The Mouth

My daughter’s abrupt scream during an otherwise-quiet 2 a.m. was a terrifying sound; nightmare notes blended together in an awful symphony.

My wife and I knew it was different than her other cries. It just sounded off key. Not frustration or hunger or an impolite request to change her. It sounded like fear, that horrible wavelength achieved when loneliness and desperation do a duet.

We stumbled through our dark house, flipping on lights and squinting while we adjusted to their sudden flares. We reached our daughter and held her and soothed her until her eyes closed and her diaphragm powered down.

Satisfied, we stumbled back to bed and fell asleep. But my night wasn’t over. I fell into a nightmare, a sampler platter of dream scenes that included running through a dark house – my childhood home, in fact – and warning family members that something was chasing me me. I flung open doors as my screams came out whispers, all while a sharp angled shadow skittered across the ceiling and walls toward me, haloed in a pulsing, maniacal light.

This was the fear I felt when I heard my daughter scream, I think, brought to life in a flickering patchwork of awful vignettes.

Fear has become just that for me after she appeared almost 10 months ago: projected and metaphorical. I can explain what the emotion looks like, how it smells.

And it won’t leave me be, either. Sitting here, now, I’m thinking about all the ways my daughter could hurt herself, tallying sharp corners.

This fear leaves me with a strange stomachache, like a mouth opens in my chest and starts screaming. Poison adrenaline. It opens wider when I hear or read or watch stories about children hurt or children killed on the news. It even opens when I’m watching or reading something that involves children in jeopardy.

The Mouth is horrible. The Mouth is loud and full of stuttering, shadowy paranoia, probably has ferocious halitosis. I wonder how many other dads experience it, how many are shocked when they start to feel that horrible and consistently anxious ache between their ribs soon after their first child is born. Maybe I’m just an anomaly. Maybe not. I haven’t taken a poll or run a study.

I’ve been thinking about the Mouth a lot this past week. I blame Father’s Day. First time participant this year because of my daughter’s arrival.

But all this thinking took a turn Friday. My daughter awakened just before 6 a.m., a few short minutes before I leave for work. I changed her and brought her out to our living room, put her on her play mat. I sat there and sipped the last of my coffee and watched while she played with some of her toys. Her coos accented her movements and her intense stares as she prodded her blocks and teething devices and books.

She was a distracted assembly line of attention: pick one toy up, put it down, move onto the next. When that got old, she switched to crawling. Her eyes danced around as she looked at the points in the floor and furniture. That same assembly line attitude of interest endured, like she didn’t want to miss anything.

Bathed in the pale blue light of a promised sunrise coming through our windows, my daughter seemed to want to experience everything at once, unafraid and curious. Where I saw minefield, she saw a meadow.

I want that attitude to endure for her. Just as much as I want her to be safe. I’ll deal with the Mouth and its screams for that.

She’ll learn caution with age and experience naturally, but learning that the pursuit of things that matter comes with risk is taught, I think. And the Mouth is just there to scream loud enough to distract me from that.

It’s because of the Mouth that this Father’s Day is different for me. There’s this new respect I have for every parent who’s come before me and dealt with the fear and worry on behalf of their children, who were somehow able to continue functioning with the knowledge their babies weren’t wearing suits of armor as they journeyed and learned and developed.

All I’ll ever really want for Father’s Day is to learn that the Mouth is unreliable, that my daughter deserves better than me heeding its each and every scream.

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