At the moment of our daughter's conception, we threw caution to the wind, but soon found ourselves scrambling to get it back.
It's not that we didn't want a baby, but we had debts to pay, grad programs to start and a pathological fear of minivans that hung heavily over bi-monthly talks titled "Children and Other Distractions."
Circuitous conversations, they went something like this: "Let's try to have a kid – but we'll need a new car – we can't afford that – so we'll just work a little longer – but if I had another degree surely I'd make more money – yeah, let's wait to finish school – but then I'll be too old – fine, let's try to have a kid – but…"
On the evening in question, her dad declared: "Seriously, will there ever be a good time?" Locked in an embrace that would distract him from that question, I never did voice the fear that hovered above my right ear: What if we raise her wrong?
I know so little about everything. Well, at least everything that is important to raising a child right.
I know nothing about life after death
"There are over 300 bones in a kid's body," I read in our daughter's Scholastic science book. Skulls are filled with brains, vertebrae are stretched along the spinal cord, and the femur is covered by muscle and skin.
"So, what do you call it when all the bones are put together?" I quizzed, just for fun.
"A skeleton! That's what you find in a grave, right?"
I nodded, suddenly wary.
"Would we find your grandma's skeleton if we dug her up?"
I searched the room for an answer. "Honey, my grandma wasn't buried. She was – ah – she was cremated, meaning …" Man, my throat was dry. "Her body was burned up – in a special oven."
The child's shocked eyes stared into mine unrelentingly. "In an oven? Why would they burn her?"
"Remember, when people are dead they don't feel anything, right? So I guess some people would rather their body get burned instead of – [oh God] – be eaten by bugs?"
I know nothing about the natural order
Walking home from the bus stop with her father and a friend, she spotted the block's feral cat taunting a mouse.
As she bent to see how the shivering creature was faring, her friend's large winter boot crashed forward. Before they could stop him, he did it again. With a quiet pop, the small body ruptured and its soft tissue melted pink in the snow.
She refused to be comforted even as her dad soothed, "The mouse was almost dead, love. The cat would have killed it."
"But it'd have been better if the cat had killed it."
I know nothing about finding – or making – love
She was 5 when I gave birth to her brother. As my belly grew, it didn't take long for her to ask how the sibling in my tummy would escape. Thank God for the Internet.
Within seconds my phone had conjured up a computer-generated video of a baby descending through the birth canal. Over the clinical narrator's voice, I perkily editorialized: "Isn't it amazing how girls' bodies are made to open up and give birth? Just a miracle, don't you think?"
At first I didn't notice the tears, strangely unaccompanied by sound, flowing down her cherub cheeks.
"Honey, what's wrong?"
"But I don't want to have a baby," she whispered.
Hastily, I tried to explain. "Just because your body can have babies doesn't mean you will have them. It's totally your choice."
"Really? But how do I choose to have a baby?"
As her dad watched the scene with an eyebrow cocked, I struggled for something better than: "Trust me."
I know nothing about letting go
The day I'd anticipated and dreaded for five years finally arrived. We stood in the rain that smelled of frost and waved good-bye. Her nose was a flat triangle pressed against the greasy window of a yellow school bus driven by a stranger.
That morning, we hid our anxiety behind smiles that were too broad and voices that were especially loud. We comforted ourselves with the knowledge that we'd prepared her as best as we could. We'd warned her of Stranger Danger. We'd talked about privacy and modesty, and how friends don't keep secrets. I'd told her of words that could get her in trouble if spoken out loud. She could recite her address, phone number and full name.
We returned that afternoon and waited as kids dribbled out of the bus. Our baby reached the top step, and on seeing us she grinned, leaped to the curb and raced to her dad.
With the dexterity of a martial artist, she landed a karate chop squarely to his groin. "Penis slash!" she shrieked, then ran for home.
We stood stunned. This is what she'd learn in kindergarten.
I know nothing about being prepared
She owes her existence to that question: "Will there ever be a good time?"
It was a topic never concluded as, that evening, hot pulse turned dust, turned atom, turned cell, turned into lungs, limbs and a beating heart.
She entered the world as a salmon erupts from crystal falls – breathless, then gasping.