Ever since the birth of my first child I have relentlessly questioned whether I have the strength of character, patience, unselfishness and depth of love needed to be a dad. That questioning has been my personal demon, and forced me to become acquainted with working hard to overcome the shortcomings I see in the mirror.
It was romantic mystery that led me to Dorrie, who became my wife. Love grew, and several biology lessons later children were born. Katie was the last engendered, and is our only daughter. Her brother Robbie sometimes refers to her as “Robbie version 2.0,” while brother Wills lobbied early and unsuccessfully to name her “Poopie Doopie,” but that is another story.
Our first-born arrived with the brilliant blue eyes he still has today. I remember a moment holding him, brand-new, looking into his face — when a warm blue light erupted from deep within his skull and poured from his eyes, as a far-off voice said: “We got him this far, now it’s up to you.” The light receded, leaving just my son’s blue eyes. Maybe my questioning began at that moment, even as I handed him to my exhausted smiling crying wife, as I wondered just how tired and full of a joy a person had to be to hear voices and see light pour from infant eyes.
For the record, in the hours just before Dorrie woke me to drive us to the hospital, there had been a night of debauchery involving single-malt Scotch assisted by my dear friend Stuart. It has been more than 23 years since then and there have been no more voices, no more blue light, in case you were wondering
In the 17 years since Katie has set records in the several states in which we have lived for being the easiest child to raise, I know – beset by that demon of dad-doubt — that I have sometimes fallen short, most often in the patience department.
In addition to lack of patience, I have been known to go on and on (and on) over some didactic point that any of my children, especially Katie, understood long before – probably even before I started talking. When Katie was younger, and I was consumed with managing various newsrooms that at the time seemed more important than being with my children, I especially remember being short-tempered with her awe-inspiring curiosity and imagination. Thinking back, I realize she was smarter than me even then.
But at least once, on the day Katie broke her face, I was the perfect dad.
I was in the middle of a meeting at the Wyoming newspaper where I was the editor when I was told my wife was on the way to the emergency room because Katie had fallen out of the van. When I got to the hospital a few minutes later, there was Katie sitting on a gurney with her mother. She was crying, her hands covering her face. She was about 5 years old.
X-rays were indicated, but Katie refused to remove her hands from her face. The medical staff wanted to use force, or sedation, so the films wouldn’t be marred by skeletal images of her tiny hands. Her mother was guarding her from the ER doctor and various technicians who had failed to convince her to shift even a finger.
Dorrie told me she had parked in front of our house, Katie had scooted across the back seat, a car seat had tipped, and Katie fell — landing squarely on the curb with her face. One of her brothers, or both, began saying, “Katie broke her face! Katie broke her face!”
For whatever reason, I immediately understood. She had heard, “Katie broke her face,” and literal-minded, believed if she removed her hands pieces of her face would fall to the floor.
I convinced the medical staff to leave me alone with her, took Katie in my arms and sat on the white-sheet-covered table in the X-ray room.
She was quietly sobbing, with her hands pressed to her face like twin limpets. I don’t remember the words that came from my mouth – something about Humpty-Dumpty – but she stopped crying.
I held her for a while and then carried her to the mirror that hung on the wall in the darkened room. We agreed that we would look together – very slowly. The image in that mirror of my little raven-haired girl, hands tightly pressed to her face, has never left me.
It took a long time, as finger by finger her fear left her, but eventually there was Katie’s face, with no cracks and no missing pieces. Her reflection looked at me in the mirror, now with the beginnings of a smile.
There was big bump on her forehead, and some scratches but her face was unscathed. I think we stopped for ice cream on the way home.
In my mind today, I can still see Katie’s image in that mirror, but I don’t remember seeing myself reflected.
That’s what I have tried to remember Katie teaching me on that day when I was the perfect dad — there was no “me” there.