Hopeless Wanderers

 Photo by Taylor Leopold; www.unsplash.com

Photo by Taylor Leopold; www.unsplash.com

But hold me fast, Hold me fast,
'Cause I'm a hopeless wanderer

The last several weekends, usually early on Sunday mornings after another harrowing night starring a restless just-turned-1-year-old, I roll out of bed, load the big guy into his car seat, and set out for a driving tour of central Florida to give Mommy an hour or two of rest. I once looked upon this as a bit of a chore, preferable to trying to keep the baby quiet in the house, but still nothing to look forward to. This past Sunday though, it felt different.

The sun is just rising on another beautiful Florida spring morning as we set out. I’m tired and a little cranky: the usual. Bennett, however, seems to be in a pretty good mood and doesn’t even put up any fuss for the seat-belt buckling, which is usually a given.

We swing through the Starbucks drive-thru first to grab a coffee and snack for me. No caffeine necessary for Ben. I’ve long suspected he has a secret pump hidden somewhere that delivers it straight to his bloodstream. The kid manning the pick-up window compliments my UCF shirt and nearly disrobes in his haste to prove that he too is wearing a Knights shirt under his apron. “Gotta represent,” he says. We’re all in this together!

As the combination of caffeine and croissant start to perk me up, I take a moment to listen to the babbling and singing coming from the back seat. It’s a sound that can almost always put a smile on my face. When, that is, I take the time to listen. Really listen. All too often these sounds get lost in the noise: music on the radio, a phone call, or most often, the thoughts in my head. This time though, I just let it soak in, trying to create a memory. I do this every so often. Seek to preserve moments that are so mundane they can easily be lost. For example, I remember sitting, several years ago during our year in England, in the back of a classroom in Cambridge, leaning back against an ancient wood bench, looking out the window as the sun glinted off the dusty glass panes and a tree branch shivered in the breeze at the classically old British architecture, characteristic of university towns, and the cobble-stoned street. That is my mental postcard from that period in my life. Similarly, this moment, listening, without any distraction, to my 1-year-old as we drive will be my mental postcard for this specific time. All too soon, these drives will be a thing of the past and we’ll be on to something else. Another stage, another routine.

Some people spend their Sunday mornings chasing the eternal; I spend mine chasing the ephemeral.

Bennett’s babbling slowly turns to crying so I feed him a bottle by reaching into the backseat and assuming and holding a seated crane pose that my hypothetical yoga instructor would be proud of. He eventually falls asleep, so my mind is free to get back to over thinking. I plug in my phone and fire up Mumford and Sons “Babel” album. It is the perfect soundtrack for Sunday morning drives.

‘Cause I know that time has numbered my days….

It’s been a year already. I remember the day he was born. And the day Jacob was born two years before. I remember how both times it felt nothing like I thought it would.  When it happened, how I felt wasn’t joyous or exhilarated or even scared, but perplexed. I wasn’t the one going under the knife, but I felt anesthetized; at least emotionally.

Her strength just makes me feel less strong….

I sat around and watched my wife pretend not to be in pain for a couple hours—because she’s a nurse and nurses don’t believe in pain or sickness—then we were led to the operating room. I waited outside on a stool for what seemed like hours but was really about thirteen minutes, which gave me time to stress about the important stuff. When should I put on my surgical mask? Should I put it on right away while I’m sitting here? Hold it? Let it hang, suavely, from one ear? Then the nurse poked her head out the door, interrupting my musings, and told me to come in. I sat on another stool by my wife’s head and about four minutes later there was a flurry of activity behind the sheet, crying, and a baby was shuttled off to the side of the room. My first thought, both times, “What am I supposed to do now?” Both big picture and immediately. Do I walk over to the baby? Stay seated? Smile? Cry? Faint? What’s expected here? Then, what do we do tonight, tomorrow, the day after that, next year? And, when should I take this mask off?

Stretch out my life, and pick the seams out….

