A Fair To Remember

Friday, August 21:

This misty evening Bernadette and I are wandering the 4-H fairgrounds with Penelope strapped in a carrier on my back. Two people love this backpack: Penelope and my chiropractor. As we walk, Penelope slurps on an ice cream cone, struggling to eat it. I’m in my forties and still face the same dilemma. She nibbles off the bottom of the cone. Ice cream drips down the back of my neck; yellow and orange sprinkles form the constellation Tucana in my (mostly) black hair.

I’m not the neatest of eaters, but ice cream down my back is a new sensation. One of the advantages of now having a toddler is when I push away from the dinner table I’m not the only one with food in my hair. So, as you can imagine, teaching a child how to eat properly isn’t my strongest suit. I tend to believe that wearing jeans is like wearing a giant napkin. I don’t own a shirt without a tiny brown smudge from a morning incident involving coffee and my automobile. In one particularly egregious example, I was eating cottage cheese at work when I started coughing. For some unfathomable reason, as cottage cheese sputtered from my mouth, I spun my head around and did an impersonation of a lawn sprinkler.

We started this evening at the fair by heading immediately to the pens holding cattle, sheep and goats, which naturally makes our little carnivore hungry. Our next stop, therefore, is the food lane, where we load up on corn dogs, cheese fries, a gyro, a sausage and peppers sandwich the size of a wiffle ball bat, and lemonade. (Official disclaimer as demanded by the Mrs.: We don’t usually eat this way for dinner every night, but we were at the 4-H fair and thought it’d be appropriate.) We’re hoping this is enough food for us all, but Penelope is a bottomless pit. I was pleased to hear China declare a few days ago that its food shortage had ended.

So, we find a picnic bench near the bandstand where “Beatlemania Again” — the name just cracks me up every time I think about it — breaks into a rousing septuagenarian version of “She Loves You.” Here’s how the meal proceeds: Penelope takes a bite of a corn dog, gets 60 percent in her mouth, 10 percent on the picnic table and 30 percent hits the ground. I bite into the sandwich. Peppers and sauce squirt onto my jeans. Penelope tries to eat a piece of hot dog that’s fallen onto the table, and I knock over the lemonade trying to stop her. Penelope bites into a French fry and cheese winds up in her hair. It’s my turn; now there’s cheese on my chin.

Bern looks baffled. “Really? This is the example you’re setting for our daughter?”

I adopt a dopey sheepish look on my face — the same one I’ve been using regularly for the past 18 years. I do what any mature adult would, blame the kid: “She keeps bouncing around on my lap. It’s like eating during an earthquake.”

Bern spots a slathering of thick processed cheese sludge on my elbow and frowns. “You don’t need a bib. You need a tarp.” We finish “eating” and I carry Penelope over to an outdoor Porta-John sink so we can bathe. We splash around in the water to “Twist and Shout” before I slide Penelope into the carrier and hoist her onto my back. Ten minutes later, she’s hungry again, so we’re standing on line for ice cream.

As we wait, I watch a gaggle of teenage girls pass by in shorts and canvas Chucks. I know someday, when Penelope’s a teen, she’ll come here with her friends, and I’ll be sitting at home with Bern, who will no doubt have a mildly amused look on her face because there will be pizza sauce in my ear.

Penelope yanks her pink baseball cap off her head and drops it on mine, giggling all the while. My back is barking from carrying her around all evening. I don’t mind a bit.

After darkness slides across the skyline the fireworks show begins. Bern, Penelope and I head to the car, open the hatch and climb into the back to watch. The fireworks boom beyond the treeline. Penelope nestles between us, and I notice she’s touching us both.


Black dog days

Tuesday, August 18:

(Note: This entry is a bit of a downer, so feel free to skip it. I promised to share the good, the bad and the ugly in this blog and life isn’t always sunshine and lollipops. The next few blogs are goofy — promise!)

