My Boo. 'Nuff said.
In the business of show, there is an old adage: Never work with kids or animals. Whoever came up with that, however many generations ago, can go take a flying fuck. Most of my career has been spent working with either kids or animals (often both), and I love them. Seriously. I know actors who have worked in films and on the stage, who have had way more success than me as an artiste, who would shit themselves and run away in horror if they ever tried to shoot a thirty-second commercial with a six-year old boy and a dog in it. Bring me that stuff all day, jack. It’s chaotic and messy and fun, and I love it.
But I never wanted kids of my own. And I was very up front about that when I got married. I’ve always loved kids, and my semi-arrested development has endeared me to tons of kids in my life. I never wanted my own because I understood the fucking DNA I came from, okay? Addictive. And psychotic. In my high school yearbook, there was no award for Most Likely To Go Shitballs Crazy, but I would have been a very strong candidate for that honor.
I still can’t tell you what changed my mind. I can tell you it had nothing to do with passing on my legacy. To date, my legacy would consist of, He was a pretty good friend, loved his daughter, and people used to see him on television. Not awesome. So it wasn’t that. Maybe, ultimately, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could be responsible for another human being without killing myself, either immediately with a bullet, or slowly with booze. Not a super reason for entering into parenthood, I grant you. I’m just being honest.
So, in March of 2003, our daughter, Ella, came screaming into the world. I believe I’ve already mentioned that we’d prepared (we thought) for her arrival, and that subsequent experience taught us that preparation was mostly the two of us vainly believing we’d be able to manage the chaos. Parenting is one long learning curve, and you are graded by how much of a contribution – or a danger – your child ultimately is to society. ER nurse? Good. Pole dancer? Bad. As Chris Rock has so eloquently stated, “A father’s job is to keep his daughter off the pole.” During my wife’s pregnancy, I made up all kinds of shit in my head about the kind of father I was going to be. I figured the greatest gift I could give to my daughter would be to think and act the exact opposite of my old man.
When my daughter was two years old, she threw up in me. Right now you grammar Nazis are wagging your fingers at the page and screaming, “Aha! Improper preposition! You mean on, not in.” And maybe I made an honest mistake. The letters “i” and “o” are side by side on the keyboard, and I do have a tendency to type faster than I actually can. In both instances, you are mistaken. She threw up in me, and it was totally my fault.
We finished dinner one evening, and Boo (her nickname) was feeling particularly playful. So, we played. One of my favorite things to do of an evening after dinner is to leave the TV off and crank up some music. I believe this is healthy for mind, body and soul, and I don’t have to fast-forward through the commercials. I had a mix cd going on the Bose Wave Radio, and we were just goofing around on the floor of our bedroom when Gov’t Mule’s “Soulshine” came on. My daughter looked at me, held out her arms and said, “Dance, Daddy. Dance.”
And that was the first time I danced with Boo. She stood on the tops of my feet (just like little girls did in the movies!), held my hands, and we danced around the bedroom to Gov’t Mule. I was having a First, and I knew it. My father had never danced with my sister. Not once. I began to leak from my eyes. I caught Tracy out of the corner of one wet eye; she was standing in the doorway of the master bathroom and openly weeping. I never, ever wanted that moment to end.
The song ended and something a little more up-tempo came on, a signal to Boo that it was time to get rowdy again. She reached up as high as she could and demanded, “Swing, Daddy! Swing!” I would have done anything for her at that moment. I would have bought or stolen for her whatever she desired; I would cheerfully have dispatched her enemies at the Montessori pre-school. My defense would have been ironclad and simple enough for any father of a daughter to understand: she danced with me, Your Honor! With me! So of course I lifted her up by her arms and began to helicopter her around the bedroom. Faster and faster, her little body stretching out, squealing with delight, until I heaved her straight up in the air, her feet the same height as my head, and caught her in my arms. She giggled maniacally, looked deep into my eyes with those beautiful greens of hers. She smiled a wide smile, which caused me to smile a wider smile.
And then she projectile vomited right into my mouth.
