December 20, 2010


Schuyler wasn't due until January of 2000. When she was born two weeks early, we tossed out the middle name we had chosen (Helena, in honor of the grandmother I never met; we decided to save that name for a future daughter, but Fate and its monster had different plans) and instead chose Noelle, the feminine form of a French word meaning simply "Christmas".

For the past eleven years, Christmas and Schuyler have always been inextricably connected to me. We're not Christians, but we have our own miracle baby to celebrate this time of the year. (Let the indignant emails begin.) To me, Schuyler is Christmas.

Tomorrow is Schuyler's eleventh birthday, and while it's true that every year brings a level of surprise at how much she has grown, this year feels even more change-filled than usual. She seems more complex, more understanding of the world around her, particularly the rough and ugly parts of it. And yet, when I watch Schuyler move through that world, I can see a young lady who possesses a quiet sort of confidence, and a strength that surprises me sometimes.

Two days ago, Schuyler returned to the dentist to finish the root canal from a month ago. Once he got into the tooth, however, he realized that he couldn't finish it. Schuyler apparently has a weird tooth, and will require the services of an endodontist to finish the job. Ultimately, she had endured another morning in the dentist's chair and another root canal session for nothing. It was frustrating.

But here's the thing. She didn't care. She didn't cry at all, didn't fuss or resist, and she kept a cheerful disposition the whole time. (The gas might have helped in that regard; it turns out that nitrous oxide makes her extremely chatty, the irony of which does not escape me.) The next day, for her birthday, she got the thing she's been requesting for about two years now: pierced ears. When they punched through her earlobes, a dark expression crossed her face for a few moments, but when she looked in the mirror, she smiled broadly and that was that.

This is the person Schuyler is becoming. She's more aware than ever of the pain and the clouds in her life, but she's also acutely in touch with the moments of joy, the pieces of beauty that are lying around waiting to be picked up.

In watching Schuyler grow into this extraordinary person, I myself am changed. It's ridiculous to say that I 'm a better person because of her. I don't even know the person I would be without her. I would be less, much much less. I would be a smaller, more shallow human being, and I would walk through the world largely unaware of those beautiful pieces waiting to be discovered. I have Schuyler to thank for that.

Happy birthday, little girl.

December 13, 2010

A conversation I'm not sure I know how to have

R & S
Originally uploaded by Citizen Rob
Conversation in the car, earlier tonight.

Me: Are you okay?

Schuyler: Yeah.

Me: You seem like you're sad.

Schuyler, shrugging: A little.

Me: Why are you a little sad?

Schuyler: Two mean girls at school.

Me: What did they do?

Schuyler: They made fun of me. "You're stupid. We're not friends at all!"

Me: Oh no! Why did they say that?

Schuyler: They don't like me because I can't talk. I'm different.

Me: You are different, but that's not a bad thing, you know.

Schuyler: I don't want to be different anymore.

And there's a whole conversation to be had after that, the one about how being different is hard, but it's also the thing that makes you special, etc., the whole "purple snowflake" thing.

But Schuyler doesn't always buy it, not entirely, and while she was able to put it behind her by the time she went to bed, I know that it sticks with her now, in ways it didn't before. And all the pep talks and all the Sesame Street sentiments in the world don't change the fact that for a little girl like Schuyler, self-aware and a week away from her eleventh birthday, being different just sucks.

I can (and did) tell her that everyone is different in their own way and that's okay, but she knows that she is very different indeed. And sometimes it is very much not okay.

December 6, 2010

Letting Go

Schuyler on my birthday
Originally uploaded by Citizen Rob
Schuyler is growing up so quickly, and while I know that's something that every parent feels, I'm not sure they all feel it with quite the fear that I do. Well, perhaps they do at that. In just a few weeks, Schuyler will turn eleven, although just typing that word feels wrong under my fingers. Eleven? That's impossible. Babies aren't eleven. Don't be stupid.

Becoming the young woman that she is to be one day means letting go of the little girl she has been, and that's difficult, for Schuyler and, I suppose, for me as well. Lately it seems like there's been too much change, too many pieces of a childhood to put away at one time, too many grownup truths to face at once. Some of those truths are especially hard for me, the ones about myself and my own shortcomings in particular. It hasn't been an easy time lately.

The day after Thanksgiving, and on my birthday even, Schuyler received a rude awakening into a part of adulthood that has been particularly troubling during my own life. Out of nowhere, she suddenly began to cry, and hard. She indicated that a tooth was bothering her, and pointed to a part of her mouth where one of her baby teeth had been signaling its intent to jump ship for some time. But when I looked in her mouth, I instantly identified the problem, not with the baby tooth but rather with the permanent molar behind it. My stomach tightened when I saw it.

