Tucson Salvage: Baby vampires, daddy gifts, and toddler WTF expressions

click to enlarge BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith

It is Father’s Day today and my wife and two daughters huddle around me outside on the patio with gifts. Mostly the children are suckling mom’s boobs, and at 19 months apart, their size variance forces mom into awkward and painful hunched positions, Zuzu on her lap, Rickie standing, two little heads stuck to her chest like the little vampires they are.

Today like any other lately I am one of the undeserving, and the presents labeled to me are just so damn daddy—house slippers, multi-colored boxers, a bouquet of sunflowers, a fancy lighter with a caring inscription from mama, and equally fancy cigars. A card from my son Reece—a cartoon goof on a pandemic mask-wearing son and dad, says “I love you dad but I will always wear a mask around you because …” with a visual representation, “of the FARTS!” Before Reece’s pandemic homeschooling, I overheard him bragging to his first-grade classmates once that he had “two dads,” which made that day one of my best ever. Reece is out today with his biological father, a good man whose word is gold. 

It was breakfast in bed too, mom wielding Zuzu and a vegan lumberjack plate and Rickie’s squirming limbs atop me, heart-shaped mirth-face in my breath, before launching into a familiar series of scary gymnastic frolics that see her careen off the bed, get up, run and laugh. At 20-months old she is fearless, even when balance will not support it. In diapers and self-chosen animal-print dresses she leads the way on street walks, in parks, at nature centers—way way ahead, her run-waddle unable to contain her curiosity. I’ve had to keep her from jumping in lakes, from dashing onto busy roadways, from headfirst careens down slides. She never looks back for approval, comfort or direction, which is one of my many daily heartbreaks. We are forever chasing her.

Rickie pages through books, draws, and can play alone now, hardly much need for grownup playmates. She’ll eat any food, devours broccoli and couscous, and lately climbs and stands on the piano bench, Jerry Lee Lewis-style, pounding random keys—sometimes a striking a lower-register thing worthy of a horror-film soundtrack, which often fits the scenario. 

Her attempts in English and Spanish to name the things in nature she has grown to love—the lizards, tarantulas and javelinas who frequent our yard, the saguaros and ocotillo—return as head-circling melodies to lull me to sleep at night. 

Zuzu is six-weeks old and calm. She spent the first two weeks in her new universe feverish and discolored with jaundice, which mom, unyielding in her round-the-clock patience and observation, sunned and nursed out of her. Mom suffered through new-born jaundice with Reece, and let motherhood dictate. She still balances a confused and slightly jealous Rickie, whose toddler WTF expression says, where did this boob-hogging creature come from? Zuzu is patient with Rickie’s pinching and heavy-handed play, and lumbering displays of love, which become a struggle for us to keep gentle. I’m convinced Rickie learned the rough-touch and tumble interactions from big brother Reece, which he likely learned from me, how we’d tickle and play hard until someone finally got hurt, usually both of us. 

Zuzu studies hard the world around her now, not in that way of merely seeing things, more like placement and note-taking, some kind of mini buddha not comfortable with cacophony around her, but tolerant of it. She cries only when she needs boobs, all she really needs to say. 

When all three children create noise and havoc there is little that soothes, but maybe that is what is supposed to soothe, but hell if I’ve learned that yet. Maybe it’ll take a good decade to be able to look back to truly recognize the beauty of this time, as a few close-friend parents who’d been through it tell me. I lose patience, get angry with Reece, fill up on shame and regret minutes later in the horror I might become my furious father, as if I don’t remember a 7-year-old boy’s boundless energy and aggro stances, the make-believe fights, which really come down through us as creative impulses, from who knows where. I only want to teach kindness, to people, places and things, and be a figure of joy and help harness creativity, yet I find myself sometimes the dreaded wall between Reece’s fun and my sanity, like I should wear a whistle and a striped ref’s shirt. 

The pandemic killed social interaction with kids Reece’s age, now left to organized playdates with few other children whose parents often cancel out at the last minute. Reece is developing little universes of his own, roleplay with theatrical narratives, and sometimes disappears to create said worlds, which is a welcome respite.

Growing up, my parents didn’t engage me or my siblings in meaningful ways, but they screamed and beat us. They had five children and all of us were afraid of them. I grew to adore my parents later in life and wish them alive now to meet their new grandchildren. 

A woman I profiled recently in these pages laughed and told me “aw, having children keeps you young.” Well, I’m damn tired all the time, a manboy who made it to his 50s only to then have three young children. 

Once, years ago, I happened to be on the phone with author Denis Johnson, talking drugs, writing, and a folk-pop album for which he wrote lyrics, and he talked of fatherhood, his own children, whom he had homeschooled, how they’d tired him, how they made him feel like a dumbass. That last part stuck with me. Here was the greatest then-living American author, a genius in my mind, whose work inspired me so much as to change my life, whose sentences in conversation varied little from those on his pages, asserting his education holes were getting filled and improved upon by his children. 

Now I can sort of understand. Reece is using words I didn’t know the meaning of until I was 20, and when he converses with mama in Spanish I get lost in my own half-assed translations. Once the boy gets heavy into, say, Roman mythology, critical theories, or steps beyond ordinary arithmetic, geometry and algebra, the sorts of things he’s beginning to favor, I fear I’ll be dust in his intellectual zeitgeist. My daughters show signs of curious intellects. I am grateful, to be sure, but tire thinking of challenges ahead. I had wasted so many years in my late-teens, 20s and 30s chemically dulling my brain, obsessed with my own personal fates, and the missed opportunities to read and write more, and to think, vanished into boozy ether, suicide ideation, crippling depression, and pointless chord structures. I’m not complaining now, the subsistence and experience has somehow given me riches later in life, particularly in reflection and definition. When it comes to my children, I’ll do all I can to prevent them from slipping into the deep end, at least the dark waters I’ve learned to recognize. I’ve already held myself up to Reece as some kind of cautionary tale, gaping my mouth so he can count up the missing teeth addictions had wrenched away. 

To think of the lives my children have ahead of them, and me as both a guide and protector, and earner, I can only hope I can defy myself to uphold the challenges. It is getting difficult to separate this life from what I think it could be; the real mystery is now watching little brains develop.

And my wife, her day-and-night breast feeds, soothing sing-songs into tender ears, how she creates insightful worlds to mirror our children’s needs, as I sleep or look on helpless, questioning my place in such a female ecosphere. I discover comfort in how life aligned in such a way to allow me to even bear witness and share such a private pitch. 

How did I get here? I wanted to win the Tour De France, be a rock ’n’ roll star, a regarded author. Funny. It was a long untouchable dream to have a family of my own, impossible to play out in any true instance beyond the romantic. I knew humanity did not need another white depressed manboy addict procreating equally troubled children. Comprehending the need to get the fuck over yourself is a long hard lesson to learn, and for me having children hammers that lesson home daily. Overcoming addictions was easier, and that nearly killed me.

My wife Maggie counterpoises my shortcomings and depressions, and often, unknowingly, embarrasses my parenting skills. She steps beyond human imperfections into a bigger love. Sometimes she has four children. Mostly she is a force of nature, simultaneously writing screenplays, editing documentaries, organizing teacher’s lessons and next-day kid plans, all on her phone at night in the dark, as two little vampires fall asleep on her boobs. 

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