What’s the big deal? I’m experienced. I’ve been briefed on girl maintenance (“Wipe down.”). I’m ready.
My wife’s friends treat me like a hero, but come on! A week of solo Grampa duty in Florida while Kevin and Genné attend a conference? I had raised sons, and six-year old Ben is my buddy. Reilly at a year and a half might be a handful, but Genné arranged for Tammy to spell me daily. Why does Genné need a cell phone? Like I’m going to call and say, “Help! How do I open the refrigerator?” And Tammy offered to cook our dinners. No way! How tough could this be?
After I check in with Kevin and Genné and shoot baskets with Ben, I kneel on the living room floor with Reilly. She studies me but soon toddles over, pats my beard, and says “Up!” Up into my arms.
Kevin types up daily schedules, Reilly’s in her own voice: “Fussy time—4:30 until dinner: I like to be carried around so you can’t get anything done!”
My tour of the house includes Ben’s clothes laid out for the week, the frozen food, coffee, stashes of toys, phone numbers of friends and doctors. Give me a break!
A flurry of packing and farewells. Ben is cool—a quick good-bye, then he turns his back on his parents and walks to the bus. Reilly smiles and says “Bye-bye” to everyone, me included.
Tammy arrives. I admire her easy competence with Reilly. She leaves just before noon—alone at last! We play Uppy-Down, toppling over backwards on the couch, and I wonder if her hiccups will last all week. Will she choke on a tiny carrot? How do you do a Heimelich maneuver on a one-year old? I should know this stuff! I follow her around the house until the carrot disappears. Genné may find it some day.
I put her down for her nap at 1:15, pleased at how well everything is going. 1:25—naptime over. Reilly then learns a lesson: You can’t take off your socks while standing on them.
When Ben gets home we play basketball as I snatch Reilly from her dash for the street and discourage her from eating styrofoam bubbles. Naptime approaching—mine.
What’s for dinner?
The kids enjoy the macaroni and cheese. Seven nights in a row?
Later, the kids fed and in bed, Ben’s homework nearly done (we bog down in Where’s Waldo?), Reilly bathed and me soaked, I relax on the couch, strangely tired. 8:45 isn’t all that early to go to bed. I sleep lightly, worried that I will not hear them crying or will miss getting Ben up and off to school.
I am a master of competency. In fact, we get to the corner so early that Ben thinks we missed the bus—no other kids are around. Reilly hunts acorns while I play sheepdog to keep her from the road until the bus finally arrives.
Tammy cheerfully changes Reilly’s “very messy” diaper and puts on her outfit for the day. I don’t think in terms of “outfits.” It’s more like “coverage.” Does it even occur to the moms at Ben’s bus stop that afternoon that I selected the aqua barrettes that so nicely match Reilly’s outfit?
Her afternoon stroller ride puts her to sleep. I’m elated—naps will be a cinch. So will dinners. After my successful spaghetti, I plan to alternate spaghetti and macaroni.
Both kids go to bed sneezing, sniffling, and coughing. I’m concerned, but after all, they are asleep.
They arise slowly, a little crusty around the nose, but happy and energetic. Ben makes it to the bus stop at a respectable time. Later, from my reading chair I hear Reilly fussing for Tammy. But not to worry—I can always take her for an afternoon stroller ride. Which I do, except I tire before she does. So she charges around the living room, bringing me books and toys, saying “Up!” and “Dees!” (This? Please?) to an amiable lump on the couch. Would someone please bring me a cup of coffee?
Today Reilly learns that you can pull off your socks when you are standing on them, as well as the thrill of dunking a nerf football when Grampa holds you high in the air. Grampa learns not to miss a slam-dunk on an eight-foot basket when your grandson is watching.
Reilly and I invent a new game: Try On Shoes. She brings me her basket of shoes and I put a pair on her. Then she walks around looking at her feet and laughing, while I exclaim, “What a pretty girl!” Well, she is. Another favorite, played on the low front porch step, consists of stepping up and down while holding Grampa’s hand. Endlessly. When I sit on the step with a loud “Ahhhh!” Reilly mocks my sigh.
