So today my daughter and I were discussing the Black Power Revolution in Trinidad in 1970. After a preliminary discussion, she was supposed to do some follow-up research, read what she had found, and try to make sense of it before calling me back to talk a little more. Then lunch. Then, perhaps, some general stuff about the history of the Caribbean. Videos, most likely. When she missed our appointment, I called her back. Then I called her mother. She hadn’t heard from her for a while, either. She was fine, as it turned out. She forgot to put the phone to charge, forgot to call me back. Exactly.
Maybe she didn’t want to have to recite, from notes and memory, the details of a history she only just this past hour became exposed to in greater depth. Who knows? She has a mind of her own.
I, on the other hand, felt myself collapse beneath a pile of terrors, crawling out from under it to answer the phone and hear her ask if I was mad at her.
Me: Mad? No, baby. Not mad.
Not mad, only now nursing a splitting headache from the maelstrom of unmentionable things that saw my reason drain from me, as though I’d seen a ghost or been expecting one. Not mad, baby, only a little nauseated by the helplessness that flight or teleportation alone could resolve. Not mad, baby.
Me: Just worried. I feel better now that I know you’re okay.
Her: Okay, Daddy.
Now it’s 2004.
I am a first year grad student. I worry that my parental instinct would somehow be hampered–that I’ll be too caught up in doing what I thought I need to do that I’ll numb myself against the “other things”–the “everyday life” things that (I was warned) should not be allowed to get in the way. I listen but don’t take the warning to heart. I still worry that she, my daughter, might suffer from the focus and functional disregard of a student-father in pursuit of a degree that would license his abstractions about this or that at her expense.
I worry that I’ll be forced to make some Abrahamic sacrifice to achieve what it is I desire–admission, acceptance, an audience that would validate what I had long thought and scribbled in notebooks but only secretly shared.
When I get home from classes and teaching, they are there. Awake. Exhausted. One in tears, the other only just beyond it. My worries, I realize, have been misplaced. Her cries reorient me.
She has a fever. Her little body is all broken out in hives–“heats,” we call it–and she’d been crying nonstop for a while now.
Her mother and I are both quite new at this, feeling our way through the days and nights, feedings, changings, drifting gradually from the texts we devoured in expectation of her. We still don’t know what to expect by that point, but the time for study had come and gone, and the reality of our lives has taken a new form beyond the schedule.
A call had already gone out to our obstetrician, a new doctor whose facility with his patients is more than admirable. He handles panic, ours and others’, with a cool self-assuredness. This was no emergency, and he saw no reason to admit her (that would come later, with our discovery of a peanut allergy).
Just a little fever this time.
But parenting magnifies the vision–it bends as it magnifies. Fear and newness exaggerate. A little fever can seem to blaze into an inferno.
And when there’s a fire, there’s no time for worry or thinking, or getting mad. (It’s only in retrospect that I realize the way I hold her resembles the motion I make if I were getting in position to “think” about something, about some one of the abstractions I chase like a mangrove crab or a flag woman. That same arc is the one I imagine I’d make when, racked with grief, I would hold my belly and my head and bawl if anything happens to her.)
When there’s just no time, and I understand that ambivalence is nothing more than a luxury that has no bearing when a little fever rages and rages in her little body, the answer is simple, really. I hold her.
I hold her. Her skin to mine. Halfway between reflection and sorrow, confusion and fear, I find the whatever it takes–strength, perhaps–to hold her. I stand there with her, my child. My child. She and I both helpless amid the flames. I rock her through the tears (I still do, even over the phone, when she needs a hand to navigate a sadness or a passing guilt). I sing to her. Sade. I let her warm my heart.
I love her to sleep.
And, with her in my arms, worry passes into calm, fear into peace, and (as her exhausted mother takes a picture of our bond) I hope like hell my baby’s okay.
It’s 2013 again.
She’s called a few times now, checking on me, to see if I’m okay.
Me: I am, baby. You alright?
Her: Yeah, I’m good.
Her: Okay, bye.
Click. Lesson learned. The revolution can wait.