I have a small Christmas tradition.
I don’t drive and dragging the presents home each year is aways an issue, so I shop throughout the season at the small downtown boutiques that cater to my daughter’s oddball tastes and, as I’ve become friends with these retailers over the years, I leave the packages at their stores until I pick up the gifts on Christmas Eve.
Each December 24, fat with that holiday bonus, I rent a town car and make the rounds downtown.
I buy those last few things I thought I couldn’t afford and roll into Jersey laden with gifts, good weed, and cheer.
It works every time; a small personal tradition that I’ve established to remind myself on Christmas Eve that I am blessed, very blessed.
And if I’m lucky it’s snowing.
Five days before Christmas when she was fifteen years old, I got hit with the flu so hard and so fast that it was suddenly clear that those presents sitting in New York might not make it home in time for the holidays.
In a fevered panic I went online and looked for a way to literally save Christmas.
She always wanted a dog and I always put it off. I wasn’t particularly against the idea, I just never got around to it.
Of course, she wanted a Pomeranian. Really?? A little tiny yappy animal, nervous and underfoot?? I feigned a wounded masculinity. I said it was a matter of pride; but I didn’t care. I could dig a little dog, but the notion slipped by with the seasons.
So on December 20 I approached the internet and despite every imprecation to not buy an animal online, I pumped in the word Pomeranian and a small breeder in Ohio came up.
I found a likely candidate, wrote a friendly fevered e-mail and the next morning got a reply. Of course, I could buy the dog and he could be shipped (Shipped?!) to me by Christmas Eve.
With a 102 temperature cooking my brain I didn’t see any way out, and so I sent back the acceptance and gave them my credit card.
Then I didn’t hear back right away.
I had to send a follow-up to get a reply:
“I’m sorry, Rick. You seem like a nice man but I see by your e-mail address that you encourage drug use and I can’t have anything to do with that…”
Ah, please… Not now…
Not on Christmas!
With my fever raging, I miraculously resisted the urge to respond ferociously. It was Christmas so I trashed the message instead.
Back online, I found a another breeder in Tennessee, and when I clicked on the first dog I saw – the cutest Pomeranian pup appeared with a wide white smile and a red Christmas cap. His brief resume revealed that he was born almost four months ago, precisely on my daughters 15th birthday.
“It was meant to be,” I said aloud as I pushed the button again.
This time it worked.
A phone number appeared and the nicest woman in the world walked me through buying a dog.
“Can you ship him?” I asked uneasily.
“Oh Lord, no!” she said. “I would never ship this little guy! If you pay for the plane ride, my son, Wallace, can bring him up on Christmas Eve. Takes him right on the plane in a carrier and holds him on his lap!”
I love this woman!
So on Christmas Eve I collapsed into the back of a cab in a cool sweat.
“Take me to Newark Airport and just wait for me. I’ll be right out.”
When I walked into the United Airlines terminal Wallace was waiting to give me the puppy.
He was small and quivering, and he could have been the worst mistake I ever made. He could wind up to be a ball of yapping fur, snapping at my heels when he wasn’t shivering in the corner in a puddle of his own piss – But that didn’t happen.
Theta turned out to be a perfect fit for our strange little family.
(Theta, by the way, is the eighth letter of the Greek alphabet, a star in the constellation Eridanus and Doctor Who’s nickname when he was a little boy. It was Dylan’s idea.)
I got the dog for my daughter Dylan, of course, – He’s Dylan’s dog – but since a grumpy old cat lives perpetually in her room – a cat who regards my daughter as the only other worthwhile living thing in the universe, – the dog abides in the living room with me.
I wound up feeding him in the mornings and that sealed the deal.
Where I walk, he now follows. Where I go, he goes; where I sleep, he sleeps. My people are his people and my God, his God. Actually, he might be convinced that I’m his god and I’ve tried to correct him on this, but he doesn’t want to hear it.
It doesn’t matter. We’ve come to an understanding: Theta continues to give me a wide latitude resembling worship that I need to keep our little universe chugging along; and I continue to give him treats.
Two years later…
It is Saturday night and she is going to the mall on the bus with Diana.
She has lost her phone but she is seventeen now, the beauty of all the world personified, a few months shy of her eighteenth birthday. Diana is already eighteen and she has a phone.
These are not little kids. The Willowbrook Mall – where, it must be said, I misspent my own youth when I was seventeen – is twenty miles west into New Jersey, over the first mountain, where the bus routes grow thin.
The bus ride to/from Willowbrook takes about a half hour.
She left late for the mall that day and I warned her there were only two buses she could take home; the Number 28 at 8:25 and the last 28 at 10:00. “After that,” I said, “you’re stuck up there until I can figure out how to get you back.”
“I won’t miss the bus,” she insisted, pointing out that she never does.
“Yeah, but the bus stop is across the parking lot at the edge of the mall,” I cautioned her. “There’s a few bus kiosks there. You’ll have to figure out which one the 28 stops at.”
“It’s OK, Dad. I got it,” she promised, kissed me on the head and pranced out the door, her friend Diana following quietly behind.
It was a dark and stormy night.
Not really, but it was the early dark in March that comes a week before Daylight Savings Time. Outside a fine spray of warm rain mixed with a wispy fog on a moonless night. So when I looked out my window and watched them disappear into the gloaming what I saw was certainly a dark and stormy night.
And I just let her go.
She picked the phone right away two hours later. “You having fun?”
“Yep!” She was eating mall food.
