Story, photos by Scott W. Miller, Esq.
You could never say that we didn’t see it coming.
Hurricane Irma churned its way towards Florida with a level of intensity and capacity for destruction that was plain to anyone. Its ferocious potential was evident from Barbuda to Cuba, long before it reached the Gulf Coast of Florida. News broadcasts announced its power and path. As a single dad in Tampa with a 5-year old, I had only one choice. It was time to leave.
Leaving wasn’t as simple as it seemed. Days before landfall, flights were unobtainable. First Tampa, then Orlando, then Jacksonville ran out of departures with seats. I had to settle for Atlanta, which involved an 8-hour drive in the best of conditions, for our outbound flight to family in New Jersey. Thus was my daughter’s first road trip born.
Packing the suitcase of a five-year-old girl is an interesting experience for a guy.
Certain stuffed animals were considered essential by my daughter Katie for the journey, but were too large to fit in her suitcase together with clothes and other needed items. I commenced to explain. We negotiated. Eventually we settled upon two smaller stuffed animal alternatives. Only certain dresses would do. I had to explain that the climate in New Jersey in September was colder than in Tampa. Katie and I negotiated some more. This was all in good cheer, not adversarial at all. But it ate up time, patience and energy.
I know an amazing preacher in Tampa, a former NFL player with the Arizona Cardinals, who talks about his “cup of grace” that starts out full each day but can be emptied over time. He says that when your cup of grace is empty, it’s empty. It will fill back up, but you have to tell your loved ones when the cup is dry. Then they know when to cool it.
Two stuffed animals, three dresses, two beloved bath toys, selected socks, a denied pair of shoes (too large to wear yet without causing blisters), a hairbrush and an assortment of separately packed snacks later, my cup of grace was as dry as the Sahara. I love my little girl. But she is, as she describes herself, a “specific person” – in every way.
I’m impressed that a five-year-old can come up with the idea of being a “specific person” on her own, so I not only let that slide but encourage it.
We need specific people. They build our bridges and houses, and help run our computer networks. Life wouldn’t work without them. But there’s also no denying that they can be a pain at times. Especially to a creative writer-dad.
Adding fuel to the specificity fire is the pronounced femininity of my little minion.
Men love women for what makes them different from us. It’s just naturally that way. If we weren’t different, nothing would work and nothing would be interesting. But while one can enthusiastically say vive la différence when it comes to what divides the sexes, no one would say that differences make for an easy time. And there’s nothing like a lengthy road trip under adverse circumstances to not only bring out the differences in all of us, but even magnify them up to the threshold of actual, physical pain.
I’m like most parents, whether single or married parents. That is to say, I have heard the Let It Go song from the Frozen movie so many times that it’s led me to contemplate the violent destruction of audio equipment and question my sanity on multiple occasions. But there is nothing to do when your little one is herself the author of your musical interlude. It’s excruciating. You don’t want to stifle their enthusiasm. You want them to express themselves. But girly girls sing girly songs, over and over. The repetition feels great to them. It must be like eating cherries. “Hey, that one tasted good, let’s have another one.” That’s what I think when I dig into a big bowl of fruit. My little Katie was evidently feeling the same, as we transited from Tampa to Ocala to Gainesville, at times on the highway and other times plying the back roads in an effort to escape the snarl of Floridians hurrying out of the way of Irma’s wrath. Katie never stopped being nice and sweet – but she never stopped singing, either. I’ve cursed My Little Pony under my breath more times than I can count. And that’s on just one trip.
My martial arts teacher is a third degree black belt and says that internally he can turn the volume in his household up or down simply by concentrating, that his mind is strong enough to train his focus on as much or as little of his surroundings as he likes. I don’t know if that’s possible for me or not, but I do know one thing – I’m training with that guy until I become a black belt one day. That kind of ability is priceless, if it exists. I’d walk through the gates of hell to possess it.
Since I already feel like the gates of hell and I are old friends, my arrival there may be redundant. But at least I’ll feel like I’m right at home.
I have to give Katie her due. In many ways she made the trip to Atlanta more pleasant than it would have been had I been alone. We talked about her grandmother’s house. We laughed and made jokes, even if her “knock-knock” jokes didn’t make any sense. So what if I had to rhyme words with her for hours and have contests to see which of us could spot more school buses for three hundred miles? Part of it was really fun, despite the challenges. Kids push us to our limits, but they light up our lives. And you don’t get one without the other. That’s a fact.
Katie’s arrival in New Jersey kicked the whole thing into overdrive. We were safe, that was great. Irma had no chance to harm us. I breathed the sigh of relief that every parent knows and understands. But my peace of mind was to be short-lived.
Our child care marathon started roughly around 8:30 each morning.
Katie would wake up hungry. That’s to be expected. Then she’d want to play with the dogs, including a huge three-month old puppy already weighing thirty-five founds who appears to be a mix of Labrador and an oversized Newfoundland. I christened the puppy Jackson, since he didn’t have a name yet. If you think Jackson’s energy was more than equal to my daughter’s, you’d be right. Enough said about that. Sometimes you score points just when all the furniture in the house remains intact.
After some time with Jackson and my Mom’s resident cocker spaniel, Katie would ask “what’s the plan?” She likes to have an itinerary. At the age of five.
Our plans were always on an intense schedule. We went to Space Farms, a northwest New Jersey institution so long established that I went there as a kid forty years ago. We saw and fed every animal known to man. We snacked. We picked apples at a local farm. We drove towards home and went to the beach playground at the lake, going swimming even though it was September. We made sand castles. Back at home, we played Chinese checkers and Monopoly (Katie monopolized us thoroughly). Then we did puzzles on the floor. We drew and painted and colored. We played with the dogs some more. We decorated a pumpkin for Halloween. At last, we fell asleep watching PJ Masks.
And that was just Day One.
Each day was a delightful, brutal sensory onslaught from dawn to dusk. It’s what you get into, being a parent. Nobody tells you that ahead of time. If they did, no one would have kids and the world would depopulate. Candor requires me to affirm that, if it weren’t for Katie’s school to take up some of the strain, I would have been ready for the jacket with the funny sleeves a long time ago. Saying so, by the way, isn’t inconsistent with the deepest, most adoring love. Quite the contrary. But it is what it is. This is the hardest job you’ll ever love. Hands down.
In the father department, I didn’t fare too well. He was out of the picture early, as some dads are, and when he was dragged back in later he left a trail of hurt and destruction in his wake. Some people don’t know how to do anything else.
In my darkest moments, when I’m overtired beyond anything that’s normal from putting in the time to be a good dad, I occasionally have a moment of weakness and lament my fate. I wonder why, not having received much of a father, I am called upon to be a great dad when I didn’t get one. You can be used to life’s unfairness and still think that.
When I feel that injustice rise inside me and indulge for a moment in self-pity – which is exactly what it is – then I look at my little girl. She smiles. That does me in. There’s no cost, there’s no past and there’s no pain or loss – there’s only her love.
Divorce is a hurricane. Katie’s energy is another kind of hurricane. We have to stand up to these things in life. I don’t know whether everything that doesn’t kill us will make us stronger. Personally, I have my doubts about that. But I do know that raising a beautiful child ennobles us. It gives us purpose, and it gives us hope. Hurricanes don’t last forever. And when they pass, in their wake they always leave the most pristine, clear sky without a cloud, beckoning us to an extraordinary tomorrow.