"Daddy, you are a felt board," says The Toad. We're at the dinner table, all of us, even the baby, because that's what we do now. We eat dinner as a family. The Toad is 3 1/2, and has of late been making us characters from his favorite books, from the TV shows we swore we'd never let him watch -- but tonight, he pivots with ease toward the surreal. I am a felt board.
Mouth crammed with lasagna, he shifts gears again, offers up a grating, shouted falsetto impression of his blue teddy bear, Azulito. The child is all noise. This delights the baby, who laughs until he barfs enormously down his arm. Which one of us is it who knocks over the wine trying to clean the baby? Me? My wife? Does it matter? The dog, senile and geriatric and sporting just-ordered specialty shoes meant to offer better traction on the hardwoods, slips and falls anyway in her eagerness to get to the wine, or to the barf. The Toad, so named for the noises he made in the bassinet over the first few weeks of his life, surveys the scene. He sips his milk. He says a word that surely should not be said at his religiously-affiliated preschool. Then he says it again.
My wife and I look at each other across the table. Fifteen minutes until bath. Thirty until books and bedtime. After that, the evening yawns open in front of us, and though what we'd like to do is light a fire in the fireplace, put on a record, maybe open a new bottle of wine, what we'll do instead is this: Clean the kitchen in a kind of slipshod way. Kick the Bristle Blocks off into the corners. Check email that doesn't need checking, fold a mountain of tiny clothes, watch something empty on cable. During the commercials we'll fight briefly, and with shifting allegiance, about whatever radical positive-reinforcement early-childhood behavior fad is sweeping the Internet this week. When all that's done, we'll go upstairs and collapse into bed clutching months-old magazine articles about gluten or electoral postmortems we're pretending we'll read before passing out, fully and parentally pajamaed, each on our own side of the bed, at least one lamp still on, with no chance of getting anything like the amount of rest we'll need to get up tomorrow and do it all over again.
I'm squarely in my very late thirties. My wife is a birthday or two older than that. We're exhausted. The whole thing is killing us. We waited too long. Or maybe we're just weak. I made a joke a month ago about wanting a third child. Now I have an appointment for a vasectomy. This is love in the time of The Toad.
I've had the dog, who is 17 years old and very certainly dying, since graduate school. My wife and I have had each other since then, too, and I think, when we can remember things, that this is what we remember: We were once 24. We must have been. We feel sure of this.
In fact, the first time I fell in love with her, I was 24. We were at what passed for a dive bar in our town, and she was wearing (accidentally, she'd later claim) two different shoes. As in, from two different pairs. I found this irresistibly sexy, a little wild, even -- which says all that need be said about my cumulative life experience to that point. She took pity on me, took me home. What I recall from those pre-Toad days: That the dog loved her more than she loved any other living being, me included. That the dog's certainty, more than my own, was what kept bringing me back. That we had the time and space to do a thing like go to a bar, or take the dog to the reservoir on weekend afternoons, let her chase deer out in those woods for hours while we practiced a halting kind of courtship, one that would take almost 10 years to set in for good. That we established a friendship I couldn't conceive of being without before I ever felt the kind of swooning, rushing lunacy I knew from previous failed romances. That the whole thing felt backwards but insistent, and that whatever we had, more than anything else, just kept lasting.
It took me forever to say "I love you." We moved in together almost by default. I fought for years against the notion of having a child. Now, impossibly, we try on preschools. We have a mortgage. We attend funerals and baby showers. We purchase rugs together. The downstairs changing station is on one end of the dining room table, because at least since the second child, we've had no cause or need to use the dining room for anything other than a storage and triage facility. We are awakened in the night these days not so often by passion, but by some combination of crying children and the dog, blind and bonkers, circling the kitchen in the dark until she steps in her food bowl, flipping kibble scattershot across the floor.
Most of us, I'm discovering, get old. All dogs die. All children exhaust their parents. The great calamitous truth of middle age, or whatever age this is, may be this: Our griefs, if we're fortunate, are commonplace. None of us escape. Everybody's knees hurt. Everyone's relatives pass away. The same sorts of tragedies lurk, for each of us, around every corner.
When the call comes, we are outside on the evening of The Toad's third birthday. He's refusing to ride his new bike, "a bike with sticks," meaning spokes, a real bike, the only thing he'd wanted. He's afraid of it. He's in tears. I'm trying not to get frustrated, trying to explain the concept of brakes to someone who never stops. On the phone is my mother. It's about my father. He's had a stroke. A small one, she says. No big deal, she says. They're at the hospital. She drove him there. He may have to spend the night.
By the time the next call comes, we've gotten the kids to sleep. Her voice is flattened, far away: Something's happened, something else. He's on a helicopter. They're life-flighting him to another hospital. They don't know if he'll live; if he does live, they don't know what might be left when he wakes up.
I hang up the phone and make a pot of coffee and pour a glass of whisky and circle the kitchen myself and I've never, not even at the birth of either of our children, loved my wife more than I do in this moment. She lets me take laps until she knows she shouldn't, until she steps in my way to tell me that anything I do or say is alright, that there's nothing to do but what we're doing. I'm not ready to have a dead father, I tell her -- or to wish for one, horribly, if he wakes up and he's gone. And even saying this I feel selfish, feel small, feel lost, the same way I'll feel stupid and foolish six weeks later at a backyard barbeque when I'm telling a friend, whose own dad almost died of a heart attack, all about how difficult it is to discover that one's father might be mortal. I'm Greek tragedy and small-time soap opera all at once. I'm the idiot who's discovering he's alive.
I leave before dawn the next day, drive the five hours home. I ride the elevator with 11 other people who are having their own disasters. The moments with my father in the hospital are the ones anyone can imagine: he's hooked up to a dozen machines, he's naked, he's vulnerable, he's diminished. He's not wearing his glasses. His handshake is what lets me know he's in there; it's fierce and firm and the same handshake lucky sons get from lucky fathers every day, all across the world. On the second day, he speaks. It's an actual miracle, the doctors tell us, insisting, almost, and it is -- though it isn't ours alone. It can't be, any more than the specific chaos of my dinner table is, or the astonishing, shape-shifting comfort of my marriage.
"Daddy," says The Toad, months later, from the back seat. "Those vans are zebra vans." I look, and he's right. Two vans, zebra-striped, are in the parking lot across from our traffic light. "Why do you think they're zebra vans?" I ask him. "Because they are not elephant vans," he says. These are the moments my wife and I cling to, the things we wait to tell each other until those few still moments after bath and books and bed. We write them down. We revel, probably too much, in these plain miracles.
And even as we pine for it, neither of us would go back to being 24. We didn't know anything back then. Or what we thought we knew was wrong. Not that I know much more now, of course. I don't have any idea how to save this dog, or my father, or myself. I don't know what to do with either of these boys, except to fail them as honestly as possible. I know to beg The Toad not to clock his brother with his dump truck. To hold the baby as much as I can. To write my father a little more often, ask him how all this is meant to go. And to reach out for my wife's hand, there in the dark, or in the pooled light of a lamp left on, while the kids sleep and the phone doesn't ring and the dog chases dream-deer in slow motion downstairs -- to reach for my wife to remember, one more time, that she's there.
Drew Perry lives in North Carolina with his wife, a dog, two cats and, somehow, two boys. He teaches writing at Elon University. His latest novel, Kids These Days, was an Amazon Best-of-the-Month pick and was selected for Kirkus Reviews' "Books So Funny You're Guaranteed to Laugh" list. Find him online at drewperry.net or on Twitter at @heydrewperry.