We had a girl in 2003. She'll be 12 this summer. Unlike her older brother she is of pastel colors and random giggles. Her room is purple with unicorn-ish bedding and a cotton candy lampshade. Her hair-ties shimmer of glitter and some of her socks do too. She laughs a lot and says it feels good to do so and only recently began brooding, briefly, returning to silly spells on the carpet, a turtle on its back. Her addition to our chemistry is immeasurable, her desire for the tips of her hair to be blue, immense.
"Hey, crazy turtle. You do your homework?"
"Turtles don't need algebra."
"Sure they do."
"Nope, ask any of 'em."
"Do turtles take showers?" my wife asks.
"Not me, man."
We wait and she uncoils and ends up with her chin in her hands. "Can I get a turtle?"
We find them in the back of Petco. She names the first one Instant and I laugh, thinking of "In an Instant," admiring the ease her mind locates humor. She then names the second guy Coffee. Instant & Coffee live in a tank with rocks and sludgy water which will get yuckier if we treat it right. They eat real greens that they reach with outstretched necks. At bedtime the two of us are alit by the glow of the tank as we snuggle before she sleeps. We decide Instant is the older brother and in a heartbeat my daughter says, "But only by a hair." I sit up and look down at her.
"What?" she says.
"Lay back down, daddy. I can't see the tank."
It is easy to see my mother's face in my daughter's. She has my wife's forehead and chin and it appears, an even more evolved sense of humor than my own, a tool I've used to respectable success in my prose. Who will she become? How will she use the gift? Before her existence I'd only begun to learn what selflessness could bring me. And then fatherhood. I'd say we've all grown, my son to six feet tall in his 15th year. His teenaged brooding began at eleven or so and seems to be waning. For my daughter the bouts of quiet thought appear almost heavy for her, as if she must sit to take it all in. I have empathy for someone who will need to navigate her life as I did. The road may be steep. But the humor will both hurt and help her. She can use a phrase or idiom she heard once, maybe a year ago, and apply it perfectly, originally, with the confidence one saves for reciting their phone number.
As of late she is sinking into the pubescent vortex. I sense a higher propensity for more acerbic and questionably age-appropriate wit. She is tired, cranky, unmotivated and staring at me right now. I touch the wrinkles above my eyes because that's where she looks.
"Am I chewing too loud?" I ask.
Her eyes close before her head slowly returns to The Shawshank Redemption, her new favorite movie.
I slowly sink my two front teeth into the apple but leave them there. It's going to
be hard to continue the bite without making noise. But I try.
"Just eat it, Dad. Eat it already."
"It's loud food."
"You are loud. I'm trying to watch this and all I can hear is your jaw and teeth."
I stand with my apple and walk to the kitchen. I take a giant bite and look at the blond ponytail waving at me from the couch. I play with memories of us. Times when my eating was less intrusive. I toss the apple in the garbage and walk back. I attempt foolishly to snuggle with her, as we've done a million times, but she growls and turns her shoulder. I find my own chair. Morgan Freeman walks the beach of Zihuatanejo and finds Tim Robbins atop the fishing boat. The credits roll.
"You know what I love about this movie?" my daughter says.
"The music. It's so important, ya know, to the scenes. They'd have less meaning without it. The scenes."
We have the same color hair and our eyes do a similar thing when we smile. What is this gift I couldn't have anticipated, where I am so clearly watching myself at times, in the frame of someone evolved. The family tree climbs upward through the life cycles and here I sit with my contribution, a branch that is us, and our time here together. I'm luckier than the richest man alive. And it's something you cannot take from me.
It's true that when I was in college I anticipated dialogue I'd share with my 11-year-old girl after seeing a movie. And then, of course it happened so often I'd stop thinking of it, letting the surrealism dwindle away. She's a movie buff, can watch three in a day and will discuss them in detail afterwards. When she was ready to watch Jaws at the age of nine I let her because she wouldn't stop talking about it. When it ended she announced it was her favorite movie of all time. Within minutes she'd begun to build not only the shark but the entire cast out of Legos. When Richard Dreyfuss was complete we played for awhile, recreating the scenes. I'll never forget how she wanted to do the human side of the story, the texture out of the water. She saw tenderness, the human element, the very intricacy of art that my life's work is about.
"You don't have to go in the ocean," she says, as we clean up. "It's not the law."
"No, but it's nice. A good part of life."
"I'm just sayin' it's not required."
"Never let a movie keep you off the beach."
"Dad. There was visible Elmer's glue on the shark's fin. It didn't scare me."
I tuck her into bed and we gaze at Instant & Coffee. I think of the final scene, Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider are floating on a piece of the destroyed boat. The sky can be seen, it's been awhile, and the sun is out. The music is relieved, light and airy, and the possibility of a long and lasting life is seen in the splashing of their feet. I am absorbing great films I've seen before through the eyes of my daughter. Every piece of art has new meaning as I share them with her. Who said parenting was thankless?
"Let's watch something else tomorrow, Daddy," she says. "Think of a good one. I'll think too. What's that one you mentioned, Harold and something?"
"Harold and Maude."
"Oh," she says. "Those are much better turtle names."
"No. Yours are perfect."
"Then when I get fish. Harold and Maude. OMG."
