|"Father and Child" by Brian Kershisnik|
You know what one of my favorite words in the whole world is? Dad. Julie and I watched the movie “Courageous,” and it made me grateful to be a dad. We folded laundry as we watched, and as I was hanging clothes in kids’ closets, Oliver lay curled in his crib sleeping sweetly, Lydia stirred a little and stretched her skinny little heaven arms, and Emerson sat up and looked at me in the dark and said, “Dad?” That word shot electricity through me. I helped him lay back down and covered him with blankets, and I felt so grateful for fatherhood. For my own father, who has never left any doubt about what matters most to him, who has always fathered deliberately. And for Bob, and grandfathers still living and on the other side of the veil. For Heavenly Father. Dad.
I got to take Lydia to her dance class on Monday. She skipped ahead of me, skinny legs in pink tights tucked into white sneakers. She wore her hair in a bun high on her head and a blue hooded sweatshirt with colored hearts on the back. I thought about Lydia, seller of purple, and all the colors this little ballerina peddles—a whole rainbow without charge. Through the window I watched her dance, twirling and leaping like my heart, like David before the ark, like this fluttering bird in my old chest. Dad. What a word.
I love to hear Oliver say “Daddy!” as he toddles slantingly toward me after a day of teaching. He has taken to repeating something I or someone else has said and then following it up with, “Right, Daddy?” That will melt a heart.
This painful, exquisite love I have for these four small people who call me dad is true and salient even if sometimes in their sleep-deprivation-induced, too-much-parade-candy-aggravated mania they scream and scream when they should just be asleep and it makes me want to kick clothing and punch pillows and lock them in their bedrooms crying and weep and weep myself. Especially then, perhaps, this love is real.
Want to know another of my favorite words? Fongyloo. But don’t say it too loudly at our house, at least not near electrical outlets, because that’s where Spiderman’s family lives. And fongyloo is a bad word in Spiderman’s language. This Emerson told me as I tucked him in bed last night. Spiderman used to say it, until he turned three. As Emerson said his nighttime prayer, he prayed, “And please bless JonasJennyBirgithandKjell and NatalieandDevan. And please bless Spiderman that he won’t say ‘fongyloo.’” Afterward he told me that it’s alright to say fongyloo in a prayer. That made me rest easy. When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t remember the word (I really wanted to—you know my fascination with expletives), so I asked, “Hey, Em, what was that word that Spiderman shouldn’t say?” “Do you remember?” he asked. “No,” I said, thinking that he must have also forgotten and now he would just make up another word. “I’d better whisper it in your ear, in case his family is close by,” he said. And he came close and whispered, “Fongyloo.” I laughed. What a memory. What a mind. What a word.
And I love the names of my children. I noticed the other day that the sounds that make up their names are mostly liquids and vowels. Each has three syllables, and the litany of their Christian names drips from the open mouth like praise, like alleluia: Lydia, Emerson, Oliver, Eleanor.
Months or weeks after they came springing, singing into this world, I took each in my arms and gave them a name and a blessing. That experience is reason enough to be a member of a church which believes that discipleship is not a spectator sport. Have I told you that the fact that God gives His priesthood to all of His boys is one of my favorite things about living in the dispensation of the fullness of times? Think about it, the ancient tribe of Ephraim didn’t get to bless their own kids. Most fathers in most churches don’t get the honor. But I do. So rad. So good. As a father, who has had the opportunity to spend a little time with this newly-minted soul in the strict sense (body and spirit), and who cares deeply about its future, I get to take the child in my warm, imperfect hands and pronounce a blessing. It is sacred. One of my favorite things of being a member of the Church. These verses are often in my mind at those times: “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee. The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Numbers 6:24-26). And this passage from Gilead: “There is a reality in blessing . . . . It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that.” To acknowledge the holiness of these bright infants. To hold them in a circle of men with the express desire to pronounce words which will sanctify their existence. I love it.
Julie pointed out the other day that certain aspects of their blessings have foretold defining attributes in their lives. Oliver was blessed with a sense of humor. He has the greatest, quickest grin. He laughs out loud for joy. He tells knock knock jokes with no real punchline, but with astonishing comprehension for a two-year-old, I think. “Not-nok.” “Who’s there?” “Peetga.” “Peetga who?” “Peetga ah ah.” Uproarious laughter. Emerson was blessed to be a peacemaker. This morning as we snuggled in my bed he said, out of the blue and with no antecedent, “Dad, you know why I want to choose two? Because sometimes I want Reese’s Puffs, but Lydia doesn’t like them.” “Are you talking about birthday cereals?” “Yes.” I told him that since his motives were selfless I would consider letting him choose two cereals for his birthday. (A few weeks ago was his birthday and he chose four: Reese’s Puffs, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Frosted Flakes, and Lucky Charms. I told him from here on out it’s just one, buddy.) Eleanor was blessed to stand in awe of this world. Her eyes are so wide. She opens her mouth to eat the world. She calms in the outdoors. She cranes her head to see things as we pass them. She is, I think, astonished. Julie asked if the blessings bestow these qualities or acknowledge some premortal reality. Perhaps a little of both.
Their names came usually after spending some time with them, with their eyes and their smiles.
Lydia was the name of Julie’s great-grandmother. When she was three, Lydie would say something like this: “My mom is Mommy, and Mommy’s mom is Nana, and Nana’s mom is Gam, and Gam’s mom is me!” We were considering naming her Tuesday. As we stared in wonder at her new face, Lydia felt right in our mouths. Her name has, in addition to liquids and vowels, one small central tap, like in the word “butter.” When she was younger, she took to over-enunciating everything, calling me “datty” and pronouncing her own name “Lytia.” I think the first thing I did after she was born after I almost fainted and then cried was to sing to her. Then I held her and turned to my mother, “There’s no way you love me as much as I love this baby.” “You wouldn’t understand it until this moment, Rob.” The name mostly just means “a woman from Lydia,” but there’s a meaning of “beauty” from questionable etymology. When we named her, I imagined it had something to do with light. “Lover of light,” or something like that. She was always staring at the lights. Lydia was a seller of purple who loved and helped Paul. She worshipped God. A girl “whose heart the Lord opened” so that “she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.” She was full of hospitality. She sold a color. She is, in my book, lovely.
Emerson was named for my wife’s grandfather, in a roundabout sort of way. Julie’s grandpa was an American literature professor. Julie’s dad once asked his dad why he got a PhD in literature. “I was reading Emerson one day and thought to myself, ‘I have a master’s degree in literature, and I can’t understand Emerson.’ So I got a PhD.” That was the way Bri was. He was a deeply engaged and engaging man. He could talk with anyone about anything. He was genuinely interested in life. And so intelligent and so gentle. Bob then asked his dad, “So, now do you understand Emerson.” Bri’s response was quintessential: “You don’t understand Emerson; you experience him.” That is a very Emersonian sentiment. His name is also a shout-out to books and bookishness and writing. He comes from a family of bibliophiles, and he is one himself. Emerson means “son of a good home.” It’s a hopeful name. His middle name is my middle name, my grandfather’s name. A sturdy, usurping name: James.
Oliver was a childhood friend of mine, the good son of good parents. His father was in love with laughter. He had a solid door—oak, probably. It hurt my small hands to knock on it. Was their doorbell broken? Why was I always knocking on that hard door? His mother was Chinese. They invited us to dinner one night and I fear we were far from gracious. There is little sense of others’ feelings in children, at least of adults’ feelings. Oliver and I reconfigured fireworks and invited people to pay money to come to a dazzling show. The first one had surprised us with how well it worked. The grand finale just began to smoke and then flame, like a log, like newspaper. I can’t begin to tell you the disappointment I felt. We rode bikes on dirthills and threw mud balls filled with dog droppings at our neighborhood enemies. There were Olivers in our family tree. Mary Oliver writes lovely poetry sometimes. I think I had been reading her poetry around the time I blessed him:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
That’s a good poem. And all those vowels. The name means “peace” or “kind one.” He has brown eyes, the only one. He also has my face and my wife’s grandfather’s name for his middle name: Willis. There are more stories about all these people than I have time to tell. So many people we love so dearly.
Eleanor is almost all liquids and vowels. She was named for my gentle grandmother, who was at that time dying and who used to give me cinnamon gum when I visited her southern California house. She laughed easily and never scolded. She baked and cooked and fed and nourished. When I held my infant daughter, I would imagine I was holding my own grandmother. It was a strange thought. She was ten pounds, two ounces, and our souls delighted in fatness. Her name means “mercy,” and she has been a tender mercy. She is beginning to roll all over this green earth and to smile a lot and to sleep mostly through the night.
And I roll on, day by day, swimming in the liquids and vowels, in the miracle of dadness. O’s and A’s and E’s and I’s of praise. Beautiful, good home, peaceful, merciful dadness.