Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?
“They Grow up so Fast”
Sometimes, nothing makes you feel older than your own kids.
One day, you’re watching them come into the world. The next, they’re studying for their driver’s exam or asking your advice on mutual funds.
When my oldest daughter Shauna was born, I was eighteen years old. That same year, the Berlin wall came down, but not before George Herbert Walker Bush’s inauguration as the United States’ 41st president. Stamps cost twenty-five cents. The San Francisco 49ers won the Super Bowl; the Oakland A’s won the World Series. Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club was published. Rain Man won the Best Picture Oscar; luminaries such as Lucille Ball, Robert Penn Warren, Salvador Dali, and Laurence Olivier died. And sitting at the top of the music charts? Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and George Michael’s Faith.
In the time since, we’ve already experienced a second Bush’s (so-called) presidency. Stamps have more than doubled in price; don’t even get me started on gasoline. To my children and most of my current students, a divided Germany seems like ancient history, right up there with the Crusades and the invention of the wheel. The San Francisco 49ers can’t even win a division that, in 2010, sent its champion into the playoffs with a losing record. The A’s? Aren’t they that team that keeps dumping its talent for cheaper versions of same? Or am I thinking of the Florida Marlins, who didn’t even exist in ’89? And who the hell are Laurence Olivier and Robert Penn Warren? Meanwhile, both “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and George Michael have become cultural jokes, even though Faith is a damn good album.
Oddly enough, my son was born in 1995, a year in which San Francisco won another Super Bowl, this time over the San Diego Chargers, whose coach cost me twelve hundred dollars in our local pool by going for two at the end of the third quarter. But that seems like the only holdover from 1989. The times, they were a-changin’, as Bob Dylan said (I can hear next year’s freshmen saying “Who?” already).
Brendan came into a world that seemed less certain and more violent than the one we had lived in just six or seven years earlier. Conflicts in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Croatia fractured the globe—except in those regions where nobody cared what was happening to a bunch of foreigners. O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Right-wing military groups gained national infamy when Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. Forrest Gump won the Best Picture Oscar; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened. Mickey Mantle and Jerry Garcia died. So did Howard Cosell, leaving Muhammad Ali without a verbal sparring partner.
What about 1999, when my youngest daughter Maya was born? Well, the world didn’t end, meaning that we could no longer trust Prince as the major prophet in our lives. Nelson Mandela took over as President of South Africa, righting an enormous historical injustice; on the other hand, Yugoslavia imploded. Since Prince was wrong, computer scientists scared us all silly, prophesying that the dreaded Y2K bug would send us all hurtling back to the Stone Age. The Senate tried to impeach Bill Clinton for getting a blowjob in the White House, leaving the rest of us to wonder if they were jealous or just plain bored. John F. Kennedy Jr. died; racist asshole John William King was convicted of dragging a black man to death; and two disgruntled Columbine High School students massacred fellow pupils and teachers, prompting us all to revisit our notions of school security and the roles guns play in our lives.
Well, all of us except the NRA, which kept insisting that guns don’t kill people; people kill people. Maybe so, but guns sure do help. One wonders how soon Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris might have been stopped if they had been armed with automatic switchblades, or a two-by-four with a nail in it.
Gene Siskel and Stanley Kubrick died. Jerry Falwell’s homophobia extended to a Teletubby. The Blair Witch Project scared some of us half to death and bored others to tears. Shakespeare in Love won the Oscar that, with all due respect to a fine film, should have gone to Saving Private Ryan. George C. Scott died, meaning that Hollywood had lost one of its most gutsy, individual performers.
So what does all this mean? Well, in some ways, nothing ever changes. Some guy (and it’s always a guy, and usually a white one?) moves into the White House; a bunch of people celebrate, while others throw tantrums. Great art is produced even as great artists die. Someone somewhere blows something up or shoots somebody; sports teams rise and fall and rise again.
If you live long enough, you start to notice these similarities, patterns, and cycles. And once you start noticing them, a disheartening realization crashes in on you. “Jeez,” you might say, “I’ve been around a long time.”
With some exceptions—Byronic teenagers, people with specific untreated mental or emotional conditions, a certain brand of religious lunatic, Wile E. Coyote (who by now has to realize that the boulder’s always going to fall on his head, not the Road Runner’s)—most of us want to be around a long time. But none of us want to face old age, do we? That first liver spot on the hands, the crow’s feet around the eyes, the gray hair, the aching back, the prescription reading glasses that sit on the end of your nose—these things send us running in blind panic to our mirrors, our cosmetic counters, our plastic surgeons. Our bodies function as Age’s roadmap even as it drives its steamroller directly over us, and when we consider all the events great and small that we’ve lived through, it only underscores how long we’ve been here. In turn, these realizations make us wonder how long we’ve got left.
