Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Crime and Punishment

I was not happy when my cell phone started singing as I was heading south on I-205.

The early dark had caught Portland's evening rush hour in a rain-slick chaos of a Tuesday.

For all that we here get a tropical hundred-some inches of rain every winter we are really terrible drivers in it; speeding, tailgating, and weaving between lanes in a contemptuous hurry. Familiarity with the slippery roads breeds insurance claims, and I really wasn't in the mood to talk both because of the difficulty of the business at hand and the long day of cold, wet work I'd had.But the curse of the cell is that you're tethered to it; everyone knows you have one, and you can no longer pretend to be unable to respond every time some trivial crisis reaches for your collar.

But as soon as I flipped the phone open I realized the crisis was a different sort.

"Can you speak to Missy?" my wife asked in her you-don't-really-have-an-option voice.

"Sure." I replied, canny husband that I am, and was rewarded with the sound of a tiny, hiccup-sobbing little voice in my ear as some jackhole cut into the lane a half-chrome-bumper-plating-layer-thick width in front of me.

"I'msosorryDaddyIdidn't..." was all I could make out of the confusion of little-girl hysteria.

"Calm down, sweetie," I said, looking over my shoulder as I slid to the right into the vacant travel lane, "...and tell me. What happened?"

Out of the incoherent kidspeak - instantaneous translation is one of those parenting skills they don't tell you about in "What to Expect When You're Expecting" - I sussed out the tale. Little girl had done something unforgivable to something of mine and was now terrified to collapse by the fear of parental vengeance.

"Do you still love me, Daddy?" she asked between sobs.

One of the least-appreciated parental skills is the ability not to laugh at inappropriate times. Missy's fear was a live thing to her, for all that it might seem silly to me after fifty years of living and the hard knowledge of real wrongs done and forgiven. She was really terrified that I might love some object associated with me more than I loved her.

"Sweetie, I will ALWAYS love you. Always." I tapped the brakes to avoid an overloaded panel truck weaving ominously in and out of the center lane to my left "I might not be happy with what you did but I will never stop loving you."

I paused to let a gust of hiccuping pass and then asked the question that had been on my tongue since the phone rang;

"What DID you do?"

At that point I was transferred to my son, who explained that his little sister had drawn a beard and other additions on a picture I had stuck up on the refrigerator."It's really funny, it was wrong, but it's also kinda funny, but she's really, really sorry, Dada..." he expanded for his erring sister.

"Okay. Let me talk to your sister."

"Missy, sweetie, it's okay. I still love you. I will ALWAYS love you. Just ask next time, okay? I don't like when you take things without asking. But that will never make me not love you."

The assurance seemed to have its effect, as her sounds lost their bereft quality. By the time I closed the phone all I heard were small sniffles.

Where did we get this terrible power? What strange need in the human heart grants a man of average mind and no particular gifts the ability to reduce a little girl to helpless grief over some silly, trivial sin for no better reason than because they are father and daughter?

We sail so thoughtlessly through our emotions, these loves and likings, the complex shoals and deeps of need and desire, hope and hatred, freedom and dependence that we don't often stop and contemplate the ocean we sail upon. At least, I usually don't.

Until the brokenhearted crying of my little girl makes me look around me and marvel at the broad and mostly unexplored distances of that vast and perilous deep.

We have no charts to the passages of the heart.

When I finally walked up the night-wet steps to the door this was affixed under the knocker:My bride looked up from her book as I passed through the doorway reading this plea for forgiveness obviously penned for my daughter by her brother. Mojo frowned at me as I grinned at the amanuensis' addendum - "I still think that it looks funny" (I detected the likelihood that the smaller child had been led into temptation by the larger...)

"She really was very worried that you wouldn't love her anymore. They just went to bed. You might check on her and see if she's still awake and let her know everything's OK."

So I went softly barefooted down the darkened hallway to Missy's little shed-roofed room at the back of the house. The small figure was cuddled inside a muddle of pink little-girl blankets and stuffed bed-friends, and the cheek that was half-covered by a sheet of nightblack hair was warm and smelled faintly of her beloved strawberry "Pixie Hollow" shampoo. The skin under my lips was very soft. I ran one hand over her head, marveling at the rich complexity of this small person that life and Fate had brought here and to me.

"I love you, sweetheart, and I always, always will."

From somewhere deep in dreams she must have heard, because a tension I hadn't even noticed before went out of the small shoulders. She sighed and settled back into her pillow, and her lips curved ever so slightly upward.And I left her smiling into the silence of her darkened room.

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