OK, you are going to be alone with your daughters. Without your fantastic wife, their mother, for nine days.
Nine days alone with the 5- and 7-year-old, while Mom performs her fantastic one-woman show, "Double Happiness: A Tale of Love, Loss and One Forever Family," at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival. There, she tells the story of your life together, of your family.
I know that everyone else thinks you are nervous. I hear it in the voice of your colleague, the well-meaning fellow father who asks, "What are you going to do for that long?" You answer as best you can, "Have them wear socks in the bathtub, take flashlight walks after bedtime and comb their hair with sticks."
I know that your other coworker, a mom, laughs nervously when you tell her about the nine days, because she envisions her husband, a well-meaning business type, brought low by the triumphant carnage of their children. It's Lord Of the Flies within minutes of her walking out the door.
I know, though, that you are a hands-on father, part of the new breed of parent who makes himself present in the house. You want to make up for the distance of your own father (standard-for-the-1970/'80s) who worked hard as a finance executive and traveled so many weeks to distant lands -- Syracuse! -- and came home on the weekends to rest in his t-shirt and watch football or baseball or golf so that the hours where he wasn't selling and hustling and making deals would drone away into an endless series of forgotten Sunday afternoons.
I know, also, that you wake the girls each day. You make them breakfast with the patience of the Buddha. You help get them ready for school. You help mediate their arguments before full-scale war develops: who touches the other's knee first, whose real estate on the couch must be defended and who, in a lapse of decorum, bares her teeth at her sister. Who sticks out her tongue in a cry for attention.
I know you will take them to the Lake Michigan beach, even though darkness will fall any moment, and you will squeeze every last gleam of fading sunlight to find sea glass and shells and to skip one last stone, because this space, this silence, is preferable to the pile of dishes in the sink, the pile of laundry strewn next to the machine, the pile of toys in your path and the deep and never-ending plastic totems screaming for fresh batteries, waiting, too, for the touch of your exhausted fingers. This is easier than trying to ferry the girls to sleep when all they want to do is laugh and play and run.
I know these things, because I know you.
I know you resent the suggestions from others that you are not as capable of parenting as their mother simply because you are a man, or that you have somehow gone too far in the other direction, sacrificing your independence and your freedom to care for these two small diamonds.
I know you don't feel that way, and yet sometimes, more than you would like, you experience the process of raising children as suffering, as slave duty that pulls you, always, uncontrollably, ever-more-distantly from your work, your writing, which seems more important than anything else in the world while you are doing it... and even more important than it can ever really be when you are torn away to shuttle your daughters to karate, gymnastics, the playground.
The truth is harder. The truth is that this life, this gift, is both precious and painful.
The truth is not you must try hard to keep your temper. You must go Zen when your younger daughter screams like a banshee because she hates dinner or when your older daughter -- Kid Tornado -- has completed an improvised art project that in three minutes would make the floor of Jackson Pollock's art studio gleam like an about-to-be-inspected Army barracks.
The truth is that even though you should know better, you do lose your patience. Sometimes. You hope -- despite this -- that you are smart enough to hug them, and hold them close, because nothing they do that raises your ire will last for very long.
You hope you may be as smart as your wife, who says, wisely, this is it, this is the only today you have with them, and you better love it for all it is worth.
The truth is that she is right and that you don't always see it, and so you don't always live each day with your daughters as if it's the only one you get. The truth is that in the lowest moments, you resent the time the children take from you, the way they interrupt you on the phone, or on the toilet, or while you eat only cold, improvised leftovers when you spent the last 1.5 hours serving them plate upon plate of gourmet dishes.
The truth is that they are the truth, your truth, even when you are too exhausted to get it, even when they call for you to lie with them on their beds as their tiny bodies struggle furiously against sleep, when they are scared of monsters, zombies and ghosts, when what they really mean is what they cannot quite say: Stay with us, Daddy, we aren't ready for the day to end.
And you do. Stay.
Even when you don't want to.
Until you want to.
And then they finally fall asleep under a single arm as you squat on the floor between their beds so they each may hold one of your hands, while you watch their tiny chests heave lightly under the covers.
And you turn off the light, kiss them, and then you walk downstairs, dazed and half-asleep, and you wordlessly and soundlessly reset the house and make their lunches and pack their book bags before collapsing in your own bed, work left undone, articles left unedited, until you too have let the day finally drop away.
And then, it is morning. And they are stirring. And they are laughing or crying or jumping upon you with full force of their tremendous hugs.
And then you do it again.
There are eight days to go until Mom returns.
Of course you do it again.
Because you can do it, very-capable Dad.
Because nothing else means more, really, so long as you remember that this is indeed the only today you have with them.
And don't forget, this is the only today that you have at all.