There goes my baby

Once, I thought my daughter would win the Nobel Prize. Now that she's started college, I just hope she keeps her phone, her power, her housing -- and remembers to wake up for class.


Stephen J. Lyons
August 19, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

First I allowed her to move in with her high school sweetheart. She insisted. "It will be fine. Don't worry," she said. So I threw away the dormitory application and let her play house, knowing she might be throwing away her first year of college along with thousands of my hard-earned dollars.

My anxiety was not relieved when I paid her a visit at her new downtown apartment. Her boyfriend, whom I shall call Ted, a National Merit scholar with a full academic scholarship, was taping "The Simpsons." For the two years I'd known him, he'd never made direct eye contact with me or uttered a complete sentence. This is who my daughter had chosen.

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I gave the arrangement six months. On a cold February day she appeared at my office door moments before a staff meeting: "Ted and I broke up. But I moved in with Anna. Don't worry. Everything's OK." Best of all, she told me, Ted and she were still friends.

Within hours, she had moved her stuff and had begun to date a 23-year-old cook who had no prospects but could prepare a mean pasta Alfredo. She was so happy she spent $40 to get her tongue pierced. "You'll like him," she said, "but he's afraid to meet you." When she said this I knew I would never meet him. I was right.

Within two months, my daughter has lost her phone service, then her power. "Anna's a little spacey," my daughter explains. "She forgot to pay the bills. She's manic-depressive and she can't afford her medicine." Power and phone service are restored after a week. Bill collectors housed in cubicles in Wilmington, Del., call constantly, but all calls are screened with caller I.D. If no power and no phone aren't bad enough, imagine this: Anna has five cats; my daughter has one. This makes a total of six cats using one litter box. Of course, the lease has a no-pet clause. We will get to that later.

Her midterm grades in the spring are horrid. She says, "It will be fine. Don't worry." She reminds me of the midterm F in biology she somehow turned into a C last semester, a miracle on the order of turning water into wine, if you buy the analogy of a C representing wine. Let's say it's cheap wine.

Around this time I notice I'm putting on weight and my writerly slouch seems to be folding into an elderly hump. I stop stepping on scales. I begin to avoid large plate glass windows where, in my virile past, I would steal a glance at my slender profile and think, "Looking good!"

I sleep progressively less. Sharp pains pelt me in unlikely parts of my body, like behind my eyes. Much of my life, including some semblance of control over my 18-year-old, is slipping away.

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The cook dumps my daughter. She stops attending classes, but I don't know this yet. "I threw a shampoo bottle at him when I went to pick up my things," she says.

"You had 'things' at his house? Had you moved in?"

"No, no. Just some CDs and videos." And shampoo.

Something in the image of that shampoo bottle flying across the room makes me realize that her final grades are not going to be of the dean's list variety. I am hoping for a 2.0 GPA.

Now, for those of you contemplating children of your own and even those of you with young toddlers, this is the point where you should stop reading. If you continue with my story, the wonderful myth you have built up surrounding your darling Justin or Ashley, Brittany or Brandon, might be shattered. You probably still believe that nurture will win out over nature: Dad will be engaged in junior's activities and attentive to Mom's need for some space to pursue Raku pottery classes. Junior's test scores will be in the top percentile, and the VCR sure is convenient when everyone needs a break. (No R-rated movies though, at least at your house.) You carefully monitor your genetic jewel for signs of low self-esteem. Orthodontia bills, divorce and custody battles are at least a decade away. There is nothing to worry about.

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At this sweet stage, it's better to imagine your son or daughter receiving the Nobel Prize in medicine.

But what if it doesn't work out like that? Imagine your budding poet laureate with a cigarette (or worse) dangling from a pair of slack lips that are painted dark purple. Tattoos of venomous snakes slither up both arms. Hair is dyed dark red with white roots. Who can recall her natural hair color anymore? Every fold of skin -- the same baby skin you once dusted with powder -- is pierced with safety pins. She is singing the theme to the television show "Cops": "Bad boys, bad boys. What you gonna do when they come for you? Bad boys, bad boys."

