Tuesday, March 24, 2015

It's a wheelbarrow day!

Just please don't keep us waiting.
March 16, 1992

Dear Mo,

Today I right a wrong, however weakly.

Today I make good on good intentions, and hope for the best.

For today on your 23rd birthday, I deliver a batch of letters I had written you, starting before you were born.

Back when I addressed you as "Dear Little One."

Maybe you missed the blood draining from my face a couple of weeks ago, when you mentioned in passing the letters your brother had gotten from me years back, letters which began before he was born.

Maybe you didn't notice the horror spinning within me. I hope you didn't. It was horror not only of having delayed this delivery too long, not only of having passed up many special occasions in which I could have delivered. Nor was it just the dread of having flat forgotten to find a good time.

It was the terrible realization that maybe you thought I hadn't written you at all.

It's past noon on your birthday now: Open the package, and you'll see: I finally took the moment.

Happy birthday, Mo!

This letter today establishes a gap of nearly 20 years from the last letter in your package. It is the only public letter among them — for the most part. I have already used a snippet of a letter at the top, written eight days before you were born. I have just a few excerpts from other letters below. The rest I leave to you in your own time to read.

Here's an excerpt now, from Dec. 1, 1993. You were not quite two:
It's plain I've cheated you.
When last I stuffed my letters to you and Liam into their respective folders about a week back, I noticed with regret and not a little surprise that Liam's folder, his third or fourth, bulged, while your one folder had barely plumped. Liam is older, of course, but your envelope should be twice as fat by now.

I had been trying to compensate by writing some of my letters to both of you and then putting them into your folder, but I'm kidding you that way. In truth, I should be writing every letter to both of you, but I liked to give each of you some special message, and often when I'm done writing Liam, I can't think of something special left over to tell you.
What a cad, your Dad! That letter also refers to a friend from college — I don't know who — who recommended I draw my journal to you instead, to make it different and special. That didn't happen.

I tell you now what you already know — what you've known for a long time: Second-born and subsequent children get the short end.

Not out of conspiracy or malice, of course. Quite the opposite: Good-hearted delusion. A poorly trained parent, I didn't know to pace myself, and imbued your brother, and the family he ushered in by being first, with a lot of energy meant to be distributed over the long run, for the family yet to come.

By the time you came along, what energy we had left went into the whole rather than parts, and you got swept into the great machine of Getting By. It's not an excuse, it just is.

First kid gets more photos, gets the videos, gets the limelight, for as long as he or she is a solo act.

I tried to buck the trend, common to many parents, and sometimes it worked. Many of the letters, for example, are addressed to you alone. Many, as the excerpt reveals, are addressed to you both. I knew that was going to be a problem when I wrote them, and I decided way back when not to copy and divide, but to give them to you, and maybe give you another reason for you and your brother to meet and share.

I have included two journals from vacations we took, back when our vacations were sometimes Two! Consecutive! Weeks! and I wanted to memorialize them as Momentous Camping Trips that were Not Work!

You may need my help translating my notoriously torturous handwriting.

Another excerpt from September 23, 1991, your birth still two seasons away:
Ah, well, you and Liam are going to sit together one day at a table in a restaurant, or in a bar, and you're going to discuss what I've written each of you and — judging by the whole of my letters so far — you're going to determine that your Papa is a sad man. I'm hoping that you'll conclude I'm not larger than life, but just about the right size as life, a human Papa who loves you without measure, whose own doubts and fears and anxieties in the midst of joy and love in life offer lessons for you.
It hit me hard last week to realize that moment could be realized, even this day.

First, "Papa" didn't last long, maybe until shortly after you were born. It evolved to "Dad." You just can't enforce a nickname for yourself, though "Mama" hung around far longer. Anyway, your grandfathers had already been given "Papa"-based nicknames.

Second, I don't think I'm a sad man. I wrote the letters during one or another challenging time, no more or less challenging than anyone else goes through, really, except that I was chronicling it. And you may know I am one to examine and amplify my flaws.

Third, I don't know how much of these letters constitute lessons, except by inference and tangent. They are journals entries in letter form: This is how I feel today, this is what I'm doing, this is what you are doing. The little bit of the letters I skimmed talk of things I had forgotten.

Some of it is beautiful, some is grim, all is fresh and full in the telling.

Maybe these letters contain something instructive, but that's for you to decide.

I did not re-read them, just as I did not when I gave your brother his. Perhaps I had in mind that the moments described therein would blossom again if and when you wanted to share any with me.

I wrote many of these while writing for the California Farm Bureau newspaper. Let's just say it and I did not fit, though it took me a heck of a long time to figure it out and then pry my way out. To exercise my fingers at the start of the day, and to inspire a smile on my face, I began to write Liam, and then you.

Often the highlight of my workday was over before my first coffee, when I finished a letter with "Love, Papa."

I created a dummy file containing the letters, in case anyone was snooping around on my computer, and printed the letter as early as I could in the day from the shared dot-matrix office printer, before other reporters and editors would be waiting around for their stories and notes to spit out.

That's why many of your letters unfold accordion style, having come by continuous feed out of a box of paper. Feel the margins, rough, where the perforated printer spool guides had been.

Eventually I broke out of that office and began to transition to working for myself, with a stop writing for a department at the University of California, Davis. It was a better job for me, and the bus ride and the long walk across the Davis campus gave me plenty of time to compose letters in my head. I continued the habit of beginning each day with a letter, after which I printed each letter and deleted the file.

Twenty years ago last week I wrote:
Friday you are three, a darling three. A caring, demanding, all-girl three. You are the kind of three-year-old girl every Mama would love, as Mama is so apt to say in so many ways every day.
Skimming the letters, I see some themes emerge:
  • Some of the way you are now shone through at the start. 
  • Some friendships and relationships and statuses I just assumed would always remain quo, instead came to naught.
  • Some of the way I am now took shape earlier than I thought.
  • I could not wait to come home and see you. Being away for work and occasional travel was very hard. Coming into the house at day's end, with loud shouts from you, were a joy.
My love for you has never wavered, of course. How we express it is different. I feel rootless as a dad, without homework to guide or vital tasks to teach or adventures to join. Probably most dads feel this way when their children go out to lives of their own.

Twenty Memorial Day weekends ago, you declared, "It's a wheelbarrow day!" Mom had bought a wheelbarrow and some garden tools, and we spent the long weekend reclaiming one or another of the yards. It was an ordinary weekend made important if only for the fact that we were together.

"It's a wheelbarrow day!" contained no guile, no irony, just a simple expression of glee for the moment, in the moment. You probably got a ride or two.

It was the kind of moment I hold dearest as a dad.

It was part of the last letter I wrote.

The letters ended just about the time I had gone into business for myself, and shortly before your brother started school — let's bash the first-born once more! It was all I could do to live a radically changed life; I lacked the wits to comment on it.

I'm sorry it took so long to get these to you. I love you without measure.

Let it be a wheelbarrow day once more!

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