Ben awakens me at 3:30 with a “really bad dream” about struggling to escape from a big hairy monster who is trying to take him from home. I rub my beard thoughtfully. “Well, the bad dream is over. Back to bed.” He finishes the night in my bed.
Ben wakes up with a cough, complaining of a headache, stomachache, and sore throat. He does not want his toast because he’s afraid he’ll throw up. He doesn’t want to go to school, but he stops to shoot baskets on the way to the bus. He drags himself on, but fifteen minutes later I strap Reilly into her car seat to pick up Ben. Then after a half-hour in front of the television he feels great and wants to go back. I suggest a test: Try to eat a doughnut to see if he can keep it down. He passes.
For dinner I fix stir-fry chicken teriyaki. OK, so it’s a frozen dinner. Ben bravely gets down a few pieces of chicken. He then begins his nightly bargaining for “treats.” After he pushes his food around his plate for a while, I give in. What can happen? Cavities? High cholesterol? They can never pin those on me!
My countdown to Kevin and Genné’s return is changing from “How many more days to keep them alive and unscarred?” to “How soon until I part from Reilly’s sweet face and Ben’s loving laryngitic voice asking for treats?” I debate teaching Reilly a new game, Suitcase. If she lies quietly in my suitcase, I can smuggle her back to Michigan. But let’s just survive the week.
I am tempted to let Ben go to his morning basketball game with a friend’s parents while I stay home with Reilly. But how often will I get to see first grade basketball? Ben learns it’s harder when someone other than Grampa is guarding you.
Reilly is, well, Reilly—not programmed to be a spectator.
On the way home Ben notices what I’m wearing: “Is that one of my dad’s shirts?”
“Yes, but don’t worry. He’s coming home. Nobody can take his place.”
Ben has been missing his folks, especially in the evenings, so I plan a Saturday night orgy of pizza and videos. Reilly does not show she misses her folks until she and I are looking at Ben’s writing pad. When I read “MOM,” Reilly excitedly looks around the room, saying “Ma-Ma?” and “Da-Da?” When she hears Ben come in, she says “Ma-Ma?” and runs to the door. But when Genné phones, Reilly is too busy pooping in her pants to pay much attention.
While fixing dinner I witness a Reilly moment Kevin and Genné warned me about: Existential Terror. She stands in the kitchen, crying her eyes out for no apparent reason. Alone in a cold universe. Or maybe her teeth are bothering her. Zwieback helps.
That night a nightmare awakens her. I rock her to her back to sleep to her Linda Ronstadt lullaby CD—one I will buy for myself. When I return to my bed, a parental instinct leads me to check on Ben. He is asleep on top of his covers, so I tuck him in before falling into my listening-for-the-kids sleep.
Kevin and Genné are due home after dinner. Reilly is napping, Ben fishing with a friend. I start my last minute clean-up—mopping the kitchen floor, searching for lost puzzle pieces and the carrot, and wiping snot scabs off the couch with a wet rag.
Ben is not dropped off at 4 p.m., as promised, and I start to worry. “Great. I get through the whole week without any injuries, and then Ben drowns with only a few hours to go.”
Ben arrives at 5:00, the pizza at 6:15, timed to kill the final hour before Mom and Dad get home. Ben declines, saying he wants to eat with his parents. But he falls asleep on the couch and is nearly comatose when they arrive. Even Reilly’s excited shrieks as she runs back and forth between them do not awaken him. Finally Kevin gets Ben’s eyes open, and zombie-like he shuffles to the shower and to bed.
Feeling the huge weight of responsibility pass from my shoulders to Kevin and Genné’s, I sleep well, but with a trace of sadness.
Departure is difficult. Ben’s hug is brief. Reilly, afraid her parents will leave her with me, is reluctant to let me hug her, so I settle for a quick wet kiss. I’m afraid they won’t miss me as much as I am already missing them.
I learned my own lessons—how much fun it is to be a parent, and how hard it is. And I didn’t have to worry about Big Parenting Issues: that the kids develop morally, socially and intellectually, and that they attain a healthy autonomy along with a generous and compassionate love for others. My only goals were survival and enjoyment, and by that simple measure, my week was a success.