Dad’s the Word
(Excerpt from the Fatherhood Memoir)
I was sitting in the rocking chair that no longer rocks, twisting myself around so that my book caught the best of the light from the lamp on the small glass table alongside the chair.
She slipped into the room, her bare feet making no sound, and my nose was in my book, so I didn’t see her, but you always sense your child’s presence. You know when she is there. She came towards me at a bound, a half-traipse, half-skip and final jump as she hurled herself onto the chair that might have stopped rocking because it has borne these assaults for years.
This was our bedtime ritual, our goodnight-and-goodbye-for-now moment, a leave-taking that becomes inexplicably and unnecessarily fraught on occasions.
I looked at her carefully: the bright, large, untroubled eyes, the wrists that are still so tiny, the toes and ears that are miniatures of mine, her hair. She has been growing her hair for more than a year now. It falls in a tumble of gleaming filaments halfway across her back. Its smell has become her smell.
She is a small child. She is nine, but can still curl herself, her whole body, into my lap on the chair. Hugging her tightly, we exchanged our final few words of the day. It was an ordinary moment, and should have been dulled by its repetition every day. But there was some magic in it. It seemed precious. And although the ritual is identical, each one of those moments seem unique.
Running my hands through her hair, I wondered: How much longer? How much longer do I have with this?
It was a Sunday morning, and we were walking up the steep incline that leads from the gates of our apartment block to a four-point crossing. It had rained the night before and the burnished green of the trees was at odds with the fetid puddles, the water so sullied that you could barely see your reflection in it.
‘Baba, that cloud looks like a bird,’ Oishi said. As I stared at the grimy Mumbai sky, she detached her finger from mine, pulled ahead and switched over to my right side, the side on which the road is.
The pavement was a mess. There was a car parked on the road. We had walked around the car, and were walking up the middle of the lane.
An SUV came tearing down the slope. It was so close that I felt its animal breath on us. Its madly spinning tyres were inches away from my girl.
I reached the top of the road, wondering about the continual anxieties that parenthood brings, realizing that it will never go away, that one set of them will be replaced by another.
‘To have a family is like asking for it,’ writes the English novelist, Rupert Thomson, in his memoir, This Party’s Got to Stop. ‘Tempting fate. There’s so much that can go wrong, and there isn’t a lock in the world that can protect you.’
There is a beautiful, persuasive moment in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story, ‘A Choice of Accommodations’, in which a father, who is devoted to his two small daughters, realizes how precious a commodity solitude has become in his life, and how keenly he treasures those moments of being on his own.
Wasn’t it terrible that after all the work one put into finding a person to spend one’s life with, after making a family with that person . . . that solitude was what one relished most, the only thing that, even in fleeting, diminishing doses, kept one sane?
Like a lot of Lahiri’s writing, this has the imprimatur of truth. Parenthood (and there is a lot of it in Unaccustomed Earth, her second, magnificent collection of stories) is underpinned by the tension between the pleasure of involvement with the child and the desire for freedom from that involvement – or at least the desire for a temporary liberation from it.
It’s a complex thing, this irascibility and exasperation. While I am reasonably certain that almost all parents feel it (or have felt it at some point or the other) it’s a feeling that one often dares not articulate; because that same irascibility is never unmixed with love for the child and loathing for oneself. But it’s there.
It turns up when the infant refuses to go to sleep. When, after walking around with her, rocking her, hand on the back of her neck, having placed her on her cot, slid hand out from under her back, tiptoed out and just celebrated one’s success, she begins to cry. She’s awake – again.
It turns up when she is a year old, and one is travelling in an unfamiliar country, and as one struggles with the road map and tries to figure out the nearest underground train station while she sleeps in her pushchair. She wakes up, hungry, begins to bawl and demands to be fed, right then, right there.
It turns up when the child is, say, six or seven, when her curiosity is boundless, her absorption in the moment is absolute, and her sense of being at the heart of everything is at its most acute. After a long, dreadful day, when finally back home, one is reading something truly memorable, shutting out the unpleasantness of the rest of the day, and the questions turn up, incessant, earnest, and one has no answer, one abhors the questions that compel one to look up from the book.
As soon as the oh-do-leave-me-alone-for-a-moment sort of irritability and annoyance travel through one’s brain like an electric charge, one feels shamed and chastened. Moments after being annoyed (or is it while one is being annoyed?), one feels the unconditional love one has for one’s child more acutely.
Each deals with this contradictory impulse, in his own way. And no sooner than the cause for vexation is withdrawn, no sooner than one is away and travelling and too much on one’s own, one’s existence is filled with the ache of missing her. One especially misses what the poet and memoirist Blake Morrison calls her ‘tactility, her skin-joy’.
There is no escaping the fact that parenting involves treasuring those rare moments of solitude. But had there been merely the solitude, lots of it, and no parenting at all, the solitude – for me, at least – would be acutely unfulfilling.
There is only this or nothing. And nothing is so much worse.