I hadn’t signed up for the infant I was holding. The imaginary photo album that chronicled my life didn’t include any pictures of me and her. There were no blank pages waiting to be filled with snapshots of us. No loose leafs of paper on which I had written sage fatherly advice fell from that imagined miscellany of keepsakes. No. There was no record of this little girl.
Yet there I stood in the dark looking down at an infant in my arms. When there was no one there, she called out in the night. I had no quarrel with her. I had no right to make her the object of my resentment, which would unpredictably distend like some tumor into ire. For months I had raged about. I had fulminated and protested. But fury is an emotional conflagration — it devours combustible passions indiscriminately leaving behind charred ruins and smoldering embers. So too my wrath degenerated into melancholy.
It was so unfair. At least it had seemed that way. Without even knowing it I had cast some cosmic die, and the outcome had changed the course of my life. Former plans and schemes lay scattered about in my life’s imaginary boneyard. I was discontent as I looked out over a new emotional and professional terrain — panoramas of success had been replaced by quagmires of failure.
That’s all a lie. I hadn’t suffered any injustice. Fate hadn’t conspired to rob me of my future. Questions of fair and unfair were misplaced if directed at my life. No, I hadn’t anticipated my predicament. But to what extent had I planned any given moment in my life? Even the most carefully engineered circumstance is a salmagundi of realized design and unanticipated confusion. If I wanted to continue to claim the title adult, I had no right to self-pity or petulance. Insofar as “fair” played any role in my situation, it applied not to me but my actions: Would I treat other people fairly? Would I, to put it bluntly, blame an innocent infant for my acts?
She was too young to understand anything I said. Nevertheless, each night I picked her up when there was no one around and convinced her, just talked to her. I was afraid, there in the dark. So I told her how much I loved her. I reassured her. I promised always to be there. Every night as she slept in her bed, when there was no one around, I leaned over one last time, whispered “I love you” into her ear, and kissed her forehead. She’s only a child and she’s dependent on me.
Now six years later I can only with difficulty recall my rage. My love and hope have smothered it. I no longer worry about the shards of some imagined life. Instead, I revel in the life I envision, especially for you. You have made me happier than I’d been by far. Where I once saw only the dank morass of my life I now see the panoramic vistas of yours.
We have only a few more years together. One day you will leave. And that’s when, if I am successful, you’ll do the things that you always wanted to. Without me there to hold you back. Don’t think. Just do. Know that wherever you are, whatever you do, I’ll be watching you. Because more than anything, more than life itself, I want to see you girl, take a glorious bite out the whole world.
I didn’t sign up for the little girl whose hand I’m holding as we go to breakfast today. But nothing will slow us from filling up page after page of our imaginary photo album with real memories of us.
The songs and lyrics that inform this essay have been adapted, repurposed — violated? — to fit the context of the post. Music’s power stems in part from its ambiguity and malleability. Although these songs are different in so many ways, they both confront the twinned issues of responsibility and love. ↩
Here, perhaps obviously, I take adult to mean more than simply a person of a certain age and biological maturity. Instead, adult denotes emotional, mental, and intellectual development. Age and biological capabilities too rarely coincide with this meaning. ↩
I intend this post to be more than simply a confessional memoir. The goal, particularly of this paragraph, is to highlight how easy it is to become consumed by perceived injustices, injustices done to us by some abstract, perverted divinity (or, for the unvarnished atheists, reified Chance). This evaluation of life’s events assumes that the world, nature, society, anything out there cares enough about us to notice our existence. Rather than work so hard to identify the injustices we have suffered, perhaps we could spend more effort recognizing our own culpability for our situation and more time taking responsibility for how we respond to the circumstances that we have helped to create.[3a] It is all too easy to interpret life as a series of injustices. It is much harder to take our role in life seriously. But to do so, to recognize that we have a choice in how we respond to any circumstance, that’s what adults do. ↩
3a. Innumerable injustices and crimes have been committed against equally vast numbers of people. And those crimes have real and, at least in principle, identifiable perpetrators. Let’s not cheapen those real crimes and injustices by conflating the circumstances of our lives with them. ↩