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July 12, 2018



She had a Doc McStuffins sphygmomanometer around her arm when I walked into the room. With her fourth birthday freshly behind her, she’d probably decided it was finally time to take stock of her health. When she heard me entering the room, she didn’t turn around right away. Rather, she slowly, methodically finished taking her blood pressure, examining the little, eternally immobile plastic display with religious assiduity.

“Dad,” she explained when the imaginary reading was complete. “Guess what? I’m not dead!”

“That’s good, honey,” I said. “That’s wonderful.”

As I walked away, I thought how much time and effort it would have saved me if she could have verbalized that fact from the very start. I remembered all the times I reached over in the black night to feel her little infant chest, rising and falling, just to be sure; just to reaffirm her existence. I struggle with the theoretical. I enjoy the psychological tussle, but that doesn’t make it any less of a challenge. One day she had not existed, and then, as suddenly and improbably as a herd of giraffes taking flight and soaring across the dawn sky, she did.

How could something so central to myself suddenly just be. For that matter, how could it have not been before?

That’s why I had to creep up to her crib at night and feel her breathing, just to know for sure.

These days, my existential parenting has evolved. It’s not exclusively physical anymore. These days, it’s primarily verbal. When she’s playing on a rocky ledge or swimming in a choppy lake and she goes silent for a bit, I call out: “Hadley, are you alive?”

“Yeah, dad,” she calls back. “I am.”

Most often, these interactions are unnecessary, since she tends to sing little songs and give little sermons to herself and her toys wherever she goes. I know she’s real because a delightfully off-key song from Frozen is emanating from just over the ridge where I saw her disappear from sight, and I know she’s okay.

She talks. A lot. Yet unlike some parents, the ones who complain about the linguistic bludgeoning they receive from their kids, I can’t get enough of it. Ninety-nine percent of the things adults say to me have little or no meaning or value. It’s all platitudes or empty banter, that can be uttered and replied to without thought. I’m beginning to suspect that people are just terrified to think about or discuss anything important, so they prattle on endlessly about the fact that they don’t like the shape or color of their neighbors’ hedges.

People will not shut up to me about the weather, which, the last time I checked, is cold in the winter, muddy in the spring, hot in the summer, and “crisp” in the fall. If you drove to your destination, you will inevitably be met with: “So how was the drive?” to which I want to say: “Well, I didn’t die in a fiery wreck, so I guess it was fine.”

When people start talking about money, I just think: “How could anyone talk about something so unimportant?”

When things turn to politics, I hear a little scream deep within me. “What do these people think?” I wonder. “Do they think they are changing people’s minds?”

So, when conversing with adults, I’ve been trying to help pilot the banter into arenas of actual meaning.

When I finish a meal, and something has the audacity to say, “Well, someone was hungry!” I like to counter with: “We’re all going to die someday: What are your thoughts on that?”

When the conversation gets really boring, I like to jump in and simply ask: “So, on a related note, which god do you think is correct?”

Four-year-old children don’t talk about lawn care, or how much things cost, or politics. They talk about things that matter. Things that perplex and delight and edify the soul. Most often, they ask where things come from. I’ve recently been asked to explain the provenance of rainbows, cats and dogs (as species), houses, flatulence, and hummus. (The latter two being inexorably linked.)

Over the past couple years, I’ve been asked thousands of questions, and I’m proud to have kept a promise I made to my daughter a few days after she was born–a pledge to never answer one of her queries with: “Just because.” If I know the answer, I tell her. If I don’t, I admit it, then we set out to find the explanation, consulting books or various talking digital devices.

The whole point of art is to say something new, with your book or your painting or your song. When small children speak, they are almost always saying something new, because most of what they say is being put into words for the very first time.

While on vacation last week, I went to a cigar shop. I did what everyone there does, pretending to smell them and read about their characteristics, then purchased one I could afford primarily because I liked the colors and font on the label.

When I lit it that evening, sitting on a lakeside deck in New Hampshire, my daughter strolled by, sopping wet, smelling of water and hot dogs and emanating the buoyant sunshine she had acquired and stored up during the long, hot day.

“Oh dad!” she said. “You fired your smoker!”

I liked it so much better than “lit your cigar.”

Whenever she is choosing between two items, she poses the following question: “Should I get the one, one? Or the other one?”

While we were fishing recently, I brought in a small pan fish, only to have it spit out the hook and swim away to safety just before I could get it on land.

“Hadley,” I said with excitement. “I almost caught a fish.”

“That’s great, dad,” she replied. “I was almost proud of you!”

Every child has his or her own lexicon, filled with words that are not technically correct, but which are somehow even more true – more alive–than their conventional counterparts. The “pine corns” on the forest floor. The “piddows” on which they lay their heads. Things that took place “restaday” instead of “yesterday.”

In fact, when she speaks of time, she often sounds like Jorge Luis Borges, that towering author and intellectual, who so often freed himself and his readers from linear existence’s purely arbitrary bonds.

“Dad, did that happen when I was older?” she’ll ask of some event. “Or will it happen when I’m a baby?”

“Ah,” I’ll reply. “I see you are already familiar with Nietzsche’s eternal return.”

She’ll smile up at me and add: “Did it rain tomorrow?”

“Possibly?”

The thing is, the more Avant Garde my daughter’s questions become, the more she sounds like my former philosophy professors in college.

She wants to know what makes a chair a chair, and why people sometimes act in ways that harm others, both of which are very hard to answer. She wants to talk about the fact that she exists, and she wants to know what the world was like before she sprang forth into being. She wants to know how things were before she was alive.

And that, I think, is the most difficult question she has asked me so far. When she does, listening to her heart with a solid plastic stethoscope, her arms covered in cartoon-filled bandages that actively cure imaginary wounds, I stand there, stumped, with no hope of ever being able to conjure an answer:

“I really have no idea.”

 
 

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