“Ok. You gotta get ready in a little bit and decide which bus you –”
“I don’t think we’re going to take the ten. I think we’ll take the 8:25” I heard that as code for We spent all our money on mall food and now we’re ready to come home. My daughter’s tastes in clothing runs counter to those of the Mall.
“Oh, okay. Well, call or text me one way or the other when you’re sure which bus you’re taking.”
It was 7:35.
I waited until 8:15.
Hmmm, Should’ve called by now.
I called Diana’s phone but got sent straight to voice mail so I sent her a text.
Please call me now.
After 8:25 I realized that she’s either on the bus, on her way home or still at the mall planning to take the ten.
This is not my first rodeo. There is no need to panic. If I were a betting man I’d say she was taking the ten.
By quarter to nine, I’ve called five times and gotten five voicemails, my texts have gone from cool-dad courteous to the equivalent of a digital scream: CALL ME NOW!
At nine o’clock I began to pace my living room like a caged animal.
I had the cell phone in my paw and pounded out the kid’s phone number as often as technology would allow.
Nothing. Straight to voice mail each time.
Then I remembered that Dylan’s iPad was with her and that I could locate that device on that Find-A-Phone app – except I couldn’t because when I tried her iPad was “disabled”.
Not a good word. Not at that moment.
So in a fit of pique, I called Willowbrook Mall Security Office and the young man who picked up the phone had apparently gone through this sort of thing with a parent one or two hundred times before.
“Sir,” he pressed gently, “I want to help you but you have to slow down so I can understand you. You say your daughter is a minor?”
“Yes. Barely. She’ll be eighteen in three months. The girl she’s with is eighteen.”
“Okay, when was the last time you spoke with your daughter?”
“No. 7:30 tonight.” It was 9:10 pm.
A long moment of silence betrayed his thoughts.
“I know,” I said. “This sounds like I’m crazy and freaking out over nothing, but I’m telling you this isn’t like her. Multiple phone calls – she’s not picking up. Multiple texts – no answer.” My voice grew tiny. “Her iPad is disabled,” I choked. “Something’s wrong!”
“Sir, what I’m going to do is have one of our officers go by the bus stop and see if she’s wait –
“Thank you! Thank you!”
“Yes sir. Now give me a description…”
That part was easy. Dylan is a riot of pastel colors and easy to pick out in a crowd.
He said, “I’ll call you back one way or the other as soon as I hear something.”
“Thank you! Thank you!”
Alone with my dog in the living room, the silence was deafening. We paced back and forth together, cell phone in (my) hand, trying to calm down and failing miserably.
I called her cell phone two more times and paced some more while the little dog followed me around the room with small padded steps of deep concern.
“Something’s wrong!” I told the dog.
Finally, I couldn’t wait any longer. I called back babbling.
“Listen! If she was on the 8:25 she’d be home by now. That means she’s waiting for the 28 at the bus stop! Or if she’s not then this becomes real and I have to take this to the next level! I want someone to go to the bus stop now before –
“Sir!” he cut me off, “Actually, I sent an officer over to the bus stop and he just reported back…” The millisecond of hesitation in his voice signaled bad news. “She’s not there.”
“She’s not there?” I repeated. It was like taking a body blow.
“No, sir,” he said quietly. “She’s not.”
“She not there,” I told the dog who was looking up at me intently as my mind reeled with the implications of that statement.
The dog barked. The dog barked again and my ears perked up and I looked at him! I knew what that meant! The dog began yapping as I heard the front door open.
“She’s here!” I confirmed and thanked the mall cop profusely for a few brief seconds before I hung up on him entirely. I hugged her so hard, I almost broke her in two!
Then I pushed her out to arms length and said, “Where were you?? Why didn’t you answer the phone?!” Diana’s phone ran out of minutes. Diana was muttering, “I’m sorry! So sorry!”
My multiple texts pinged on her iPad just as her single message saying that they caught the 8:25 and were grabbing a bite in the nearby village pinged on my phone.
The delay, we presume, had something to do with mountains. My heart was still racing, my mouth was still dry, my palms still sweaty and nothing was wrong.
“We’re going to go hang out in my room,” she said musically, sounding much younger to my ears than she actually was. Dylan pranced off towards the back of the apartment with Diana following quietly behind.
I stood in the center of my living room as the dog looked at me meaningfully.
“There was something wrong!” I told him. “Phone ran out of minutes… iPad didn’t work.”
Muttering like a madman, I could see the dog agreed. I knew the security guard thought I was crazy and the odds were pretty good that Diana probably thought so too.
And I knew that my daughter has more common sense than her father ever had or ever will have. And I knew there was nothing wrong and there never was. I turned to the dog and asked, “Do you think I’m crazy?”
And he gave me the strangest look.
There is a Janus word in English (a contronym that has two meanings in direct opposition) to “cleave,” migrating from the Old English cleofian, means to cling and remain faithful as in “a man shall cleave unto his wife” (Genesis 2:24) while “to cleave” cognate with the Old High German klioban, means to split and tear asunder, as with the cleaver in Lizzie Borden’s hand or that cleft on Superman’s chin.
To hold fast and to let go.
The ancient cycle that rules every living thing.
The parent cleaves to the child with a steadfast cling and a faithful remain until the day when the parent must cleave from the child with the unnatural split of a screaming atom.
He can only watch from a distance as she bursts along a shattering curve of binding energy and resolves into a new equation far more beautiful, elegant and powerful than even her father’s most fervent dream.
And the next thing you know, you’re in the living room talking to the dog.
I’m really glad I got that dog.