FOR THE LITTLEST ONE
Thursday, December 6, 2007.
By Mark Anthony Neal
It’s really hard to believe that it has been five years. And for you those five years have been nothing but constant change—the first eight months you spent in New York, eleven months in Texas and the last three years here in North Carolina. You might end up being the most cosmopolitan of us all.
But I really wanted to talk to you—leave you something that you can go to when you’re older, so that they’ll always be an index of how a I feel about you—at this moment, in this place. I wasn’t home for your birthday—yes, that was me that rolled that bike into your bedroom as I headed to the airport before dawn—but I wasn’t there for the birthday cake and the tiara and the singing and all the pictures.
That you don’t hold it against me, perhaps is the measure of how much daddy’s comings and goings/goings and comings are part of the regular rhythm of your life—when you need your own daddy time, you always find a way to get it. But in truth, November 15th may have been the day that you were born, but it’s the day that you came into our lives that really matters.
Of course I got to tell your sister’s story in a book—and I’m sure that one day there’ll be a book filled with the spirit of you, though, there’s been nary a day since December 1, 2002 that your spirit hasn’t filled every moment and every breathe that we’ve shared.
I can still remember the overnight trek to Buffalo—through the requite Syracuse/Rochester snowstorm—to await your arrival at Uncle Julius and Aunt Carmen’s house. It was only hours into that trip that we told your then four-year old sister that she was gonna have a baby-sister (and in some ways, five years later she’s still trying to process that).
That first moment we saw you, you were just a lump of baby—there was no indication of the hearty spirit that was to come. It was the day before my 37th birthday—a birthday that we spent snowed-in—getting much needed time to consider our growing little family.
The thing I always remember about your early days, was the sense of intimacy that you demanded from your daddy. Even as an infant, you needed to touch my face—memorize it’s contours, as if you already knew that God had some plans for your daddy, that even he was unaware of, and that there would be so many days in which you only got a glimpse of daddy.
I often lament that I don’t get to spend as much quality time with you and your sister, as I did during the first two years of her life. But truth be told, I spent more time with you during the first six months of your life than I ever did at any point in your sister’s life.
Unlike your sister—who was born interactive—you were always self-contained. So I could literally spend hours with you at that Wolf Road Starbucks in Albany (still my favorite place to write after all these years)—your carry-all inches from me. And the joy of being able to reach over and have you rest quietly on my chest, when daddy needed a break from his ambition. I miss the simplicity of those days.
You were such a tiny thing. When you began to walk—just short of ten-months—folk often remarked that you were too small to be so dexterous. Of course many of those folk had not born witness to the dexterity with which you used kitchen utensils as early as 8-months old. We rarely remark on how little you are these days—you are a fully grown five-year old, whose passion for food, is perhaps only matched by your father’s.
It’s that hearty appetite, hearty sense of humor and hearty desire for life that we share. And of course the music thing. I don’t know if I was proud or angry that night you grabbed a handful of CDs from my cherished collection (hastening my move to the MP3 world) and listened to them on your portable radio to find the ones that mattered to you.
Thirty-five years earlier, that was me going through your Papa AC’s album collection. Dru Hill. Corrine Bailey Rae. James Brown. Bill Withers. Chrisette Michele. Arrested Development. Mary J Blige. Those are your current faves, though they never overpower your own rhythms.
How many of your teachers have told us that you flow to your own music—as if we didn’t wage battle with your strong will everyday of your life. Like your unwillingness to go to sleep until it’s sleep that you want—so you sit in your room and imagine and build and create and pretend and dance and sing and tell stories to yourself, and I can’t get mad, since it’s your eternally restless daddy who can never get his own ass to bed before 1am.
There’s that defiant streak in you and your sister, marked by the defense of your rights to know the logic behind the things that your parents/teachers/friends/coaches ask of you. Like when one of your teachers asked you not to remove your shoes during nap time (who sleeps with their shoes on?); Sensing the lack of logic behind the request, you defiantly took off your shoes one at a time, while staring your teacher down.
Your mother and I would like to think that we have endowed you and your sister with the ability to make your own decisions and to develop your own convictions and yeah when we’re running late on the mornings that I teach or the two of you are testing our last nerves at the end of a long day, that shit is maddening. But I often think about how well your spirits will serve you as grown women in a world that would rather you sit quietly and take directions.
The thing I so love about you now, is the way that you simply fill a room. The little boys, some twice your age, who feel the need to gravitate towards you—and take your direction. The little girls who, literally sit at your feet. The teachers who need to remark about your low-key intellect. Perhaps because I too only get a glimpse of you , I often find myself mesmerized by your spirit.
My favorite moments with you these days are those times when your reach up—like you are that crawling infant again—asking for me to lift you up. At first I would complain—you are in fact a fully-grown five-year-old and daddy’s is 42-year back—until I came to realize your intent.
Yes, you are a big girl, but even a big girl needs to feel small in her daddy’s arms. Hopefully this big girl knows her daddy loves her, whether near or far.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University. He blogs as New Black Man.
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