No shit. I felt it hit the back of my throat. How I kept from instinctively swallowing (or worse, puking right back on her), I’ll never know. Maybe it was because I moved fast. We were close to the open door of the master bathroom. Tracy was standing in the doorway, petrified or paralyzed with revulsion, maybe both. All I kept repeating in my head was: If you don’t make a big deal about it, she won’t make a big deal out of it. You’ll either be a hero to your little girl, or you’re going to pay a shitload of money for her therapy. I spit my daughter’s spaghetti dinner out of my mouth and into the sink. Boo was still working out what had just happened, and looking to both her mom and me to decide how to react. So I ran both of us – fully clothed – into the shower, and yelled, “It’s shower party time!” Probably I yelled this too loudly, because I was freaking the fuck out – just on the inside. So, still holding her, I turned on the water and started to act like being in the shower fully clothed was the single most awesome thing one could do in life. I asked Tracy to turn up the music, which finally got her moving. And we danced in the shower. I cleaned what seemed like ten pounds of pasta and red sauce puke off the both of us.
I was proud of myself for not freaking out in front of my baby girl. But you better believe that after we got her cleaned up and tucked into bed, I walked out of her room, grabbed an unopened bottle of Scotch, and tried really, really hard to drink that memory into non-existence. I didn’t eat pasta for a year. And I learned to reshuffle our evening family time: play, then eat, and then don’t helicopter your kid around until she vomits violently into your mouth. Lesson learned.
But I’m probably still going to have to pay for some therapy.
Ella’s projectile-puking toddler days are long behind her. She’s a full-on tween now. And, like her dad, she has a flair for the dramatic. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life was tell her that her mother and I weren’t going to be married anymore. That was the hardest thing I ever did for two reasons: first, we were undoing the only life our daughter had ever known. Second, I had to acknowledge that, for as much as I didn’t want to repeat my family history, here we were, a generation later, doing exactly that. I never did buy into the stuff that friends of mine who were getting divorced (and lots of my friends got divorced over the course of my marriage, because I was married for nearly twenty years) would say about their kids: “They’re doing fine. You know, kids are resilient.” That always sounded like bullshit on stilts to me. How can any kid possibly be okay with the breaking up of their family? Ella wasn’t okay - for a long time. She had a really awesome counselor who was there just for her. She had good days and bad days, and on the bad days I’d pull her out of school early, and we’d cry and go get milkshakes from Chick-Fil-A. Milkshakes make things tolerable, if not necessarily better. Especially milkshakes spiked with whiskey. (Which, by the way, Chick-Fil-A frowns on, especially when you bring your whiskey into their store to doctor your milkshake. And no, I didn’t doctor my daughter’s milkshake. Only mine. I’m not a monster.)
I don’t know what the long-term effects of divorce are going to be on my kid. When we were going through all that shit, I was actually grateful that Ella already had lots of friends who had divorced parents. Many of them were (and remain) wonderful kids, who really helped Boo in a way that only friends can. A couple of them were real little bitches, but society wags a finger at any adult who’s willing to call a ten-year old girl out for being a little bitch. (Which, for the record, I never did. But I thought about it. Really, really loudly.) Some days, I’m in a pile on the floor, worried about what this seismic shift in my daughter’s world is going to do to her later on. Or maybe the culture has shifted so much since I was her age, that this kind of thing really is the new normal. Or maybe I’m in ten kinds of denial.
In the summer of 2014, Boo took an intensive one-week camp for musical theater, and discovered her passion. She’s since been in three musical productions, and at the time I’m writing this is starting a fourth. She’s found a space where she can unleash her creativity, and a tribe of like-minded kids who support and love her. It’s so fucking cool to see your child find their thing. And it makes me grateful, in a strange way, that I never achieved the kind of success that could cast a shadow long enough to engulf my daughter’s light, something she would forever have to live under. Not for Boo. She is her own beast. She already knows more about theater than me, and is probably a better actor, too. That’s just fine. Because when her time comes to shine on the big stage, you can bet your ass I’m going to remind her that the origins of her love for performance began with her old man, the class clown whose DNA she shares – along with a deep and abiding love of fart jokes.
Next Week, Chapter Nineteen: On The Road (Not Kerouac Style)
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