Pema’s warm body was pressed on top of my lap and chest, her head curled under my chin. Our hearts, pumping the chemical syntheses that expresses themselves as emotions, were close. Her muscles were relaxed, but tension was secretly flowing into our veins. Bearing her entire weight on me, Pema let not a foot or elbow find its way to the couch below. I was the only surface.
“I’m going to leave in two minutes, okay pup?”
“Okay,” she said, trying to sound strong.
Pema and I had spent the last hour sitting together on Megan’s couch, more or less like this, she getting up occasionally to show me or her mom a drawing, a new dress she got from a friend, or to take a bite of the sweet, tangy clementine Megan had brought, whose aroma still clung to the air. Pema and I had been together for almost three days and it was time to drop her off with Mama.
“I’m going to go home and work for a little bit, and when you come back tomorrow we’ll hang out with Ruby and Francis, and maybe Advah. Okay?”
“Okay,” she answered, sliding off my lap and sitting on the couch next to me.
After nearly two years of separation, two years of going back and forth to Mama’s and Dada’s, largely without incident, Pema has recently begun having trouble saying goodbye. Somehow, almost uncannily, it happened just around the same time she lost her first tooth.
I stood up slowly, picked up my tea thermos, and walked to the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow at one, yeah?” I said to Megan. “We’ll hang out a bit, and then you’ll leave at two?” Our roles would be reversed then, Pema clinging to Mama while I sat largely unnoticed. As I put on my jacket, Pema walked under my feet and sat down in front of the door, blocking my exit.
Pema also doesn’t want to be alone anymore. She is newly afraid of the dark and has “scary” dreams. At least, that what she says. If I ask her what was scary, she’ll dive into a longwinded story, smiling and expressive, that eventually meanders into a series of playful scenes with friends. “So, what was scary?” I’ll ask her. “Well,” she’ll answer, in a way that perfectly mimics her mother or me explaining the meaning of a new word or how to perform some task, “We were all sitting around in a circle and the duck kept walking by, and…” “That doesn’t sound very scary,” I’ll say, interrupting her. “Yeah. Well,” she’ll respond, unfazed, “It wasn’t that scary, but it was a little scary.”
“Because of the duck?”
All this is normal enough, and clearly some of her behavior is based in part on having heard similar things from other children. She speaks of her “scary” dreams as if boasting, in the same prideful way she, upon hearing another child talk about a movie or television show, casually boasts that she’s seen, “like, six TV’s.” She just wants to be normal. Still, there is a different quality that has arisen in all these behaviors, and so far I’m not up to speed.
“Okay, pup,” I said, looking down at the diminutive posture of a little girl in front of the door, “I’m going to go now. I love you. I’ll see tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay,” she answered, scooting a little forward. Her eyes were downcast, as if looking me in the face would admit what was going on. She was trying to be strong; trying, because she wasn’t yet. Neither was I. I looked over at Megan, who was looking at Pema with loving sympathy. “Come here little one,” she said, “Can I hold you?”
Part of the newness in all this is that there’s a different level of maturity arising in Pema, and therefore me too. As a toddler, she couldn’t stand to be away from me or her mom, and I could feel it on an animal level. The attachment was so secure, so bonded, that she simply wouldn’t tolerate any separation. She couldn’t really conceive of it, and so Pema’s cry, should we have somehow separated beyond the degree of comfort, was akin to a duckling peeping for her mother. “I’m right here!” she seemed to be saying, so that Megan or I could find her quickly enough.
It was almost mechanical. I would respond quickly and efficiently, and while I sympathized with her tears, I didn’t empathize with her. I didn’t feel the same sense of loss, because even if she didn’t know where I was, I knew where she was. I knew she was safe, we were safe, and I didn’t sense the same separation that she did. I would scoop her up, hold her snugly, and say, “Hey pup, I’m right here.” She would immediately smell my breath, feel my skin and hear my voice. Satisfied, she would not, in that moment, have had any sense that I might, after all, still walk out the door in another fifteen seconds. Mere presence was the sole arbiter of comfort.
At such moments, even in the midst of Pema’s cries, I would have walked away with little strain on my heart, knowing that Megan would comfort her. Such a situation wasn’t heartbreaking, at least not to me. My point is not to undervalue the stress she may have felt at the time, but to describe how, as a parent, one sees the larger picture, responds, and remains at peace.