Our kids remind us of whom we used to be and what we used to look like—young, flawless (except for that zit that always seems to erupt on your nose on school picture day), energetic, idealistic, and vital. When Shauna was born, she looked purple; when I asked why, the nurse said, “Because the temperature in here is somewhere in the seventies. She’s used to 98.6.” That made sense. Then the nurse put her on the scale and said, “Nine pounds, thirteen ounces? Is that right?”
“How the hell should I know?” I said. “You’re supposed to know how to work all this junk.”
If you’ll allow me to use a cliché here, I can tell you with all sincerity that Shauna’s birth doesn’t seem to have happened twenty-two years ago; I remember it like it happened yesterday. But the evidence stands in front of me every time I see her. She’s grown, with a life of her own—an apartment, a job, an educational outlook, a political sensibility, a boyfriend, this last even though I told her a thousand times that she’s not allowed to date until I’m dead. Kids today just don’t listen.
The scary thing is that she’s old enough to have a family of her own, and though she wisely doesn’t seem to be in a big hurry to do so, I know she could change her mind. A note to everyone reading this: I am too young to be a grandfather. Don’t even try to argue with me, or I’ll come to your house and staple your lips shut. Too young, do you hear? Too young!!
My son’s now almost old enough to drive by himself. I distinctly remember what that was like—the freedom, the sense of adulthood, the deep red rage when I realized that my new milestone had doomed me to “run to the store” a million times. He’s also a football player, just like his old man. Well, not just like me—he’s much bigger than I was. When I played, I was a 120-pound wideout with okay hands and speed. I also had the vertical leap of a professional—professional sumo wrestler, but still. Seriously, I could clear six inches easily. But ask me to snag a pass much higher than that, and we were both going to come away sorely disappointed. And I would probably stagger off the field gasping from that linebacker who planted his helmet in my floating ribs.
Brendan, on the other hand, weighs about as much as I do now—north of 190, south of 200—and he’s pretty fast, too. He’s currently playing defensive end. If he keeps growing without losing any speed or dexterity, he’s going to be a handful, even for the meatiest offensive linemen.
So when I look at him, I often see a stronger version of my younger self. More dedicated to sports, too—I loved the games but hated practice. Hated it. When I was his age, I went to practice with only slightly more enthusiasm than a death-row inmate walks toward the electric chair. If somebody had told me that I could play in the games without practicing if I agreed to get publicly flogged and caned, I’d have had to think about it seriously. That’s why he’s almost guaranteed to be more successful than I was. He loves the whole experience. He’s the kind of player I wish I could have been. I’ve done well for myself academically—Ph.D., people!—and that started in grade school. But when I wish I could go back and tell my younger self to shape up in practice, I think of Brendan and know that he’s doing better without all the hindsight I’ve stockpiled.
Still, knowing that my son’s playing varsity this year—not Pee Wee or Pop Warner, not eighth grade, not junior high, but varsity—I look in the mirror and wonder how it got to be so late.
Sometimes my kids are quick to remind me about the chronology of my life. When Shauna was graduating high school, I and several other members of my family—Kalene, Brendan, Maya, my mother, my grandmother, my aunt Sandra, my cousin Holly—went to the ceremony. At the hotel, Brendan’s face lit up, as if he had just figured out how to bend the space-time continuum. Then he said, “Hey, Dad. If Shauna’s eighteen, and you’re thirty-six, that means you had her when you were—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said. “Now you decide to use math in the real world? Let’s drop it.”
Yes, Shauna got her diploma four and a half years ago and is, as of this writing, contemplating a return to college. Brendan enters tenth grade this year. And Maya will be twelve in November. She’s almost a teenager. I have no more babies.
It’s odd how being around my kids can make me feel so young and so old at the same time. I feed on their energy even as it exhausts me. I revel in their lives even as I shrink in horror at how those lives are moving so quickly away from me. With Shauna’s job and the physical distance between us, we can only see each other a couple of times a year. Brendan is at the stage where his friends and social life seem more important that hanging with Dad; I’ve been there, so I understand, but it’s still tough. I’m glad he still comes for holidays. As for Maya, she spends the summers with us, and that’s always fun, but I’m sure the time is coming when her own friends, and interests, and those fearful romantic stirrings take precedence.
And when the nest is empty, when the kids have all finished their educations and gone off to live their own adventures, even a non-custodial parent like me will probably feel ancient. It’s a moment that will fill me with pride and regret. And when that moment passes, I will probably sit down next to Kalene in the matching rocking chairs we’ve recently bought. I’ll probably take a nap during the ball game. I doubt I will ever catch her knitting or doing those other typical grandmother things, but I’m sure she’ll be reading a good book as our life enters its early afternoon.
And when I wake up and stretch my increasingly creaky bones, I’ll probably look around me and say, with a mixture of pain and satisfaction, “Where did the time go?”
Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.
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Thanks to www.infoplease.com for reminding me of what happened when, especially from the following pages: http://www.infoplease.com/year/1989.html; http://www.infoplease.com/year/1995.html; http://www.infoplease.com/year/1999.html.