Enough fun. My daughter's final grades arrive and she has not attained a 2.0 GPA or even a solid 1.5. These grades cost me around $7,000. There will be no Nobel Prize in our future. I reach for the phone with the intention of imparting some hardcore parental advice, even with the risk of damaging her self-esteem, which I suspect is actually soaring.

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With the phone in hand I realize she has left to visit her mom in another state. (Did I forget to mention I was divorced?) So I call down to California several times with no answer. Later I learn that my ex also has caller I.D.

Fast forward to the middle of the same summer. On a bench in a mall parking lot, we finally have our confrontation: the tears, the apologies, the promise to do better, to work harder and not to major in philosophy. The pierced tongue is non-negotiable. Every time she opens her mouth I see the little silver post bobbing like a fishing lure. She accuses me of having "an evil tone" in my voice. She is right.

I've wracked my memory to determine what I did wrong in my child-rearing, but I can't think of any horrible error. After all, I served salad and/or broccoli with every meal. No soda pop. PBS and NPR. She never saw me naked. I never beat her or used heroin. I let her keep hamsters. I always bought organic foods, took her camping in Montana and even made the ultimate sacrifice by accompanying her to a New Kids on the Block concert.

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The power again has been turned off at my daughter's new apartment. I take action and call the utility company to see how much money it will cost to get the lights, television and computer turned back on. I learn the last payment was made two months ago and the current bill is more than $500. I decide not to pay. At the same time, the landlord has discovered the cats and given my daughter five days to get rid of them. Or else. Worst of all, she has not yet found a job for the summer even though Help Wanted signs seem to be a regular window display in town. She doesn't know how much money she has, and when I ask her if she's looked for a job lately, I feel my jugular begin to vibrate. I have trouble breathing. When I suggest McDonald's, she about has a cow and I have an aneurysm.

She will be 19 in two weeks. I will be 44 in December, but I feel ready for assisted living. She is having a great summer: barbecues, movies, sleeping until the crack of noon and draining her entire savings account. None of my pants fit. Whenever anyone asks, "How is your daughter?" I begin to sweat and my stomach gurgles. Other parents tell me about their children's academic achievements and exciting summer adventures: language camp in Madrid, a trip to Paris maybe. And what's my daughter doing this summer? Sleeping.

Finally, I have had enough and I go into full parental rescue mode: "I am coming to get you on Saturday. Have all your stuff packed up. I've had enough of your social experiment!"

"But where am I going to sleep?" Ah, the important question.

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"On the couch." Long silence. I am prepared for the mother of all scenes, dragging her by her short, dyed hair out of the hovel, CDs, torn blue jeans and videos spilling out onto the sidewalk as neighbors run out of their houses to yell at me: "Don't break her spirit!"

But the scene never happens.

She wiggles out of the rescue with help from her long-distance mom, who gets her a job interview at a nursing home. My channel-surfing daughter wiping the messy bottoms of the aged is something I would pay retirement money to witness.

She also wiggles out of the utility bills by moving to a new apartment across town. She doesn't know the exact address but will call me the next day with details. She doesn't. This time the energy bill will be in her name, not Anna's, who has burned all her credit bridges. The new apartment even allows cats. And she's still friends with Ted.

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The last time I spoke with my daughter was three days ago. Her mantra has changed from "Don't worry" to "I'm only 18 and I'm learning every day."

"You'll be 19 in a few days and anyway your age has nothing to do with your lack of employment and motivation." Then she closes down. Probably because that evil tone has returned to my voice. I must sound as old as I feel.

About all I can eat these days is yogurt. My stomach feels as if it's filled with antlers. But I am happy to report that my daughter's self-esteem remains high, and in just a few short weeks she will return for her second year of college, where she has registered for two philosophy classes.

I will pay the entire bill.

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Stephen J. Lyons

Stephen J. Lyons is the author of "Landscape of the Heart," a memoir of single fatherhood. He lives in Washington state.This week he received a rejection letter that described his writing as "unfocused and full of broken glass." It actually made him feel good.

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