Baby on Board

It has now been almost a year and a half since I embarked on what I think of as “late-onset fatherhood.” Becoming a first-time parent this late-I’m forty-eight, and my wife Molly is nine years younger-can be daunting. I’ve got a bad knee, I’ve got dental nightmares, acid reflux, and the list of favorite foods I can’t eat anymore. Not to mention the cute little convertible I sold because it lacked a place for an infant seat.

Belated fatherhood also means welcoming a new life into your midst, even as illness and death are besetting your parents, in-laws, and old family friends. In June 2006, when our daughter Larkin was five months old, we scattered the ashes of Molly’s brother who died of lung cancer. My mother, meanwhile, was in the last stages of the same dreadful disease. Back when I was a kid, she played cards in a bridge club with three of her best friends, all heavy smokers who went on to die of cancer. My mother quit smoking in 1990, and we had hoped there would be a statute of limitations.

But cancer, alas, is not ruled by decree. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, I myself then got some bad news: a mole on my lower back turned out to be a melanoma. A two-and-a-half-hour surgery took a big chunk out of my back, plus lymph nodes north and south. The doctors biopsied the nodes, they scanned me everywhere, and thankfully found nothing. I’m still here.

But my mother died, and I miss her more than I can say. I think about all the things she did with my sisters and me as children, things I’d hoped she’d do - as a grandmother now - with Larkin. Waking us for midnight walks around the block; teaching us to cook; making homemade Play-dough, sitting at the piano and singing. Sore knees aside, my only real regret about delaying fatherhood so long is that Larkin will never get to know her grandmother, a woman of unusual vitality, humor, kindness, and flair.

Since my mother died I have had a recurring kind of dream. I’ll be somewhere in my hometown, walking by the movie theater, or standing outside my grade school. Everything looks as it did circa 1963, when I was five: all the old buildings, viewed from a height of 3’ 2”. And always in these dreams I am aware of a presence-someone tall, standing next to me. I can never see her, but I know my mother is there, protecting and accompanying me, showing me the world. In my dream I live once again in her comforting shadow. When I wake, it’s as if she has died all over again.

Sometimes I find myself in the grip of an emotion that mixes ecstasy and grief. At seventeen months, Larkin is a relentless explorer and vandal. I’ll watch as she attacks the living-room bookshelf, sending books toppling to the floor and laughing in joy. She wears purple sneakers that resemble the footgear my mother wore-colorful, with Velcro straps that were easy on arthritic fingers. And the way Larkin stands, holding onto the edge of the coffee table and wobbling slightly, mimics Mom toward the end of her life. She’s Mary Ann reincarnated, right down to the big grin.

Before Molly and I decided to try to conceive a child, I remember experiencing a strange kind of temporal-metaphysical dissatisfaction. It was as if I suddenly felt tired of living only in the present. Larkin has taken care of that. Having a child extends you back into the past, connecting you to perceptions and experiences you have all but forgotten. And even as the child demands a future of you, she also bestows one-enlarging the procession, creating descendents out in front of you to match the ancestors behind. If Larkin lives to be the age my grandmother lived to, she will see the year 2100, and the span from the birth of my grandmother to the death of Larkin’s own (hypothetical) grandchildren will reach from 1890 to something like 2160, almost three hundred years.

What a blessed relief, to be put in my place that way. For the belated dad, such perspectives more than compensate for the loss of a midlife-crisis car, and give a glimmering new shine to the old truth, Better late than never.

Published in the 2007-06-15 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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