We watch it, I can't believe how long it's been. The film is rich with humor and pathos and has a Cat Stevens soundtrack throughout, leaving each scene dripping with the recoiling of war and the tenderness of his lyrics. My daughter turns to me about ten minutes before Ruth Gordon takes the fatal pill, the pill she never warns Harold about. I feel empathy for where she must go but will not warn her. What's a better lesson for a lover of stories than to be witness to the fragility of humans from a safe distance. How do I keep Harold and Maude from a girl who recognized the brilliant human elements of Jaws, without ever being scared of the shark. She loves stories, characters, humor, plot angles. Maude takes the pill, Harold screams and races to get her in an ambulance. Cat Stevens sings the song, Trouble as Harold's Jaguar/hearse revs high over the wailing sadness of his voice.
Trouble/trouble set me free/ I have paid my debt now won't you leave me in my misery. I haven't got a lot of time. I have to go there. Just let me go there.
My daughter's eyes are filled with tears but she stares ahead, swallows, twice.
The film ends with Harold playing the banjo Ruth gave him. The love of his life is dead. But he is alive. As with Jaws, the ending is a flash of optimism, occurring in the waning seconds of catastrophe. And isn't it best that we brace for such lessons in a life. My daughter is silent and still as she watches the credits. We don't say anything until we reach her room.
"Harold looked like one of the Beatles," she says.
"I agree. The hair. The pale skin."
"That was funny but very sad."
"I loved it. But it made me really sad."
I open the turtle tank and touch Coffee on the shell. "Maybe tomorrow we'll watch something really funny. You seen Caddy Shack, yet?"
"I think you'll like it. There's this gopher in it. They use a puppet and..."
"It's okay to feel this way," she says. "I don't feel anything after stupid movies. It's fun to laugh during funny movies though. But you don't feel... ya know..."
I can hear her brain churning, flipping through its Rolodex for the right word.
"You never feel like you're better for it. Better for seeing it or being able to feel it. Like I do now."
I pull her blanket up to her chin, and stare down at her little face.
"I'm going to watch movies with you forever."
I kiss her on the cheek and her eyes squint from the smile.
"I wish it was true," she says and turns on her side.
Next to my wife in bed, listening to her breathe. "I wish it was true," she said, full aware of mortality. We will not be watching movies together forever. Not even close. A question. Is death too rough a topic for my precocious twelve-year-old girl? I made a conscience decision as a parent to distance the gritty truths of the Holocaust from my kids. I grew up quite religious and found myself in memorials to WWII at a very early age. Where my kids saw the story of Noah's ark as an opportunity to receive not one but two giraffes in the bath toy, I was privy to the fact that lampshades were made of human skin. Hair was used for pillows. My ancestor's hair.
In the parking lot of her school I see her. She stands with a few girls and one boy she says she likes, "as a friend, Dad." He ruffles through her backpack with it still on her shoulders. He removes a book, shows it to her and puts in his backpack. She sees my car, waves to her friends and hops once before running to me. "Hi Dad. I know what I want to watch tonight?"
"Stand By Me."
I recall the story, the dead body, Kiefer Sutherland as a great '50s bully.
"Michael says it's the best. These kids find a dead boy on the train tracks and go on this whole adventure to find it. Did you see it?"
"Yes. I'm just, I'm just..."
"You're just what?"
"All the movies you're seeing are about death."
"It's not the only topic."
"Oh stop," she says. "Movies about death are just as much about life."
"I know it is."
"But, for example, The Wizard of Oz doesn't leave you feeling..."
"The witch threatens to kill Dorothy, Dad. She nearly dies in the tornado."
"Okay, Caddy Shack. It's funny as hell. Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and this gopher, my God, you have to see this puppet they use..."
"Stand By Me," she says and when I face her she's nodding, helping me understand where this is going. There is reassurance in her eyes, and drive, to experience what she knows will add to the fodder of her private thoughts. These thoughts for me became public writing, intimate human sketches I'd end up sharing with the masses.
Mom, son, daughter and me go on the ride that is Rob Reiner's Stand By Me, a film adapted from a short story called The Body by Stephen King. My daughter sits, literally, on the edge of the couch as the swirl of the story unfolds and the dead body is found aside the railroad tracks. "Incredible." She says. "I just loved it."
Instant the turtle is atop a rock that Coffee can't climb for some reason. He extends his dinosaur-like turtleneck and chews in slow motion. My wife kisses our girl and heads to bed and I lay with her for a minute.
"So, you loved it?"
She turns on her side and waits to speak. "The boy, the dead one, he was blue. He must've been there for a few days."
"Yeah, that part was really sad."
"I wouldn't have gone on the hike," she says. "I'd just tell the police."
"Me too. I don't think I'd go into the woods like that."
"I wonder what it's like to stop breathing," she says. I hear her take a deep breath and hold it. I wait and wait. She finally blows it out and tries to catch her breath, her little shoulders rising and falling. "Daddy?"
"Let's watch something funny tomorrow."
"I love that idea. Time to laugh."
"Tell me about the gopher in Caddy Shack."
"Oh, it's hilarious. He lives underneath the golf course and torments Bill Murray. You'll crack up."
"They use a puppet?"
"I want to see that."
"Caddy Shack it is, can't wait."
She faces me with a sleepy smile. "I want to watch movies with you FOREVER."
I lean to her in the dark and end up kissing the top of her ear. "Forever and ever."