Not to generalize, but for me at least, as a dad, the first days and weeks seemed very different than for my wife. For me, that puzzled feeling persisted and overwhelmed any other emotions. And then came the ubiquitous question from friends and relatives, “How does it feel? Are you just in love?” I knew the expected answer was, “Amazing!” and “Yes! So in love!” So I faked it, probably not very well, I’m a terrible liar, but maybe good enough. My sleep deprived body and mind was too addled to really feel that way though. Not at first. And there was no pre-existing connection between me and this new person. One day he wasn’t there and the next day he was. But as time passed, I slowly started to feel again. For me, it started with the routines. At first, the lack of sleep was a shock, but relatively quickly I started to almost enjoy it. Cleaning and laying out the bottles for the night ahead, arranging the fresh diapers and clothes, having what felt like a monumentally important task to perform every hour or two that only I could do (well, only I could do it at least 42% of the time). The days began to run together, then the weeks and the months. Feeding, rocking, diaper changing, bottom wiping, bathing (occasionally). But with the tedium and the routine and the fatigue came the feelings. Until it began to feel like I was caring for a piece of myself. Soon enough, it was hard to remember what I did before he was around.

I glance into the rearview mirror. Bennett is still sleeping soundly; his head drooped over to one side.

Don't hold a glass over the flame,
Don't let your heart grow cold,
I will call you by name,
I will share your road….

We drive up into the swanky part of town with its brick streets, expensive boutiques, and imposing oak trees. The commercial area is quiet this early, only a few people sit at the tables outside the coffee shops and cafés, sipping cappuccinos and tasting quiches. We pass the dew-soaked golf course where old men and women trudge down the fairways, hunched over, struggling to pull their over-sized golf bags on two-wheeled carts and younger men stalk the greens in pastel shorts, white collared shirts, and Ray-Bans. Just past the golf course, the enormous houses and somewhat more understated bungalows of the unthinkably wealthy are scattered along the streets. The inhabitants seem very normal at this hour, before they have donned the trappings of wealth, dressed in baggy track suits showing off their frumpy physiques as they walk their immaculately groomed poodles. Just a few blocks further, the brick roads are replaced by asphalt streets, signaling the sudden return to the world of the masses. In the drive ways, gleaming BMWs give way to broken down Saturns.

But do not ask the price I pay,
I must live with my quiet rage….

Next we drive past our old homes. We’ve moved three times in the past three years, so to me, the old townhouse and the old apartment complex each represents a year of Jacob’s life. The townhouse is also where Bennett spent his first months. Often sleeping at nights on the little travel bed on top of the ottoman while Michelle or I slept restlessly, sitting upright on the cushy chair. I had forgotten how helpless they are at the beginning. But also, how relatively easy the newborn stage can be. You meet their basic needs, and if everyone is healthy and everything goes according to plan, that’s pretty much all there is to it; the serious worries, doubts, and fears come later.

So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light,
Cause oh they gave me such a fright….

They’ve painted the townhouses since we moved. They used to be gray, but are now two shades of brown. I’m not so sure about that choice. Similarly, the apartments where Jacob spent much of his first and second year have been painted. I don’t remember what color they used to be, but it’s definitely different. Is everyone trying to erase us from the record? Wipe away our presence? Is it just a coincidence? My weird mind can’t help but take it personally. That’s what I do. This likely coincidence perfectly symbolizes my sometimes pathological yearning for both recognition and anonymity. It’s right in my lane.

I wrestled long with my youth
We tried so hard to live in the truth….

I remember making these drives when Jacob was Bennett’s age. It felt much different then though. The whole experience was new and fresh, there was less time for reflection. It suddenly hits me; I don’t remember what Jacob sounded like when he was one. This thought makes me sad. Similar to the wave of sadness that crashes against me every time I leave Jacob or Jacob leaves me now and he says, “I’ll miss you, Daddy.” At three, he can be unbearably frustrating sometimes to the point that the only thing I fantasize about is having a few hours alone. But, when that time for aloneness arrives, it often feels, well, very lonely. Before I know it, Bennett will be three and maybe he’ll be the one that misses me. Jacob will probably be too old for such sentimentality by then.

Do not let my fickle flesh go to waste,
As it keeps my heart and soul in its place,
And I will love with urgency but not with haste….

Bennett starts to show signs of regaining consciousness: his legs slide against the fabric of the car seat, his head tosses from side to side, his hands rub his still-closed eyes, and finally, one blue eye and then the other pops open. His first sound is an uncertain, “Dada?” Yep buddy, I’m still up here. We turn for home; a couple of hopeless wanderers still trying to find our way.