It’s different now. Pema cries not because she’s lost. She is not peeping for her me or her mother. She cries because she has begun to comprehend, truly comprehend, our separation. At five years old, the psychological and emotional bond between us is more complicated and nuanced than the relatively simple connection when Pema was still and infant or toddler. What makes this obvious is that, for me, I can no longer walk away in peace. I face the same pain and anguish.
When Pema was a few months shy of three years-old, Megan and I thought it would be healthy for her to attend a preschool two days a week. It wasn’t a school environment we really wished, but she was getting old enough to crave interaction with other children, and we thought this might be a good way to do it. It was a Waldorf school, with a class of about twelve, and her teacher, Miss Llora, was exceptional. The school was highly regarded. Her classroom, which resembled a house, complete with kitchen and living room, exuded a tactile sense of warmth and peace. I could not have imagined a better place.
Still, I regret it. At the time, I just wasn’t savvy enough to know what was best for Pema, and I mistook excellent care and loving expertise for an improvement over my fumbling uncertainty. In retrospect, I believe that was a mistake. The school was incredible, and I have nothing but praise for it and its staff. But my fumbling uncertainty was a greater asset, one that I wasted.
I remember the sadness I felt the first time I brought Pema to the school by myself. We walked through the gate, placed her snack box in the kitchen, and walked around to the playground, where all the children were dropped off and parents said goodbye. Megan and I had done this together several times, and Megan had done it alone twice now, coming home each time with a sagging heart. Now it was my turn. I was determined to be a stalwart and exemplary father, loving and patient, but also demonstrating trust in Ms. Llora and the school and Pema’s ability to negotiate this change.
I hung around with Pema a little while, pushing her on the swings, letting her show me the various play spaces, saying hello to Ms. Llora and some of the other kids. After a while, I figured it was time to go. I knew that in order for Ms. Llora and the other children to engage Pema’s attention, I would have to withdraw. “Okay, pup,” I said, “I’m going to go now. I’ll be back to pick you up in a little bit. Okay?” Pema didn’t say anything. She held loosely on to me, never venturing further than arm’s length.
A few minutes later, as I was walking away, Pema was crying in Llora’s arms, but she wasn’t running after me. I knew that Llorra she would do a great job of consoling Pema, and that in ten minutes she’d probably be absorbed in a game or peeling carrots, but right now, as my little duckling was peeping, I stood in awe of myself that I could simply walk away. My legs moved. I didn’t dare turn around. I walked mechanically to my car and forced myself to drive home, where I collapsed, heartbroken. I understood the rationality of it all, but I was a bit shocked that I could forgo the bond of love and trust for what seemed like a good learning experience.
I won’t say that I regret the experience completely, because there was much that Pema and I both learned during that year in school, but by and large I think it was a mistake. I was too young of a father. I didn’t yet understand all the implications. I was just going with the program. It wasn’t that attending the school was a mistake, it was that I wasn’t listening to my inner voice. I was specifically turning away from it.
Not anymore. I’ve found my voice as a father and caregiver, and I nurture it. I’m the big bad Dada, and I’m not going with anyone’s program. I can wrestle apart each moment and stay real. I can untangle the ropes, and I strut my stuff if I feel like it. In other words, I’ve shed the role of father and have simply become a father. I’m on the top rope, and I body slam like a maniac.
When I left Pema in the schoolyard with Ms. Llora, I was not yet a fully formed father. I wasn’t leaning on my own patience and strength. I was actually leaning on Pema. I was conflicted inside, and had little peace or clarity. I took all that discomfort and uncertainty and propped it against Pema, hoping that she, at two and a half years-old, would buck up and manage the situation gracefully so that I could walk away confidently. Certainly it was a bit more complex than that, but that was the root of our emotional and psychological interaction. I was pinned by circumstance, my vitality was sapped, and the ref counted to one…two… There was no confident strutting. No wonder Pema was crying.
I remember the time my brother left for college. Pete is a year and half older than me, one grade in school. We were very close. I always looked up to him, but even at an early age we were more like peers. His friends were my friends, and vice versa. Until puberty struck, everyone thought we were twins.