The last few days have been difficult and have culminated with perhaps one of the worst days in my life since my uncle was murdered seven years ago. I guess in some ways I’m fortunate that bad news and bad tidings have often bypassed me like a stranger. Recently, fears of the responsibilities I have signed up for continually crash down upon me.

One lesson I quickly learned these past few days: Although you’re focused on raising your child, problems and tragedies from other directions in your life won’t cease. An elderly parent in bad health, the personal problems of your loved ones, a sick pet and so forth, still happen. Sometimes bad times come in heaps, and there’s nothing you can do about them except deal with it. And, unfortunately, I’m not dealing with it very well.

But every problem faded into the background this afternoon. Bernadette called an ambulance today after doubling over from severe stomach pains. Our neighbor was kind enough to rush to our home to watch our daughter. I dropped everything at work, stopped home to check on Penelope and hurried to the hospital.

As an aside, I always wonder about this: Is it OK to have the CD player blasting when you are rushing to the hospital? And, if so, is some music more appropriate than others? Just wondering…

Waiting in the emergency room, all the feelings of anxiety and worry that I’ve been experiencing for the past few days are welling up inside. As I contemplate everything, I feel like I’m losing my balance. It’s much like the disoriented feeling you get when, after enjoying a matinee in a dark theater, you swing open the door and are blinded by a bright summer sun. I’ve been feeling like that all the time lately. I feel unprepared to handle the problems that confront me; my judgment is off and yet I fumble onwards.

About an hour later, Bern is led into a back room where a nurse starts examining her. The cause of her illness is a mystery, but she is in intense pain and is given a morphine drip in her IV.

Bern looks at the morphine drip, then looks at me, worried. What if this is something serious? she asks. What if this is stomach cancer? I don’t know what to say. All the fears I’ve had of being a parent rush forward, all the times lately that I’ve taken Bern for granted, and all the mistakes that I’ve been making lately roar back. I realize what I lose if I lose her. Stupid and horrible and rotten of me to only realize it sitting in an emergency room of a hospital. And, if her fears are true, will I be able to raise this little girl on my own? Can I handle it? I’d never considered the possibility of that happening.

I step outside surrounded by smokers — smoking outside an emergency room is something I’ll never understand — plop down on the curb for a few moments to collect myself then head back inside. Bern’s feeling a little better — God bless morphine! — and we start to chat, aimlessly at first but suddenly we start discussing our lives together and what we want to do with them. With potential tragedy lurking in the corridors of our lives, we start making plans. We’re tired of New Jersey; we’ve lived here most our lives. We love our neighbors and friends but most of our family is gone from the area. We want Penelope to have as full a life as possible, and we want to move on.

“We talked about moving to Chicago someday. Maybe we should reconsider that.” Bern and I both love Chicago — the winters (yes, the winters), the culture, the music, the parks, the Blackhawks. (OK, maybe the last one is more for me.) We talk about the type of townhouse we want, the neighborhoods we’re interested in and so forth. We allow ourselves to dream of a different life. Perhaps a better life for us.

The doctor enters. He says Bern has either a really bad case of gastro-esophageal reflux disease, or gall stones. Twin sighs of relief. Silently — and clumsily thanks to her morphine buzz — Bern dresses, and I collect her belongings.

Sometimes it’s downright scary how we can lose sight of our true selves. We struggle to accept change and to understand what’s right and wrong in our lives. We make mistakes. We pray for forgiveness and try to make amends. We hope our loved ones and friends will find the compassion in their hearts to recognize our shortcomings and see the goodness that sometimes gets buried within when we temporarily lose our way. We also learn about who really cares and who really counts: When the chips are down, they stick with you no matter what.

The next day I’m driving from work, but rather than head immediately home, I detour down a side street and park in front of a church. I enter, kneel and pray. I don’t typically go to church so I’m expecting a minister to chase me out at any moment. The following day, I pull up in front of a bar, Hillbilly Hall, and step inside for a beer. Again, I find myself praying. I guess I’m covering all my bases. But, somehow, somewhere, I know everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.

