“Daddy? Can you get me a zippie for this?”
The whisper startled me awake. My 6-year-old son was at my bedside.
It was 2:22 in the morning, and by the dim glow of my alarm clock radio I could see that he was holding one of his tiny baby teeth. My right arm had fallen asleep. I couldn't feel anything from my elbow down.
I shook it to get some circulation back.
It’s strange. My son lived for nearly seven years without losing a single tooth. His friends and classmates looked like walking jack-o-lanterns, like they’d gone 12 rounds with Evander Holyfield, like they'd all spent their weekends leaping off of scooters head first onto blacktop--but my son did not lose a single tooth until he was practically seven years old.
Now he was losing teeth every 5 minutes.
“What do you want?” I said still half-asleep
I never thought I would be a father. When I was younger, I could barely keep track of a pencil. I left my things all over the place – in the locker room, on the bus, on park benches, in baseball dugouts. Wherever I went, I left a trail of valuables in my wake. It’s no wonder my mom smiled and said, “Good luck!” when I told her the amazing news seven years ago. That my wife and I were expecting our first child.
“They're a little tougher to keep track of than a Star Wars notebook, honey.”
Smiling, she patted me on the shoulder and went back to washing dishes, humming softly to herself. Not quite the reaction I was looking for.
Was I ready for the responsibility that came along with raising a child? Was being a dad really what I had always wanted? Would I have to figure this all out on my own? What if the kid abandoned me when I wasn’t watching? What if he never learned to speak? What if he ran off with a pack of wild dogs and started pawning beef jerky to stray coyotes?
Doubt crept into me like water into a sinking ship.
“I need my tooth to go in a bag so the Tooth Fairy can find it and leave me a present.” My son’s voice was hushed, and his eyes sparkled.
I did not respond to him at first and, instead, threw the covers off of my legs, swinging my bare feet heavily to the carpeted floor. It was cold outside the comfort of my cover cocoon. I shivered and sighed audibly, rubbing my forehead with both hands.
“Give me the tooth,” I said after a long pause.
He dropped the tooth carefully into my outstretched hand.
“You go back to bed. I’ll go get the bag.”
He followed me downstairs.
I yawned as I opened the kitchen drawer containing the plastic, zip-lock baggies.
“Last time, she gave me $3 and wrapped the money in a little red bow,” my son said.
“She did, did she?”
I cursed my wife a little under my breath and stealthily grabbed my wallet. I snuck a peek inside, only to discover that it was empty. I had not been planning on a trip to the ATM this morning. I rolled my eyes and handed the bagged tooth over to my son’s eager hands. He held the tiny specimen up before him and brought it close to his face so it was touching his nose. His eyes crossed.
“All right,” I said, “upstairs with you, then.”
Back in bed, my son fluffed his pillow under which now rested the tooth. It was 2:35am, and I knew I had miles to go before I slept. I made a face in the darkness, thinking about later this morning when my alarm clock would jolt me awake at 4:15.
I have this nightmare about once a week now. I am teetering on the edge of a sheer precipice, nothing but empty space in front of me. Darkness looms below. A tiny sliver of earth lies just beyond my leap. A child waves me on. He is running away, moving forward... without me.
And he’s not looking back.
It is too far a distance, I think to myself. I’ll never land the leap from where I stand, and the space grows uncontrollably with each passing second. A thunderous ticking resounds from all sides of my mind and I squint to see the shadow of a large creature lying in the depths below – something with hefty jaws and hooked teeth.
Before I wake, gasping for breath, I fall forward, flailing into empty space. Nothing ahead or behind. The ticking is replaced by laughter. The laughter of a child.
“Why are all of my teeth falling out?”
“Because you are growing up.”
There was a moment of silence and I could tell he was thinking about that. The room was still and my eyelids instinctively began to droop.
“Why am I growing up so fast?”
I had been struck by a lightning bolt. I was wide awake, now. A space in the blinds let in the moonlight and illuminated the new space in the middle of my son’s bottom row of teeth. Things were changing. Was the space between us growing, too?
The hair on my arms stood on end. I shivered. He looked up at me, waiting for a response.
Instead of speaking, I suddenly slumped forward, wrapping my arms tightly around him. He was, I think, a little surprised by my reaction, at first letting out a small giggle in the midst of my embrace, and then relaxing a bit, letting his head fall softly to my shoulder.
I waited for the lump in my throat to recede slightly before saying, “Growing up isn’t a race. Don’t run away too fast.”
The weight of my words billowed like a ship’s sail.
“I won’t,” he breathed out.
I breathed in and let him go, helped him get comfortable, and pulled the covers up around his head. I could see that he was already drifting off. I ran my hand through my son’s hair until his eyelids fluttered closed and his breathing became regular.
The car ride to and from the ATM was quiet, except for the low tones of the radio. The dial was tuned to classical. I was only half listening, as the piano player struck the chords to a memorable Beatles song.
Yesterday, I think.
With the fresh roll of bills in my wallet, I visited my son’s room one more time, before finally crawling into my bed.
It was now 3:15 in the morning.
In an hour my alarm clock would shout me awake and I would embark on my usual weekday routine. I needed sleep.
I lay there with my eyes half closed, watching shadows form and fall away as the lights of passing cars shown through my windowpane. The final silhouette seemed to linger longer on the ceiling, inspecting me, studying me- the outline of some lost boy, searching for a home, or a playmate. I had settled into a place between sleep and awake, and I suddenly had to fight an uncontrollable urge to force open my bedside window. My heart beat as it did in youth and in my dreamlike state I hoped for pixie dust and pirates and starlight. I hoped for adventure and I yearned for flight.
But mostly I was hoping to hear that whisper again, if you want to know the truth; that small voice at the side of my bed that would once again wake me from my slumber.
And when that gentle tone reached my ears, I knew exactly what I would do.
Smiling, I’d pull the covers back and let my son crawl into bed with me. Gently, he would nuzzle the crown of his head into the rounded hollow under my chin, and it would fit perfectly, so perfectly, for now.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem