When the alarm on my iPhone dings, I push open my son’s bedroom door.
“Time’s up,” I say. “You’re a free man.”
Harry, my four-year old, ignores me. Wearing a neon orange soccer outfit, he’s sitting in the middle of the floor with a pair of oversized headphones on, the unattached chord snaking through, around, and over nine torn letter envelopes. On the ground beside my son is a faux wicker basket containing the other 268 missives I’ve been writing since 2013, each envelope addressed to Harry Huckleberry and numbered in the upper right hand corner.
“Read this to me,” Harry says holding up envelope number 45, which he’s already partially ripped open.
As I stand there looking down at four plus years of my hard work scattered among Lego pieces and stuffed animals and dirty underwear, I feel surprisingly calm. No flop sweat. No racing heart. No urge to scream obscenities. Even though my plan to present these letters to my only son on his 12th birthday has been ruined, I feel no ill will toward the lad. Quite the opposite. In fact, I’m happy he found them and even happier that he’s interested in the 18,000-plus words I’ve scribbled on paper for his benefit. Now granted, there is a chemical component to my reaction: I do take special medications, one to ensure that my heart remains in sinus rhythm, and another to ensure that I do not, as I have done in the past, wash my hands 96 times a day, drive over the same stretch of road 11 times, or stick my finger under my son’s (and sometimes my wife’s) nose to make sure he is still breathing. And, like Woody Allen’s character in “Hollywood Ending,” I am currently looking for a pill that will keep me dry when it’s raining out.
“Sit down, Daddy.” He removes his headphones, pats the ground beside him. “Read this to me.”
Waving the envelope, he looks up at me with those big brown eyes, and it seems that the hatred he felt for me just four minutes ago is completely gone. He has already forgotten about how he kicked me in the shins because I insisted that he empty the trashcans around the house. He has already forgotten that when I dragged him to his bedroom for a much-deserved Time Out, he said, “You’re a bad Daddy, and I don’t love you anymore!” But now, the expression on his face tells me that once again he loves me and, more importantly, he wants something: for me to read him these letters, which, his mother has told him repeatedly, are very important to Daddy and should definitely not be ripped open and littered about the floor like trash.
Harry tugs on my jeans again, and I take envelope number 45 from his hand and sit down. He crawls into my lap, and I kiss the crown of his head – something I do on average of 17 times per day.
“Stop it,” he says, swatting at my face. “Read!”
Unfolding the letter, I check the date to make sure I wasn’t in the midst of one of my existential funks, or, worse, listening to a ton of sad bastard music at the time the letter was written. Fortunately, I keep a mental tally of every single parenting and marital misstep I’ve ever made, and after scanning said database, I confirm that the date on the top of the page – October 17, 2014 – is okay.
“Can I read it in my Richard Nixon voice?” Did I mention I was, before the special medication, obsessed with Tricky Dick and not only read 11 different books on our 37th president, but also collected his campaign posters, including the 1972 presidential re-election poster stating “They Can’t Lick Our Dick?”
“Use your real voice, Daddy.”I clear my throat and read.
Today during snack time, I read you a pop-up book called “Under the Bed.” At the end of the story, a scary monster pops up, and when it did, you roared like a lion and dumped a cup of Chex-Mix on the monster. I like that you weren’t afraid. In fact, I think you found the monster funny.
After the story, you climbed on my writing desk and turned the printer on and off. You liked the noises it made when it started back up. You also ripped a few sheets of paper out of the printer. You left a pool of drool on most of the sheets. The rest we used to make paper airplanes. There’s one inside this envelope.
I love you, Harry.
Harry pulls the paper airplane out of the envelope and holds it in front of my face.
“Is this it?”
“Let me check.” I give it a thorough examination from bent wing to bent wing, cockpit to tail. I hand it back to him. “Pretty sure that’s it.”
Delighted, he throws the airplane across the room, where it crash lands in his toy box. Scrambling off of my lap, he picks up envelope number 111 and tears it open.
“Here,” he says handing it to me. This letter is dated March 6, 2015 and is only a few sentences long.
Last night, I was standing in your bedroom doorway while Mom was reading you a bedtime story, and you saw me and yelled, “Daddy!” You got out of bed, took my hand, and led me over to where Mom was sitting. “Stay,” you said as if I were a dog, and you gave me a hug, and then we both listened to the rest of the story.
I’ll never forget that moment. Ever.
I love you, Harry.
“Is that it?” Harry asks.
“I wrote longer ones,” I say, the writer in me needing to defend himself. He looks inside envelope number 111 and frowns.
“Where’s the paper airplane?”
“I didn’t put an airplane in every one of these letters.”
“Oh,” he says after a lengthy pause. “Why did you write them?”
It’s a fair question – and a difficult one to answer. Should I tell him that while he was inside my wife’s belly I lost 25 pounds, dropping my weight below 100 pounds for the first time since I was a teenager, and because I was so riddled with anxiety, worry, and fear, I kept a journal of every single book I read to my wife’s belly at night in the hopes that my unborn son might recognize my voice and, miraculously, understand just how much I loved him already? Should I tell him that I was, at the beginning of his life, dead set against him being exposed to potentially corrosive technology like cell phones, so in lieu of taking pictures of my baby boy I wrote letters describing what he looked like and what he did every day? Should I tell him that I wanted him to be able to look back on his early years and see what he was like through my eyes?
Or should I tell him the unvarnished truth: that these 277 letters are as much about me as they are about him, that, after you strip away the cute observations and silly anecdotes and overly earnest fatherly advice, what you have left is Max Everhart, an intelligent but clueless, neurotic, yet well-intentioned obsessive compulsive attempting to not foul up the most important relationship he’ll ever have?
“Because I love you,” I say opting for a cheap Hallmark greeting card answer instead of hard truth. I kiss his head again. “I wrote them because I love you.”
“Read another one,” he says crawling back into my lap.
“Last one,” I say. “Then you clean up this mess. Deal?”
Plunging my hand into the faux wicker basket, I select envelope number three. I rip open the envelope and unfold the letter, which is dated July 6, 2013. One month after Harry was born. I read.
Yesterday was Father’s Day, my first as a dad. Your grandma and grandpa came for a visit, and you had Tummy Time. We put you on your stomach, and you lifted your head up and lunged across the couch. I’m counting that as your first crawl.
Today, we took you to the doctor for your one-month check-up. You weighed 10 pounds and six ounces and measured 21 inches. You get a Hep B shot, and you only cried for a minute or two. When we got home, you were whiny and cried a lot, but good news: your eyelashes have grown in, and your belly is so round, and your eyes are turning brown, so I can’t get mad or frustrated when you whine. You’re too cute! Mom can’t get mad at you, either, especially your lower lip quivers.
By the time you see this, you’ll be able to read, so I wanted to offer some suggestions on reading material. The “Encyclopedia Brown” series is very cool. Encyclopedia is a school boy who’s very smart, and he solves mysteries around his neighborhood. The “Hardy Boys” series is also fun to read as is Hemingway’s “Nick Adams Stories.” Later on, you should read “The Great Gatsby,” “The Sun Also Rises,” and “The Catcher in the Rye,” although that last one will begin to grate on your nerves as you get older and more mature. And, of course, you must read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Your mom and I named you after Huck Finn (your full name, in case you’ve forgotten, is Harry Huckleberry Everhart). We named you that because Huck is adventurous and moral and mischievous and independent. We hope that you will be all of those things someday, Harry.
“Who’s Huckleberry Finn?” Harry asks, and I explain as best I can. Nodding, he puts his headphones back on and asks me to read another letter.
“Not now,” I say.
“I want more Harry Letters!” He grits his teeth and stamps his foot.
“Not now,” I say again. “Right now, I need you to clean up this mess.” As I prepare for a duel, my son unclenches his little fists and says:
“Fine.” Then, miraculously, he begins cleaning up.
Standing in the doorway trying not to cry, I realize that my wife, as usual, is correct: those 277 letters are very important to me. But not nearly as important as the floppy-haired, Bambi-eyed, quick-tempered little dude now taking great care in placing each numbered envelope back into a faux wicker basket.