curious about the intense and intricate discussions they imagined Emily and I must have had before we made the decision to conceive, to create a family when our combined ages were disturbingly close to the century mark.
Yes, there was discussion, but it was neither overly emotional or a dry listing of the pros and cons. It was the measured belief that two people who knew they could give love to a third were willing to do it again. We simply acknowledged loving each other enough to take the gamble.
Age? Well, to me, that's ego. It's really nothing practical.
If I do say so, I'm in pretty good shape. Doing a lot more cardio and yoga to prepare stamina and back, socking away cash for Charlotte's college (or pony) and curtailing the travel part of my career so I'm at home more and don't miss a thing.
And here's the thing. I know a lot. I've gained a certain amount of wisdom and perspective that might be helpful to a young girl. And since I'm no longer an avowed expert in the fine art of navel gazing, I know I'll never hesitate in the slightest to put Charlotte's and Emily's needs and desire above my own.
I'm actually going to be a pretty amazing dad. Sure, it's odd to look at high school Facebook friends and realize they've reached the empty nest stage and are getting ready to party on a global scale. Well, fair enough. While they were tending their chicks, I spent my 20s to 40s visiting and working in half the countries on earth. Global party? Ha. I've had hangovers in countries that no longer exist.
And I'm done with it. I'm ready for a different kind of second, or maybe third, act. One where I'm not looking over my shoulder at where I might've gone, or what I might've done. I had a run at it, better than most.
Now I'm ready to learn what a newborn can teach me. And, of course, I'm anxious to instill a few little life lessons and mature values in little Charlotte as well.
That "Daddy's Girl" onesie? I took it back and exchanged it.
Instead, I replaced it with a little denim number. It says, "Biker Babe."