Funny thing, isn’t it? When you’re young you have all of the time in the world, so nothing seems all that important. You go out with your friends, have some pizza, run around the city all night and sleep until noon or late afternoon. Life is good, despite the fact that you have just a few dollars to your name. You have a roof over your head and there’s food on the table.
It’s only later on, when you get older that you begin thinking “you know, I should be doing something with my life. I should be ‘here’ by now.” “Here” meaning “owning a house” or “advanced in my career”.
If you’re not careful, you can go your whole life thinking that you’re constantly in a race to play catch-up.
I have to confess: my stance on life has always been like a car on a hill. I didn’t need to do much, just let off the brakes and just coast. Didn’t even have to turn the key. In some instances, I’ve allowed too much to happen without my consent, with the mistaken assumption that stuff was being “done to me”. The horrible and stark fact is: I made the choice – even by doing nothing – to accept the circumstances life threw at me.
Maybe this is why I still believe in God, though not religion. The stuff that’s been thrown at me has been pretty good, with a few exceptions. I’ve always had good-paying jobs, for example. And when life in a factory got to be too stressful, I took a small buyout and quit (despite the fact that I had a family to support), and within a few months had another job in an office that paid almost as well.
I remember my wonderful boss at that job gathering us together for a regular meeting. (Man I loved that woman. She was bright, articulate, generous and helpful, not just to her employees but to our clients. But I digress).
At the start of the meeting, she asked us all to talk about what we were thankful for. I recall one young woman sharing a look with another one, and then rolling their eyes. Both participated though, and gave the usual responses.
“I’m thankful for my family.”
“I’m thankful for the new motorcycle I’m getting next week.”
Then it was my turn.
“I know you’re not going to believe this but I’m thankful for my job.”
That got a derisive laugh – mostly from the two women. I was serious though.
“Honestly, you don’t know what it was like for me before I got this job. I worked in a place that was hell for me before coming here. One time the stress was so bad they called in an ambulance. I couldn’t wait to leave that place.”
The room got quiet.
“And then I got the call to come in here, and was tasked with helping people. People who would otherwise end up on the street. I’m being paid to guide them to a better life. How awesome is that?”
The two women were silent, and watching.
“Plus” I added, “I get to play with computers. And I get paid to do it!” I smiled. “And I get to work with you guys, in the best work environment ever. Yeah, I’ve got lots to be thankful for.”
I wasn’t that comfortable expressing emotions openly so I stopped right there. My boss noticed my discomfort, smiled and then called on the next person.
Another “coasting” experience involved kids. Specifically, I didn’t want us to have any. When my then-wife went in to the doctor’s office to get tested, the girls at the front desk got the news first. One of them called me over. “Do you want to have kids?” she asked, smiling.
“Sure” I said. “I guess so”
Then my wife came out and gave me the news and we hugged. Inwardly, I was aghast. I didn’t know myself all that well back then, but inside I was all like “back up, back up, BACK UP”. The problem was that I wasn’t into my marriage at all, and was unconsciously looking for a way out. (That’s a story for another day, but long story short: we got married way too young and for the wrong reasons.). The bottom line was that anything permanent at all, like kids, pretty much put the nail in the coffin. I felt trapped. It was a scary place, the inside of my brain, back then.
A couple of days ago, I saw a YouTube video interview featuring Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint. In it, she discussed her favourite Disney character – Ariel, from “The Little Mermaid”. She said “my dad would kill me for saying this, but for my fifth birthday he dressed up as King Titan..” and here she started laughing “…which is so cool.” She then went on to explain that her little brother was dressed as Sebastian.
As I drove to work the next day, I thought about that interview and about what her relationship with her dad must be like, and concluded that it had to be pretty amazing. And that brought back some memories of my relationship with my daughter.
FLASH: I’m in the hospital, in the hallway waiting area. (I wasn’t allowed in to see the birth, as the baby was being delivered via C-section). The doors open and out comes a nurse, pushing an incubator. I can see through the window of the machine, and notice there’s a skin-coloured oblong thing in there. “Sir?” she says, looking at me. “This is your baby.” I walk over while she opens the top. The thing has some hair on its head. I look at the nurse. She smiles “it’s a girl. This is your daughter.” I look down at her, laying there. She’s not moving, though she is breathing. I look back at the nurse. “You can touch her”, she says. “Go ahead.” The universe holds its breath, waiting.
I look down and reach my hand in and feet her arm. It’s warm. And like that, my entire world rocked on its edge. The change in me was imperceptible but strong. As articulate a writer as I might be, I have no words for this. I didn’t then and I still don’t now. It’s like my brain turned itself inside out, shook out the crumbs of depression and angst and re-asserted itself. I love this child. That’s the truth. It’s also an understatement.
Like I said. No words. The power of that moment has stayed with me, all of these years. And I find I still can’t tell the story without feeling emotion.
FLASH: I’m in my living room, and my little girl is now five, maybe six. I’m not sure. The TV is on and she’s standing there in front of it, looking at a commercial. She seems completely unaware of anything except the TV, and she begins to mimic the announcer. She does it perfectly and I suddenly burst out laughing. My little princess has character! And she’s hilarious. Wow.
FLASH: Both of my kids are in trouble, and I’m angry. They’ve done something wrong (I forget what it was, which shows you how important it is), and I need to bring the hammer down. “YOU GUYS SHOULD NOT HAVE DONE THAT. I, UH…” I’m so angry I can’t speak properly. “THAT IS, IF YOU…IF I…” My mistake was in chastising them both at the same time. My son is laughter personified, looking for any excuse to let loose. Put them together and they’re like gasoline and a struck match.
As I struggle to get the words out, my daughter suddenly bites her lip, then looks at her brother and they both start giggling then quickly dissolve into helpless laughter. “THIS ISN’T FUNNY” – but it’s no use. They’re too far gone. And then, despite my damnedest, I can’t help joining in. Hopeless.
FLASH: it’s about ten or eleven years later. We’re in the new apartment and my daughter’s just come home from school. She’s smiling (it’s kind of her thing: she smiles an awful lot, all the time). she says “hey dad. I went to the store and saw something. I bought it right away because I just have to give it to you.”
I’m smiling in response. “Really?” She grins. “Yeah. Let me get it out of my pocket”. She reaches in and seems to struggle to get whatever it is out, and then she finally gets her hand out and flips me the bird, laughing hysterically. I can’t help it – I start laughing too.
All of these memories flash through my consciousness on my ride to work, I get a small glimpse of what life would have been like had I not married and had kids. Sort of a “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment, if you will. I imagine a life of utter boredom, a life of greyness. An okay life perhaps, but missing such a golden seam of bright and blinking joy. It hits me hard, this revelation. and I realize what is for me a grand truth: even if I’m not precisely where I want to be in my life, I feel such an overwhelming sense of gratitude.
I’ve no real complaints. Not really.