A book I was reading the other night contained the following quote from, “Gift from a Hairdryer” by Mary Jean Irion. Although it’s from the perspective of a mom as she combs and blow-dries her seven year old daughter’s hair after bath time, it applies equally to fatherhood:
Comb and dry, comb and dry, Soon I won’t be able to do this any more, you say to yourself, knowing that the little straight bob must inevitably yield to grown-up coiffures and ugly curlers. What will she be like at fourteen? Where will her hair be blowing then? And sixteen and eighteen—you suppose boys will love to watch her hair blow as you do now. And some of them will feel it on their faces, and one of them will marry her, and her hair will be perfect under the veil, and there will be her hair spread out on his pillow… oh, you hate him a little and wonder where he is at this moment and whether he’ll be good to her… they will grow old together… the gold-brown hair will be gray, and you will be gone, and then she will be gone… this very hair that now your fingers smooth…
All the tears of the world swim for a second in your eyes as you snatch the plug out of the socket suddenly and gather her into your arms burying your face in the warm hair as if you could seal this moment against all time.
Needless to say, I immediately put my book down and quietly walked down the hallway to my daughter’s room where she lay sleeping peacefully in her crib. Without turning on the light, I tiptoed into her room and just stood over her crib for a bit. I listened to her breath softly in her sleep. I admired her tiny beauty. I stared down at her pajama pants and t-shirt and wondered to myself how in the world she’d already outgrown her infant onesies. When did that happen?
And how, might I ask, is she already 8 1/2 months old? It seems like just yesterday I was carefully strapping her into her car seat for the first time to take her home from the hospital. And yet here we are, just a few short months from her first birthday.
She’s been crawling for a little over two weeks now and I know that soon that too will be replaced by walking as she continues to grow and develop.
Deep down inside I know these days with her are fleeting, and the fact that there’s nothing I can do to slow them down is a sobering realization. Not a sad realization. Just sobering. Maybe even helpful.
Helpful at 5:20 a.m. on a Monday morning when she wakes us all up with her crying — because I know that she won’t always need me to come into her room and soothe her back to sleep.
Helpful after the umpteenth time she spits food all over me with a huge (albeit a bit mischievous) smile on her face as I’m trying to get her to eat her pureed prunes, peas, or sweet potatoes at dinner time — because I know there will come a day, probably much sooner than I like, where she will spoon her own food into her mouth.
Helpful at bath time when I can’t seem to keep her soapy wash rag, cup, and any number of rubber bath toys out of her mouth — because, once again, the day will come when a simple bath is no longer a life-threatening experience requiring the caring assistance and diligent protection of her father.
And so for probably fifteen or twenty minutes, I just stand by the side of her crib, pray over her, and watch her sleep before returning to the living room and the book I’d been reading.
These days are fleeting, I’ll never have a single one of them back, and nothing I do will ever change either of those facts. What I can do is A) make sure I’m around to experience as much of her life as possible and B) savor each moment… and not just the beautiful ones either. If someday I want to look back on my life as a father with no regrets, I have to learn to savor the mundane and even frustrating moments just as much as those Kodak moments that I cherish naturally.
If I can borrow an analogy from sports, I think one of the keys to regret prevention as a parent is remembering that in life, much like in sports, we have columns for wins and losses. Except in addition to wins and losses, we also have past, present, and future columns. And it’s in those every day moments — when time is spent changing dirty diapers, wiping food off a messy face, pulling things out of a curious mouth, and rubbing the back of a crying little one — that the hours of life (the daily victories and defeats) quickly shift from the future column over to the past column. One column gets bigger. One column gets smaller. The only column that ever stays the same is the one called the present.
And that’s the only column that matters.