I check in with my emotions, run an internal inventory, and wonder how touching a pair of feet, so reviled as they often are, can bring me to the brink of tears.
I soon realize, as I hold them, one in each hand, that it is not the feet, smelly, mud-caked and chapped as they are, that evoke the flood of emotion. It’s not the dirt pounded deep beneath the corners of the toenails or the little arches that are beginning to rise more and more when the feet take their rightful place on the floor that fill my eyes with salty tears. Nor is it the ankles that blend into the tiny calves, as pliable as rubber.
It’s the little growing body they are attached to; the little boy that the feet hold up as he begins to explore the world. My little boy. My little boy who is suddenly not a little baby anymore.
The tiny feet used to be soft, as they had yet to touch a surface that wasn’t engineered by science to be delicate on a baby’s new skin. They were unvarnished by the roughness of our driveway, which he loves to traipse in the morning, visiting our friends the trees. They were unroughened by the brick patio that abuts the lush green of our backyard, a backyard that will soon become his jungle, his battlefields, his deserts and his lunar surfaces. They were never bloodied as they were just the other day when my little boy screamed for me to hold him, still thinking that the safe harbor of his father’s arms can remedy the burn of an abrasion. The tiny feet that for most of the last two years could both fit in one of my hands.
But as we sat at our dining room table one recent afternoon, sharing a lunch of chicken dashed with Tumeric and paprika, sliced olives over arugula, and the tiny pretzels he loves, washed down with cold seltzer, I held his not-so-tiny feet in my hands and, for the first time, felt the little boy that my baby has fast become.
I held them in my hands, one foot per palm now, and felt a roughness so new, it jarred both my wife and me.
“What happened to his baby feet?” I asked her as I rubbed his calloused soles in my hands. She smiled as she forked a few more olives over to his plate.
“He’s almost not a baby anymore,” she said.
I used to wonder what I might do with a tiny baby. I always knew that someday, biology willing, I would be someone’s dad. I knew that I loved kids and that they often loved being around me.
But that was usually the case after they turned three or four, when we could play, when they saw me as a giant jungle gym to climb or an oversized toy they might direct to this swing or to that slide. When it came to kids that age, I was happy with the role of playtime superhero. When it came to babies, tiny, helpless babies, I was useless.
I’d pass at offers to hold a new baby, fearing that my big clumsy hands didn’t possess the softness to deal with such a tiny creature. I’d see parents walking their own new babies through our neighborhood and wonder how they might be able to enjoy something that is wholly unable to reciprocate anything; affection, attention, and especially communication.
I’d watch my niece and nephew toddle around soccer practice and promise myself that it would be when my then-unborn child reached that age, where they teeter on young boyhood or girlhood, that I would become Superdad.
“Can’t wait till he’s that age,” I’d tell myself, long before my own baby ever arrived.
I’d imagine drizzly fall afternoons spent on the couch, imbuing him or her with an unshakable love for the New York Giants; the games we might create together in our backyard with rules that only she and I would understand; explaining to him how a massive ship stays afloat on water or what lies on the other side of the ocean’s unseeable horizon as he sits in the back seat of my truck, looking in the rear-view mirror at the father he is sure knows everything.
We’d learn to surf, to ride bikes, to climb trees. I’d teach her the beauty of the mid-range jump shot and I’d show him how to make my mother’s Sunday gravy. We might have tea parties with our imaginary friends. One day, we’d find ourselves at the top of the skatepark’s quarterpipe, me trying to remain calm as I showed my little boy or little girl how to drop in, a skill I’d long forgotten. There we’d be, rows from the racetrack at Charlotte Motor Speedway, noise-canceling headphones on, cold iced teas in hand, as the roar of forty stock cars shook the very stands we sat on.
I knew that then, when my son or my daughter was a creature that I might impress upon, someone with whom I could spend afternoons entertaining and being entertained by, that I would start to enjoy and revel in fatherhood. Anything before that would be a slog. Just two or three or four or five years until we start getting to the fun part.
But then he came, all fussy, blue-skinned and crying mess into the world and the arms of two clueless and already exhausted parents. Constantly covered in snot, drool and goopy, breastmilk-heavy shit, he couldn’t hold his head up, let alone offer any sort of acknowledgment of the job my wife and I were doing. His only positive reinforcement was his mere existence.
Much to my surprise, that was more than enough.
He was born in late winter, when central North Carolina is cold in the morning, mild by midday and cold once again after sunset. In those mornings, after those long nights, I’d wrap him in blankets and walk him in my arms around our neighborhood, giving his mom as much extra time to sleep as possible. I’d explain to him the colors we saw; the blues of the sky above, the browns of the dead leaves crackling beneath our feet, and the greens of the trees that stayed leafy throughout our chilly though ultimately mild winter.
As days went by, his eyes became more and more adept at following my face and he slowly started understanding how to control his tiny arms and his tiny legs. Soon, he held his head up by himself and he began to laugh with a laugh that would shake his entire body.
On his first birthday, he took his first real steps. Rumbling down a hotel hallway in Florida, the virgin soles of his baby feet carried his body across a distance unaided by mom or dad, ledge or push toy for the first time in his young life.
“Now you’re in trouble,” a kind housekeeper said with a laugh as he darted past her. She meant well but her sentiment angered me nonetheless.
“My baby can walk,” I thought. “He has legs and arms, ears and eyes, hands, fingers and a mouth that all work as they’re designed. This isn’t trouble,” I thought.
“This is heaven.”
He turned around and smiled at the housekeeper, proud to show off his new mobility.
Almost a year after those steps, he walks everywhere, runs and climbs with ease and is even starting to handle stairs without the aid of a nearby wall or a parent’s hand. Often, we walk through the woods behind our neighborhood, discovering, learning, touching, feeling, smelling, hearing, listening. We talk about what he finds; the bugs he points at with wide eyes and a deep-throated “whoooooa;” the rocks he insists on taking home; the sticks he drags through the dirt, drawing whatever it is he sees in his mind’s eye. Each day finds him venturing just a tiny bit further from me. Each day finds him more confident in himself, more comfortable in his surroundings, less in need of his father.
We still have years to go until he is ready to be a man on his own. At least sixteen by my count. But for now, every inch between us seems like a million miles. I know he has to become a little boy soon and, someday less soon, a young man. And I know that the distance between us will only grow. I don’t ask that it doesn’t.
But in these woods, beneath these blue skies and these green trees that he knows so well, I’m not ready for the roughness of these little feet. Not because of some preparedness that I await as he turns from infant to toddler. I learned the day he was born that there is almost nothing that can adequately prepare you to have a child.
I’m not ready for the roughness because I’m selfish. I’m not ready for the roughness because I still need my little boy to be a little baby. If only for a little while longer.