Eighteen years ago I celebrated my first birthday as a father. We had a six-month old going on seven months. It was that spot in new parentdom where you begin to feel a little comfortable with this living, breathing being that can make you feel on top of the world and as if you’re losing your mind, all within the span of thirty seconds. My wife had a little part time job she could do in the evenings to regain some of her sanity, and I was getting pretty good at burping this creature we called our daughter. Still, nights where we got away as a couple were pretty few and far between(or simply non-existent.) Besides getting out for work the three of us were pretty isolated. Tight-nit crew with a couple dogs along for the ride. So when the opportunity rose for the wife and I to go out for my 27th birthday we jumped at the chance.
Our daughter was bundled up like a papoose in her car seat and we drove a block to my brother and sister-in-law’s house. They were going to keep our firstborn for a few hours so we could go see Unbreakable and grab some Mexican food. I remember it was cold out, and I was working till 6pm, so by the time we got going it felt like midnight. But we were free, just the two of us for a Friday night. Like two kids out on a date back in high school. Like that song that goes “I’m free, to do what I want any old time“, minus the swagger. Dinner and a movie, what better way to spend a birthday on a Friday night with your best gal?
Of course, the whole time all I was thinking about was getting back to that six month, going on seven month-old waiting for us at my brother’s house. Despite the hard times and the sleepless nights and the frayed nerves and loss of any social life, you do connect with that baby. Two really does become three(or five if you count the dogs.) And even if an evening out presents itself and you gladly accept, that baby is still right there with you. As lovely as it was going out, I was just as thrilled to come home and pick up our firstborn and get her home. I spent those waning ours of the date of my birth rocking our little girl and watching the blinking lights on our Christmas tree.
Today I’m 45-years old, and one baby became three. Well, none of them are babies. They’ve all grown up, and those two dogs have passed on to the great beyond. That six month-old, going on seven months is now eighteen and in college. This will be another birthday I spend away from her. It’s become a thing now, ever since she went off to school back in 2016. The last two years were high school, now she’s exploring what she wants to do for the rest of her life in the hallowed halls of academia. That’s a tall order, rest of your life. Seems tall to me, but she’s taking it in stride. We’ve celebrated lots of my birthdays together. I can’t complain. From that first one to now, at least 15.
Each year I get older I feel more comfortable with my place in the world, and who the hell I am. There were times when I was sort of just fumbling thru it all, hoping I’d catch a wall or piece of furniture before my face would meet the floor. Compartmentalizing and dividing up who I was; husband/father/employee/musician/writer. I was all of them, but dared not let more than two of those exist in the same space at once. It’s a dangerous thing, slicing your personality up like a holiday dessert and divvying those personalities out to certain groups. It’s exhausting, really. As Popeye used to say, “I am what I am, and that’s all that I am.” I’m all those things I mentioned above, 24/7, with husband and father taking highest spots on the list.
With age and wisdom, though, I feel rawer emotionally. I feel things harder. I find myself sitting and watching animal videos like some retiree laughing at things dogs or monkeys are doing; cats hiding and attacking other family pets or raccoons sneaking off with dog kibble. I can also see someone out and about and they remind me of my mother-in-law, now gone for over four years, and just stop dead in my tracks. I think about my wife and how she’s lost her mom and it makes me sad. Or I’ll see an adult that for some reason or another puts me in my of my kids and I begin to think about what sort of future will they have? Will they find happiness? Will they find a job or career they’re happy in? Or will they find a good paying job that pays the bills but is mostly just a paycheck and nothing more, like their old man.
Then I think that as long as they build a home and family, like my wife and I have, that’s all that matters. I don’t need a career in something I love in order to feel satisfied and complete. I write and I make music because I love doing it, not because it’s going to be a lucrative job plan. I hope they find something to be passionate about and get to pursue it. Or at least find a job that gives them the financial means to pursue what they love after they punch out for the day.
Sitting here on my 45th birthday, I can look back on the last 18 years and see that my life’s work has been building this home. It’s been curating this gallery of memories, some good and some bad, but all important in turning me into the middle-aged dude I was always supposed to be. My life’s work has been raising three kids that understand right from wrong, and that doing for others is a far greater feeling than doing for yourself(though you gotta take care of yourself, too.) I’ve written melodies from conversations in the car to and from school, and I’ve painted landscapes from vacation cabins in the woods to comic book store jaunts on Saturday afternoons. We wrote stories together that involved moving into dorm rooms and first jobs at barbecue joints; Sunday matinees and middle of the night fevers that scared us to no end. Allergies, tears, disappointments, opportunities, growth, and the simple beauty of a kiss on a forehead before leaving for work in the morning.
These last eighteen years have been my canvas, and I have loved every moment painting on it. That 27-year old newly-minted dad rocking his baby girl to sleep on a cold Friday night has no idea what’s in store. If I could give him some advice, I tell him this:
“Don’t take that moment for granted. It’s gone before you even realize it. And cut out some of the carbs, man.”