A Parent's Trilogy

Peter Merkl

© Copyright 2010 by Peter Merkl
  2010 General Nonfiction Winner


Photo by R.D. Smith on Unsplash

Photo by R.D. Smith on Unsplash


 When the kids were little, I was badly sleep deprived, so I wouldn’t actually “wake up” until a half hour or so after getting out of bed. It was a weird, semi-dream state that left me incapable of communicating beyond grunting, nodding, and hearing every third word. My wife, on the other hand, was immediately wide awake and ready to organize the new day.

Every morning I’d rush - half comatose - out to the car, still fumbling with the buttons on my shirt, racing to get the kids to school on time. My wife would follow behind, herding the kids ahead of her while deftly fixing Erin’s hair or stuffing Matt’s homework into his backpack.

As I’d back the car out of the driveway, she’d hold on to the window frame sidestepping and shouting instructions like a NASCAR crew chief. “Pick them up from daycare at 5:30 and get Matt to soccer practice by 5:45. Erin needs to be at choir by 6, so it’s going to be close, and you know how they are if she’s late. I put an after school snack in their backpacks so don’t buy them any junk food. I’ll make spaghetti when I get home from work.” Watching her recede in the rearview mirror, I often thought I should buy her semaphore flags so she could get off one last signal before I turned the corner.

Amazingly, it usually worked. Except for that time when I got home about 7, and she asked, “Where are the kids?” Thinking it was some kind of fun, new guessing game, I smiled, looked around, and replied,” I don’t know. Where are they?”

The daycare closed an hour ago,” she growled.

I thought you…were…supposed…to…,” I quavered. Apparently I‘d missed a signal that morning. But, a quick trip across town to the daycare director’s home and a steep fine later all was well.

Most of the time though, thanks entirely to my wife, our morning routine worked well, and we all arrived wherever we were going on time. The first time she was out of town; however, there were a few snags.

I had no idea what she did every morning, but I figured waking up 10 minutes earlier would give me plenty of time to do whatever it was. After my alarm clock went off, I woke the kids, told them to get dressed for school, and went off to get ready for work. When I came back, I was surprised to find them in the living room sitting on the bottoms of their feet (as only those under 8 can do without requiring emergency knee replacement surgery) watching cartoons in their underwear. When I asked them why they weren’t dressed, Erin, without taking her eyes off the screen, said, “Mommy always gives us stuff to wear”

I ran to their rooms and found everything but Matt’s right sneaker. I tossed them their school clothes as I sped past them on my way to the kitchen, where I poured two glasses of orange juice, popped two glazed toaster pastries into the toaster, and hustled back to Matt’s room to find his lost sneaker. I’d looked everywhere and was looking there again when I spied it cowering in the black recesses of the farthest corner under his bed.

I was shimmying under the bed and just managed to brush it with my finger when an alarm I’d never heard before went off. I lurched forward, banging my head on the underside of the box spring, and grabbed the shoe just as Matt yelled, “ It’s smoky.”

I again raced past them, their eyes still locked on the TV now blaring the Looney Tunes theme song, to find two bright orange tongues of fire from the toaster licking the underside of the wooden kitchen cabinets like twin flamethrowers. Forgetting whatever they taught me in Cub Scouts about fighting fires, I picked up the glasses and splashed OJ on the toaster. Fourth of July sparks burst from the toaster and the wall socket - but the fire was out. I pulled out the plug - more sparks - picked up the toaster and threw it into the sink.

That very second, my wife called. “ Hi. You should have left 5 minutes ago.” Bang! I slammed down the phone and ran to the car dragging two hungry, confused kids, their shirts on inside out.


 Corpus Christi isn’t known for big waves, but, as any local surfer will tell you, every now and then it’s firing. I’d just paddled into a big one and was struggling to remain standing amidst the boiling insanity when that familiar certainty hit: I was headed for a wipeout.

I kicked my 9 foot board away, so it wouldn’t hit me as I tumbled in the surf. But as I fell, I saw that the combination of my kicking it and the power of the wave had shot my board straight up into the air. The problem was that I was using a surfboard leash (think 10 foot long rubber band) one end of which was attached to the back of the board, the other to my ankle. I saw the board stretch the leash and then shoot toward me like a spring loaded Damocletian Sword. I headed for the bottom (all of three feet), made myself into a ball, and waited for a probably lethal blow. It never came. So I pushed myself off the bottom only to crack my head, and seemingly several vertebrae, on the bottom of my board. And for the thousandth time, I wondered what I thought I was doing learning to surf at 45.

