Friday, June 8, 2012

On holding hands (a meditation on being a father)

Around the time that my daughter Addison turned 18 months old, she transitioned from finger-holding to hand-holding. It was a big moment. Now don't get me wrong, it was cute the way her warm little fingers would curl around my single big one, like a bunch of tiny tentacles. And since she's rarely inclined to hold my hand or my finger, I'd take either one in a heartbeat. But if I have a choice, hand-holding is the tops. Let me explain.

While in the womb, Addison was tightly swaddled in a sea of love and other strange fluids, a pearl cultured in a stream of nourishment that filtered through the kinks and bends of her mother to become something that could sustain life. It was her mother who protected her, a living armor to defend against the world with an all-encompassing embrace.

When she was born, the waves of that sea crested over her one last time, and then crashed, spilling away on a fading tide, draining from her lungs and clearing from her eyes. In the residue of these waters were my wife and myself and a little girl, who looked directly at us, and screamed. As we beheld this tiny sea creature, wafting ocean spray formed drops that ran in rivulets down our cheeks, and then also spilled away.

And there we were, all of us washed up on dry land. Addison, the most recent castaway, cried out immediately in bewilderment for something to take the place of the soothing waters of her life as a fish and to quench her powerful thirst. Her mother provided much of that, and would continue to do so, for the next year of her life. But in the first moment that I stroked my daughter's hand, she grabbed onto me, without even looking, and didn't let go. I knew that my wife wasn't her only safe harbor.

She placed herself completely, without a hint of reservation, in my hands. It was hard to fully grasp then, and it still is. She needed me. But I also realized during that time that she didn't just need me as I was, but that she needed all the potential in me. I didn't immediately feel like a different person. Rather, I felt the weight of my obligation to become the best father my daughter could wish for. Some fatherly instincts were automatic; others I've tried to cultivate.

Eventually she lost her automatic grasp reflex, and now any time that she holds my hand it is an act of volition. When she merely held my finger she was barely on the cusp of serious decision-making, and she never wandered far anyway; but now she can grasp my hand with hers, her sweaty little octopus hand, and every time she does, my heart swells a little. Because she is choosing me.

When we are holding hands, it is another umbilical. Probably the nourishment goes both ways, but I can't help feeling that this umbilical reverses the flow, this time for my benefit. Addison does not voluntarily hold my hand often, but when she does, when she slips up quietly and puts her hand in mine, I feel like she is saying: "Daddy, I'm back. Keep me safe. Hold me close, for another day."

There's probably going to come a time when we no longer hold hands. Maybe puberty, maybe even before that. It's been a long time since I have really held my dad's hand, but I still remember what it felt like. His hands were sometimes rough from calluses. They had old scars on them, from woodworking and from biting horses and from hammer blows, and so many freckles on the backs that they appeared many shades darker than his natural coloring. I remember how they dwarfed my hands, encircling mine in a gentle but powerful sheath. They were heavy. Firm. Safe. And they still are. I've found other harbors in my life, but I know I can always go back to my dad. The next time I see him, I'm going to shake his hand, and I might hold on for a while, to remember. And in the meantime, I'll try to reach out my hand to my daughter every chance I get, so that someday when she needs it, a recollection will twitch in her hand and she'll know a safe place where she can put it.

*This was my first guest post over at DadCentric. DadCentric is a pretty interesting group of guys writing about fatherhood, and it's worth a look. This little essay got a lot of good feedback there, so feel free to check out the comments over there if you're interested. Cheers!