As the summer before his freshman year (my senior year of high school) came to a close, I knew that Pete would be leaving for college. The summer was memorable, both easy and exciting. We were fully mobile with a shared car, good jobs, good friends, and adequate money. We drove around the east side of Cleveland, playing golf at rinky courses when we weren’t working as caddies, drank coffee and smoked cigarettes, snuck beers at night, parked cars on isolated roads with our girlfriends, and generally did whatever we wanted to do. We weren’t crazy, but we were free. Our parents trusted us, and not without reason. We were young and wild, but also respectful, courteous and well-intentioned. We were well-meaning kids who were just old enough to bend the rules a bit.
I don’t recall the day he left in great detail. I remember our old brown station wagon, packed to the gills, and a terse goodbye from the door of my room. What I recall most vividly is lying face down on my bed after my mom and dad drove him away. I knew it was a big deal, and I was flooded with emotion, but I didn’t know how to authentically connect with that. Instead, I was buried by images of what I was maybe supposed to feel, or not feel, what it meant to be a young man, strong, stoic, or the prosaic scenes of departing brothers I had read about in novels or seen on TV. I cried, but I couldn’t even tell if that was real.
As I looked down at Pema, curled on the floor by the door, her face was drawn and taught, betraying the same sort of complex uncertainty I recall on my own face the morning Pete left. I could feel her in my facial muscles. She was holding back tears, struggling with her inner voice about whether she should stiffen up, be a man, and accept that life is painful sometimes. This was decidedly more complex than a peeping duckling.
Pema is only five years old. But I’m no longer seventeen. And I learn from my mistakes. I’m the big bad Dada, and the ref, distracted by some angry fans, hadn’t yet counted to three.
“Hey, pup,” I said, my body relaxing, “can I hold you?” I hurled my opponent off with a wild spasm. There was no three-count, and suddenly my back, bulging with muscles, was limber. The crowd, stunned, began to roar. This was my home turf. My opponent, trying to collect himself, ambled uncertainly around the ring, while I swung my arms and turned a few quicksteps under my powerful hips. People go crazy for that shit. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind - I was climbing the top rope.
“Ah, Pemalina…” I said, holding her with all my strength so that she could lay against my chest effortlessly. I stroked her back. “I love you. This is hard. It’s just hard. It’s not easy to say goodbye and I know you’re feeling sad. Me too. That’s exactly how we should feel right now.” Megan got up, a teary look of admiration in her eyes, and walked over to us. We embraced, softly and patiently.
“You know what I do after I leave?” I said, “I mope around for hours. It’s true. Last Sunday I came home and, you know that little music box thing?, I sat on the couch and played it super slow for almost an hour. Isn’t that funny?” I was referring to a small toy that plays “Zipadeedoodah” on tiny metal tines that resemble a miniature piano. As you turn the handle, little raised bumps rotate on a tumbler, striking the tines in the rhythm and melody of whatever song the tumbler is designed for, in this case “Zipadeedoodah.”
Pema giggled, that wet, mucousy sort of giggle that happens when you’re crying. I had my opponent cornered. I made a forlorn expression, imitating my listening to “Zipadeedoodah” in ultra-slow, but ultra-high frequency, each tiny note striking like the clink of a wine glass. Clink. Clink, clink. Poised gracefully on the top rope, I took a moment to rally the crowd. Arms akimbo, I flexed powerfully. Damn, I look good up here, I thought, my butt sculpting my red spandex shorts. My neck flared out and I made that face. You know the one.
Suddenly, I was in the air, the flex of the ropes adding buoyancy to my powerful leap. It happened so quickly, and yet, time stood still as if everything was in slow motion. My, oh, my, what a wonderful day.
I came down, all two-hundred and thirty pounds of muscle, crashing into the chest and legs of my opponent. It took but a few seconds to wrap him up. The ref, no longer distracted, slammed his hand on the mat - one, two, three. That was it.
“Okay, pup,” I said, “I am going to go though.” She relaxed, transitioning into Megan’s arms. There was sadness, but there was lightness too. After all, Pema is strong and mighty. She doesn’t need me or Megan to capitulate. What she needs, what all of us need, is simply to be acknowledged. Sadness prevails. Grief is real. So is joy, and tiny metal pianos.
As I walked away, I waved and goofed it up a bit through every window, even knocking on the one behind the couch, over her head. I did this to add levity, but also to demonstrate that, even in leaving, I was not turning my back to her. She was laughing and the consoling reunion between Mama and daughter was already well underway. I was just a bluebird on their shoulder.