I looked around for Matt, my 15 year old, because he’d be worried if he’d seen my latest fiasco. There he was, further out from the beach, in the lineup of real surfers. About 2 months ago, without a word, he’d left me in the smaller beach break to go out there where shorter boards and bigger waves rule. I couldn’t go with him because the water’s too deep to stand while waiting for a wave, and every time I try to sit up on my board, I roll over like a defective weeble, my legs sticking up out of the water still tightly wrapped around it. I gave him a quick wave to let him know I was ok; he waved back. He’s a good guy.

Several years ago, I got him a pawnshop board for 50 bucks, and he’s been surfing ever since. Eventually, I went back to the pawnshop because I was tired of watching him from the beach. I struggled for months to stand up until one memorable day when I was startled by Jesus’ view of the beach. But, like Peter, I didn’t believe it was possible and immediately fell.

We’ve seen dolphin, rosy fingered sunrises and sunsets, and surfed in a deluge. He saw a shark fin once. One time when I was paddling out, I had to dive off my board to avoid being crushed by a big wave. When I came up, I discovered my board had been snapped in half. As I carried the broken pieces up the beach, I was hailed as a big wave hero. I toyed with the idea of keeping them for future strolls along the beach.

Anyway, as I rubbed the bump that was quickly forming on my head, I again wondered, why? And then I thought of his sister. And how in one recent misery crammed weekend, one of the finest people I’ve ever known was suddenly 400 miles away at college. I remembered how exhaustingly endless each waking up, dropping off, picking up, feeding, volleyball practicing, homeworking day had seemed, and yet how 18 years of them had gone by in an instant. I pulled myself onto my board and again practiced sitting up on the damn thing.


 As I watched the most beautiful girl in the class of 2008 walk across the stage to collect her diploma, I thought back to the first time I saw her 22 years ago. Her mother and I had driven to the hospital very early that morning, running red lights (!) the whole way, but the doctor sent us home because she wasn’t far enough along. So we’d spent the rest of the day trudging up and down hills and walking around and around the apartment complex trying to speed things up, but nothing seemed to work. When I told her I’d read about a woman who had climbed stairs carrying two heavy suitcases until things started moving along, she made a face, rolled her eyes, and went to bed.

By then it was 10 at night, and I was hungry. I searched the freezer and found a lobster frozen in a tube of seawater that I’d bought months before as a joke. I dropped it into a pot of boiling water and instantly the entire apartment reeked of Boston Harbor at low tide. That did it. She came into the kitchen, green at the gills, and announced we were immediately going back to the hospital. (More red lights!)

We were broke and had no insurance, so the plan was natural child birth: in and out of the hospital in 24 hours. They put us in a homey “birthing room”, the TV was on, and the doctors and nurses were laughing and making jokes. Then about 4 in the morning the laughter stopped. The baby’s blood pressure was too high and there was some danger the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck. Suddenly the comfy bed turned into a gurney, and I was running beside it careening toward an operating room.

The doctor gave my wife one more chance to push. Claire tried, but she was too far gone. The sleepy, on-call anesthesiologist ran in, his bare feet covered by blue doctor’s footies. Trays and other equipment were quickly wheeled in, and several O.R. nurses appeared. It looked like something being thrown together at the last minute, which is exactly what it was.

A nurse glanced at my gray face, grabbed my arm, and dragged me back to the birthing room. A low pitched, keening sound I’d never made before or since emerged involuntarily from the back of my throat. “It always looks like that,” she assured me, “but they know what they‘re doing.”

She left, and after a few minutes, I went back to the operating room. I held my wife’s hand and tried to appear calm. There was a ripping sound, a baby’s cry, and the doctor shouted, “How about a girl?” They rushed the baby off and led me back to the birthing room.

After a while, they took me to see my daughter. There she was in a clear plastic basinet with a McDonald’s warming light overhead. The nurse picked her up and handed her to me. I stared into those sky blue eyes, and there was everything: loving, growing, smiling, sleeping, laughing, crying, crawling, walking, falling, rising, running, playing, learning, dreaming, studying, leaving, graduating, working, struggling, marrying, mothering, nurturing, worrying, aging, dying, and loving.

At that moment, my beloved, insatiable, all consuming self shattered like a windowpane hit by a Nolan Ryan fastball, and all that remained was the perfect baby girl I held in my arms.  

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