The Wiggle Worm and The Hungry Caterpillar

Friday, August 14, 2009:  


There’s something about a diaper that turns Penelope into Reed Richards of Fantastic Four fame. Reed Richards — for those of you who didn’t grow up in a house full of comic books — is a guy who, due to an accident in outer space, can stretch his limbs and bend his body in all directions at once. As soon as I slap a diaper beneath Penelope, she spins, swirls, turns, jukes and dips like an NFL running back in the open field. I stab furiously with the tape on the back of the diaper only to watch it stick to her armpit or kneecap. Eventually, using two hands, one leg and my forehead, I’m able to hold the wiggle worm steady for a few seconds, long enough to pin the diaper on. It doesn’t quite look right, but as long as I can get her pants on so her mother won’t know, it’s all good.

Each day, I learn something new about my daughter and about being a father. I worry constantly about screwing up the job. As Penelope raises her arms so I can slip her shirt on I say, “Oh fuck, get your shirt on. Our guest is here.” Naturally I’m mortified, and I now believe the next word out of Penelope’s mouth will be a resounding, cheerful “FUCK!” (She’ll probably say it as soon as she plops down on my mother’s lap.) And naturally, I follow that sentence with “Oh shit! I can’t believe I just said that!” Sometimes, I am truly hopeless.

One thing I’m trying to figure out about our daughter is how she gets along with the two dogs and cat in our home. The four-page question-and-answer form from the adoption agency ambiguously claims: “She likes dogs and cats.” However, whenever the dogs enter the room, Penelope starts yelling “Ah! Ah!” as though she’s either very afraid or her diaper’s on backwards. Umm, forget I wrote that. Anyway, her behavior with the dogs has led to the conclusion that either: A) She doesn’t really like dogs and cats and the folks at the adoption agency were being polite because they knew we had dogs and a cat; B) She likes dogs and cats from a distance, say, from across a street where she can point and yell excitedly without the possibility of sloppy wet tongues kissing her face or snarfing her food; C) She likes dogs and cats fresh out of the oven, steaming over a plate of stir-fried carrots and onions. Option C is the reason why, a while back when we were compiling a photo album of pictures of Bern and I and our home to send to Penelope in China, we were careful not to take a picture of the pets in the kitchen. We didn’t want Penelope to get the wrong idea.

Learning about Penelope’s likes and dislikes, and how she communicates are challenging. We discover that when she rubs her chest and says “Bao!” it means she’s had enough food; that she’s “full”. “Nin Yan Yaoh!” means walk her to the bathroom; a frantic “Nin Yan Yaoh!!” means you better pick her up and run. In turn, we teach Penelope how to give a thumbs up, how to play Patty Cake and how to toast. (Don’t worry, we’re not filling her sippy cup with wine.) She’s picking up English words like “Open please!” when she wants the nipple taken off her bottle. She listens and understands far more English words than she speaks.

Several guests arrive at our home this first week. Earlier today, Dawn arrived armed with puzzles and a little stuffed beagle toy. Dawn had heard how our beagles frightened Penelope and thought a stuffed dog would help. As Penelope opens her gifts, I think how a few years down the road we’ll all take her to hockey games and teach her the sport.  And I think how someday our little girl will grow up and live a long healthy life (I hope), and how she’ll take her kids to hockey games or, say, nursery rhymes. We may teach Penelope seemingly innocuous rhymes and games, but she will carry them through the next 80 years, long after we’re all dust.

Later, before bedtime, Penelope and I snuggle into the big pink chair in her bedroom to read about the hungry caterpillar as it wiggles its way through food until it becomes a beautiful butterfly. As Penelope nestles besides me, I think how someday my daughter, too, will grow into a beautiful butterfly. And I think about how she is already wiggling her way into my heart.

Penelope slides off my lap and onto the bed just as Bern pops her head into the doorway. Bern raises her eyebrows, “Why does her butt look so lumpy?”