Several years ago, I woke my daughter up in the middle of the night so she could come outside with me and see the Perseids meteor shower. She thought it was wonderful. Every year when August rolls around, she begs me to let her see the meteor shower again.
Of course, I live in Portland, so it is very often overcast, or flat-out raining, during the Perseids. I usually promise that I will get up at 1:00 am, and if there is anything to see, I will wake her up. It’s been at least three years since there’s been anything to see.
Two nights ago, when I climbed out of bed at one a.m., the sky was cloudless, with no moon. I stood outside until I saw a meteor streak across the sky, then went inside to wake my children. Although my daughter came awake readily, I was not able to rouse my son. I got him out of bed, and even put his bathrobe on him before realizing he was still asleep. I let him crawl back into bed.
And so my daughter and I found ourselves laying on our backs in our little front yard, wrapped in an old blanket. I had my arm under her head, and she was snuggled up against me. We watched for the few meteors bright enough to be seen in a sky washed out by the lights from Portland.
As she sometimes does, she started chattering in my ear. She started out asking some questions about meteors and how the dinosaurs died out, but then she began free-associating. I heard how she couldn’t decide what to do when she grows up, what she wants to name her children, and whether or not she will keep her last name when she gets married. She jabbered on contentedly until she decided she had seen enough meteors and wanted to go back to bed.
All in all, it was the kind of moment that is rare in our relationship. We were sharing a common enthusiasm, sharing companionship. It was a sweet and gentle thing, the kind of father-daughter time any father would be delighted to have. And it was even more welcome in a relationship that has been largely defined by my frustration with her behavior, by her lying to me, by her sneaking behind my back, by my being forced to act as enforcer and authority figure. It was the kind of moment that I fear will become even more rare as she gets older, and we become more adversarial (if that is possible). She is a challenging child, and so much of my interaction with her is negative, that moments like the one we shared on the front lawn are incredibly precious to me.
Today, I called them in for lunch, and noticed my son chewing something. When I asked him what it was, they both looked guilty. It was chewing gum. Where did you get it? I asked. From his sister. Where did she get it? She pried it off the sidewalk along the street in front of our house. Again, I’m astounded at how angry I can get with my own flesh and blood. I can’t believe she did this. My wife and I agree that we will have to contact our pediatrician on Monday to see if we should be concerned about infectious diseases. We’re probably overreacting, I know. After all, surely not many pathogenic organisms could survive being stuck to the sidewalk in a wad of gum.
On the other hand, at least the hepatitis C virus is astonishingly durable, capable of surviving outside the body at least 16 hours, and as long as four days. Hepatitis C can also be transmitted via traces of infected blood in chewing gum. I didn’t need to worry about this.
And they weren’t done for the day. In fact, they both just got sent to their rooms for going down to the edge of a nearby creek, which has always been explicitly not permitted. If it wasn’t enough that parts of the creek are muddy and deep, transients have been known to camp alongside it, adding a dimension of extra concern. Sometimes it seems as if the warnings and cautions, the rules and regulations that we give them, have no impact on their behavior whatsoever, except possibly to give them ideas.
All of the warm fuzzy feelings I had from watching the Perseids with her are gone, swamped and overwhelmed by fresh anger and anxiety. And the complicated tapestry of our relationship continues to be woven, knot by tangled knot.