About half the tooth was missing. I was looking at the tissue inside the tooth.

So it was that after a night of Tylenol and lots of tears and Orajel, Schuyler experienced her very first root canal. I have to say, she was a total champ about it. There were some tears, but nothing hysterical. I sat next to her while she had it done, holding her hand the whole time, and while I don't think she had a great time, she was surprisingly resilient about the whole thing. We even had some fun laughing and taking pictures as one side of her face stopped working. But yeah, a ten year-old getting an emergency root canal. There have been a lot of little-girl-growing-up experiences we've been bracing ourselves for. This one caught us completely by surprise.

That surprise has been reverberating, too. Even with dental insurance, the crown is going to cost us a lot, and we were still trying to figure out how to get caught up as it was. That tooth is going to make for some changes around here, that much is clear. In the short term, we're going to become a one car family for a while. I simply can't make payments on my stupidly excessive car and still purchase The World's Fanciest Tooth. So we face some new realities, ones that plenty of families face, and I'm sure we'll get through it okay.

There's a hard truth to face. I'm not providing for my daughter the way I should. I have a good job, one that I'm frankly lucky to have, but I don't make enough money and I don't see any prospects for making more any time soon. We've been living an existence where one bad medical emergency (like, say, an emergency root canal) could torpedo us. It was only a matter of time, I guess.

Anyway, we'll make it, because that's what people do when things get tough. But the whole thing has amplified that nagging feeling I have. No, I'm going to just say it. It's not a feeling, it's a fact, one that I've stated on a number of occasions.

I'm failing Schuyler. I don't fail her for lack of trying; I like to imagine that there aren't many fathers who try harder than I do. But trying isn't succeeding, and the sinking feeling that I'm just not doing well enough for her has been threatening to overwhelm me. I don't see it as a result of depression. I see it as my ability to recognize an ugly fact. I don't feel like a very good father these days. I don't even feel like an adequate one.

Schuyler's been having issues at school, and I just don't know how to help her. She continues to fall behind her classmates, and it breaks my heart. Tomorrow she has a test in her mainstream class, a science test on matter, and we've been trying to study for it with her. But it is just so far beyond her. Last night, I sat down with her and went over the material, and while she understood solids and liquids and gases, the movement of particles and the basics of mass and volume, all of the rest of it, she just couldn't get a handle on it.

It was frustrating, for us both. As I keenly felt my own inability to teach her, at the same time I could see the look in her eyes. It was that sad, frustrated expression that she gets when she becomes aware, all over again, that she has troubles that her classmates do not, that she is broken in ways that sometimes manifest themselves at unexpected times.

I asked her if she understood any of it. She hesitated before admitting that no, she really didn't. And then I did something that I am deeply ashamed of, and yet given the same moment in time to do over again, I would probably do again. I gave up. I told her to do her best, and I put the materials away. I know it was exactly the wrong thing to do, but her frustration and my own failure were too much for either of us to process. It's not normally how I respond, but I don't know, it had just become too much. A day later, it still feels like too much. And while I know it was really hard for her, I think what I really mean is that it had become too much for ME. I'm deeply ashamed to admit that, but it's absolutely true.

Some of the most significant problems she's having are social, and they reflect on just how hard it has been and continues to be for her to let go of her childhood behaviors. Schuyler is a very loving little girl, and probably due to her nonverbal beginnings, she is very physically demonstrative as well. I always used to dread the day when her enthusiastic physicality would cease to be cute to the rest of the world, and I think that day is probably here. She is putting off her classmates, she touches them and hugs them and gets in their business until they feel smothered, and they push her away. Her teachers talk to her about it, probably daily, and we re-enforce the message as best as we can, but it's hard to convey that she can be that loving little girl at home, but not so much at school, where she will soon, very very soon, leave the protective shelter of elementary school for the Mad Max gladiator ring of middle school.

Schuyler is having to learn to leave a good, right part of herself behind, and it's hard for her. She needs to harden, she needs to put up some walls, and I am failing miserably at teaching her how. It's funny, too, because I certainly have no difficulty in putting up those walls for myself.

But I'm not her. I'm not good like her. I don't have the faith in a mean world that she has, a faith that she has somehow hung onto and nurtured her whole life, in spite of the many opportunities she's had to learn otherwise. She looks at the world and sees friends and sisters, and that doesn't change even as the people around her disappoint her time and time again. I don't know how to teach her to see people differently. I don't know how to take a thing about her that feels like an absolute good and squash it into a box.

I don't know how to teach her to let go of that.