May I See Your License, Registration, and Parenting Permit?
In the early 1980s, my 1-year-old daughter Laura tumbled down a flight of stairs and landed on her head.
My wife Jayne and I had visitors in our second-floor apartment in Red Wing, Minn. Jayne walked our guests down the interior stairs and out the door. I turned my back on Laura, who seemed to be content sitting in her saucer-shaped walker. Instead, Laura decided to trail after her mother and boom-boom-boom, down she went, three steps to a small landing. I ran faster than any Olympic track star ever and picked her up. Laura wasn’t hurt and didn’t even cry. I, however, was mortified and was sure my wife and her relatives were going to fire me on the spot from my job as “Father.”
A few years later, while living in Pueblo, Colo., I took Laura to the local mall and lost her. Yup, I lost my preschool-aged daughter at the mall. With my heart pounding, I frantically scrambled in ever-widening circles until I came upon her. She was in the safe company of two concerned women. The withering glares the women gave me (as they triple-checked with my daughter that yes, I was her daddy) made me want to reach for my wallet and turn over my “Daddy License” right there on the spot. In my mind, the two women morphed into one stern-looking, imposing, motorcycling, jack-booted person with dark glasses and a badge. “Yes, officer, I was driving over the speed limit, I have a broken headlight, and I LOST MY DAUGHTER IN THE MALL! Haul me off to jail right now!”
I always worked hard at keeping my children safe. Still, bad things can happen in the blink of an eye. In the late 1980s, my 2-year-old daughter Julia lost her two front teeth when she tripped down some steps and planted her face on our basement’s concrete floor. Good Lord, my children and stairs! Ineffectual me stood below in the basement and witnessed her fall. No Olympic speed this time. I was ready to sentence myself to hard labor. No need to wait for the judge to pronounce me guilty of unfit parenthood. For days afterwards, Julia looked like Frankenstein’s monster. It was another few years before her permanent teeth grew in. I imagine that everyone who saw Julia and me together thought, “Call Child Welfare!”
I can only imagine now, looking back, what thoughts were spinning around in my father’s head. On the outside he appeared cool and calm. On the inside, I’m guessing his brain cells were screaming, “I have a kid who has a freaking fish hook embedded in his skull!” David and Dad went to the hospital. David came back with a Popsicle and Dad with a few more gray hairs.
I’m sure my own parents had their combined moments of shock, horror, and guilt – along with a healthy dose of “Nobody told me parenting would be so hard!” I don’t remember this particular incident, but I have a scar on my forefinger from when I, apparently fascinated by the sight of my mother using a sewing machine, stuck my toddler finger in so that the needle stitched a half-inch length of thread neatly through my skin.
My little brother David once had a neighborhood kid cast a three-pronged fish hook into the back of his head. I can only imagine now, looking back, what thoughts were spinning around in my father’s head. On the outside he appeared cool and calm. On the inside, I’m guessing his brain cells were screaming, “I have a kid who has a freaking fish hook embedded in his skull!” David and Dad went to the hospital. David came back with a Popsicle and Dad with a few more gray hairs.
My wife is an elementary school aide. Among her many tasks is keeping kids safe on the playground. Yes, there have been some broken arms and tongues frozen to metal poles (that still happens), but overall she is very good at keeping her young charges safe. She calls herself the “Catcher in the Rye,” after Holden Caulfield’s misinterpretation of the Robert Burns poem “Comin’ Through the Rye.” One of Holden’s dreams is to protect little kids who are playing games in the rye from falling off a cliff.
I imagine that we all carry with us in our hearts Holden Caulfield’s thoughts:
“What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”
You don’t always catch them. I didn’t catch Laura and Julia those times. Perhaps practice and diligence kept their younger siblings safer. Under my watch, those two made it through childhood without much more than sunburn and the occasional splinter. All four kids are grown-ups now. I have four grandchildren. I’m currently standing out there in the field, stationed near that steep edge. These arms might not be as strong as they were 20 years ago, but they are stretched wide, forming a barrier as best they can, while my young frolic through the rye.