There are some things in life that should remain forever private; chief among them are the thoughts in my head. Not because they are sacred or profound, but because they are ridiculous. For instance, I don’t know why I even bother to set my alarm clock. Well, actually I do know, but it is not as simple as, “I have to get up in the morning.” No, for me, it is a much more complex, existential ritual that I perform on a daily basis. It is a test of my strength, my will, and my determination; because I know full well that I will be wide awake, long before that annoying alarm has had a chance to disturb my slumber. For me, it is literally a ‘race against time’. “Take that!! You inanimate timekeeper, masquerading as a radio! You can take all of your traffic reports, news updates, golden oldies, and drive time banter and shove it!! You’re not going to catch this boy napping. Oh no! You’re going to have to get up pretty early in the morning to beat this guy.” Yeah, so what if I’m in a constant state of exhaustion. It’s good to start every day with a victory.
And so it was on this Tuesday morning that my eyes snapped open to catch that relentless blinking beast at precisely 6:17 A.M. Before it had a chance to strike, I quickly disarmed it by flipping the switch to the “off” position. Victory was mine. I had beaten the beast by a full thirteen minutes.
I decided to let Anna sleep until the last possible moment. I guess that is the difference between fathers and daughters…between adults and children. She does not have to worry about tomorrow, radio alarms, or even if it’s Tuesday. That is my job. Anna is fully present; here and now. As she sleeps and as she dreams, she knows that even her nightmares will be softened by me. “Daddy, I had a bad dream. I was falling real fast…” In her sleep, as in her waking, she knows that I will catch her.
Today is a particularly busy day for us. It is Anna’s first day of camp. There are showers to be taken, hair to, not only be washed, but combed, lunches to be made, backpacks to be packed, and every item and garment to be personally tagged with Anna’s very own name. I’ve even been instructed to stick a nametag on Anna, herself. Make no mistake; this is a day camp where there will be no identity crises.
Picking out Anna’s wardrobe seem to go on forever; shorts, tops, bathing suits, socks, underwear, cruise wear, après swim wear, all of which had to be tagged. But that was nothing compared to the assembly of her lunch. I stood in the kitchen awash in a sea of decisions. This was no ordinary lunch. This was more than a sandwich. This was more than mere sustenance. This was a ‘nutritional statement’…of who we are and what we are about. This was a testament to single fatherhood. Would this lunch be coveted by hundreds of other yet unknown fellow campers? Would Anna be able to trade up for some other snacks? Would she emerge victorious in her first ‘power lunch’? The clock was ticking. I had to take action. What sort of lunchmeat? Whole wheat or rye? And what about mayonnaise? And if I did indeed choose to go with mayo, do I cover both the northern and southern exposures of the interior of her sandwich? Wait. Maybe lunchmeat is wrong. What if she encounters some judgmental vegans? However, when it came to the ultimate decision, crust or no crust, my course was clear. Anna is seven years old. She’s not a baby anymore. Let her eat crust! Hey, I know that sounds harsh, but we can’t coddle these kids forever.
I could delay no longer. I had to roust ‘her highness’. The hour was getting late and there would be no time for negotiations. The camp bus would be there and she had to be on it, for there were hundreds of other little nouveau campers with their families living out these very same morning maneuvers. (Although, I’m fairly certain, they weren’t as conflicted as I was about the mayo.) And they too would have to be in place, ready and waiting for the arrival of the big yellow bus.
“Anna, time to get up.” Who was I kidding? We both knew that this was only a warning shot. It wouldn’t be until the third or fourth wake-up call that Anna would even deign to stir. “Come on Anna, we’re gonna be late!!” I’ll bet at that moment she wished she could disarm me like my old faithful radio/alarm. I take her first audible protest as my signal to start breakfast. With breakfast on the burner, I go back to Anna. It is now 7:28. The thirteen minutes I had banked earlier was rapidly losing its value.
“Daddy, I don’t feel good.” Roughly translated that means. “I’m scared.” For the moment, being fed, watered, and tagged, had to be put on hold, so I could hold Anna in my arms. It’s amazing; a little love goes a long way.
7:52. The big yellow bus will be here in eight minutes. After a brief summit about her outfit du jour, she set about to accessorize. Accessorize?!? Thank God for those thirteen extra minutes.
At long last, we were ready. We gathered ourselves and went to sit on the stoop. However, our excitement quickly turned into dreaded anticipation. As our fears grew bigger our talk grew smaller, until our communication was reduced to no more than some sideward glances, and a few forced smiles, punctuated by an occasional heavy sigh. Sometimes words fail. Sometimes, the most meaningful moments can only be shared in silence.
Suddenly, like the sun looming large on the horizon, the big yellow bus emerged. As it hurled towards us, our pulses quickened. But this did not feel like daybreak, it felt more like heartbreak. The bus ground to a halt and the door flung open. Anna looked back at me. “Come on honey, I’ll walk you on the bus.” As we stepped onto the bus, Anna could contain herself no more. Her sadness erupted as tears flowed down her cheeks. “Please, daddy, stay with me.” And for one split second, for one brief moment, I thought to myself, “Why not?” I could just sit at the back of the bus like some overgrown retard. (I know that’s politically incorrect, but remember, these are my private thoughts.) Sure, I’d be the object of derision. The kids would make fun of me, but who cares? I would get to be with my daughter. Who would I be hurting? The only obstacle I foresaw was that none of my clothes were tagged. But wait! I’m wearing underwear that says Calvin Klein. That’s it! I could be Calvin, the overgrown retard. That’s what I thought, but that’s not what I said. I said, “Honey, I’m sorry, but I promise I’ll be waiting ‘right here’ for you when you get home.” I hugged her and kissed her warm, wet, salty little face. I waved like a madman until she and the bus were out of sight. I would have stood there all day waving if I thought it would bring her any peace or comfort. But, sad as she was, I let her go, because that too is my job. It is my job to hold her and it is my job to let her go.
It was a long day for me. Waiting, wondering, and worrying… These are the private thoughts in my head that are sacred. “Anna, your love has gone through me like a bright light through a prism. Everywhere I look I see your colors.”
At last the hour had arrived. As promised, I stood there waiting in my appointed spot. Waiting. And waiting. The clock seemed to tick backwards. And then the first ray of light broke on the horizon. But his was no longer the big yellow bus; this was a chariot of fire bringing you back to me. And as you sprang from your chariot, running towards me, I saw that my beautiful, radiant little girl had grown in my absence.
“Daddy, you’ll never guess who’s in my group…”As Anna went on about her first day at camp, I thought about my daily ritual ‘race against time’, about holding her and letting her go, about waking and sleeping. I realized that Anna is mine twice…By her comings and by her goings; by her growing up and my growing old. I thought of the color yellow, that bright white light, and the dream of trying to hold on to a rainbow.
Gary Koppel is a writer living in California.