“Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight
Make me a child again, just for tonight!”
“Rock Me to Sleep,” Elizabeth Akers Allen
Days are the backbone of a lifetime, as Marv Hiles once wrote. We all rise from Mystery, pass a few fleeting years, and then move on into the dark again, he said. Somehow I had traveled across more than 41 years without her on this journey; no day since has been complete without her.
It was ten years ago last spring, a Wednesday afternoon, a typical day for millions of people all over the world, going about their business, working, shopping, coming home from school. Nothing unusual.
In a small room in a hospital in Savannah, at 3:10 that afternoon, my life cleaved into two distinct halves: everything that happened before and everything that followed after. A moment in time unfelt and unremembered by almost everybody else alive that day. But moments become turning points. The hinge of my life pivoted that day.
At Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah that afternoon, I first met the little girl who would become “Tink,” short for “Tinky,” which was my reaction the first time I changed her diaper. I leaned close to her and laughed and said, “Tinky, tinky, tinky!” The name “took,” as we say down here, and she bears it still, despite its questionable origin.
Hers was the first diaper I ever changed. I gave her her very first bath. I slept with her on my arms on the couch the very first night at home. There would be many other firsts through the years: the first word, the first step, the first time throwing a baseball, the first bicycle ride, without training wheels. The first trip on an airplane. The first ride in the front seat. The first day we dropped her off at daycare and left her for others to take care of, with people other than her parents to shape the person she would become, with the big wide world waiting. The first day of school.
Moments that become turning points: I well remember the first wedding I went to just months after she was born. As the bride walked down the aisle with her father, my eyes suddenly and unexpectedly welled with tears. I nearly started blubbering but mercifully kept most of it in check. Where had this come from? It was simple: the idea that my own little girl who had only just arrived might one day leave us to get married was more than I could stand. Would I have to give her away some day? Not for a very long time, I reassured myself. Yet I knew: “At my back I always hear, time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” as Andrew Marvell wrote.
Time passed quickly. She crawled for the first time when I was away on a trip to New York. Pretty soon she was walking. Singing. Drawing. Dancing. Running. Playing. Chasing. Screaming, yelling, laughing, crying. She loves Legos, My Little Pony, Batman, drawing, Harry Potter, animals (stuffed and otherwise), books, rocks, cartoons, and the Three Stooges. She can do a perfect rendition of Curly singing “Little fly upon the wall, ain’t ya got no clothes at all?” She loves Minecraft, Star Wars, and Animal Jam. She hums and sings constantly, without even knowing it (just like her grandmother), filling the house with her soundtrack.
Watching her grow and develop her own personality has been the great joy of my life. It’s also the great challenge of my life. We are so much alike in temperament that it’s like watching yourself, and often it’s not pretty. As Joe Posnanski said about his own daughter, she’s more me than me sometimes.
The greatest challenge I face every day is being Tink’s father. Every day brings multiple opportunities, and I fail most of them. I don’t say the right thing or react the right way. At least I don’t think I do. The good thing is that she doesn’t seem to think so, and that’s a blessing. You feel this enormous pressure not to screw this up, as I’m only going to get one chance. As she grows older and hormones develop (and she’s developing rapidly), the challenges get bigger and the stakes seemingly get higher. Every single day she demands the best that is in me.
One thing about becoming a father later in life, particularly when you’re a historian, is having perspective—not about the usual things, but about the passing of time, both how precious it is and how ephemeral. Time doesn’t just trot along now, it runs, it moves, it gallops. There is no stopping it as one day melts unnoticed into another. I know it, I feel it every day and am powerless to stop it. People say, “boy they grow up fast, you better enjoy it,” as if I’m not aware of that myself. I know it all too well, but you can do nothing about it.
But what this also does for me is that it helps me understand that whatever crisis we’re going through right at this red-hot second, it will pass on and it won’t be important. Will it matter ten years from now? If not, then don’t get too upset. So what if her clothes don’t match sometimes when she picks them out? So what if we can’t get her to go to bed when she should? So what if she still won’t eat many different kinds of foods? Time moves on and soon we’ll be dropping her off on a college campus somewhere, driving away without her. She’ll be gone off in search of her life, and none of these little battles will matter. Backward, turn backward, o time in your flight.
At ten years old, she stands astride childhood and puberty, perched precariously on the brink of teenage-hood, and all that it will bring—laughter, tears, moodiness, confusion, angst, growth, maturity, boys, boobs. The cycle.
I hope somewhere in there she’ll remember her love of books and reading and music and animals and that in the journey to discover herself, she’ll cling tight to the memory of how much fun she had watching all of the Three Stooges shorts with her father, singing “The Michigan Rag” and “The Great McClusky Fight” together, the long walks we took in the mountains, the bike rides, the made-up songs, playing out our favorite scenes from Warner Bros. cartoons, and all those days I walked hand-in-hand with her to school when she was glad to have me near. At some point I’ll be gone and she’ll remain, and you hope you did it all right. “I’ve brought you to the mountain, the climb is yours,” as Sandra McBride wrote.
One day several years ago, Tink and I were standing in my book-lined study, and she asked me, “Daddy, what are you going to do with all these books?”
“Well Tink,” I replied, “I guess one day when I’m gone they’ll all be yours. The question is, what will you do with them?”
She looked up for a minute at the shelves that towered over her, then looked back at me.
“Read them,” she said.