My 7-year-old daughter Willa came home from school last week and said she knew what sex was. Her friend Melissa had told her.
"OK, what is it?" My wife Ellen asked, as I poured the bourbon for the Manhattan I knew I'd need.
"It's when a man and a woman lie down together and kiss."
There was a long and thoughtful pause. I looked at Ellen, holding the bottle of bourbon tipped, still pouring it into the shaker. Perhaps a stiff cocktail tonight.
"No, that's not what sex is, Willa," Ellen said. And she muttered to me: "I'll be damned if Melissa is going to be the one to teach her about sex."
I can't believe this is happening, I thought. The iconic experience of parenthood, coming five years early, on a nondescript fall evening with no time to prepare.
Parenthood can be summed up simply: You try to insulate and protect your children, at least for a while, and you fail right out of the gate. The true nature of the world, experience, maturity, the meanness of things, it all sneaks up. The world offers endless hardship along with its graces, and only luck can tip the scales.
Willa and Ellen retreated to her room, protected by its flowered comforter and small glass animals.
"Uh, hey, do you want me in here, I mean. …"
"NO!" Willa and Ellen both yelled. I started doing dishes. Then went back and hovered outside the door, missing the most important conversation of my daughter's life. I felt I should be there, but was relieved I wasn't. To be honest, I had no idea what I would say, though I'm certain my first word would have been "Uh. ..."
I scrubbed at the cast iron skillet, a legendary culinary instrument meant to work flawlessly, the original nonstick. Never for me. I chipped off vulcanized omelet with a paring knife.
I ought to have known all this was coming. Not six months ago I was brushing Willa's teeth. She asked me to stop.
"What do you think of this?" She pulled the strap of her pajamas over her shoulder, a red and white ensemble that said "Cutiesaurus" below a ridiculous cartoon dinosaur, let a curl of hair hang over her eyes, canted her hips, and looked into the mirror with a sultry pout. Six years old then.
The poet Julia Kasdorf says the first gesture we learn is good-bye.
"You look beautiful," I said, panicking. "Open wide, I got to get the molars."
One summer afternoon, I biked to the supermarket with Willa and her 5-year-old brother, Elias. Almost there, we stopped to pet horses and play on a stump by a ditch. The weather had been threatening all day. Now, ominous clouds billowed to the south. You could see the arcing lines of precipitation; there was thunder, lightning. It was spectacularly beautiful, and also terrifying.
"Hey, guys, we better head out now, it's probably going to rain."
They played. The storm was about four miles off; we had maybe 15 minutes. But the weather has been odd this year, and this storm came onto us faster than I had anticipated.
"Yeah, OK, we gotta go here!" I said. The kids hopped on their bikes, and within 30 seconds it was pouring. I was as wet as if someone had doused me with a bucket from the blindside.
"Come on guys! Let's go!"
I looked back and they were pedaling their tiny bikes frantically, expressing some slight concern, getting soaked. And then came the hail.
"Dada!" little Elias was yelling, the ice hitting hard on his hands and face, on the verge of tears.
Willa looked terrified. "We have to stop!" And I was thinking: stop where? And do what? Crawl under a tree? Or into a culvert? What could I do, short of laying on top of them?
"We can't stop! We have no choice! I can't help you!" I yelled, drowned out in simultaneous lightning and thunder. I didn't want to circle back, because I worried they'd stop, and we'd get annihilated. So I stayed ahead, yelling and exhorting like some crazy World War I Lieutenant with a bugle and a soccer ball, leading my men off into catastrophe, an apt metaphor for parenthood.
Squinting back into the sideways-blowing, bitterly stinging hail, I watched my two children, their heads down, hands bright red, legs pumping furiously, making their way as best they could into a world they'd find to be part pig iron, part gold, and theirs alone.