Throughout our cross-country move from Kansas City to Charlotte, friends have asked the same question again and again: How are the kids taking it? It’s a thoughtful question, a heartfelt question, and I very much appreciate them asking. But, the truth is, they already know. They’re taking it exactly like just about every kid who has ever moved. If there’s one thing you can say about moving, it is that the feelings are universal … and cliche-ridden. Just about every adult who has ever moved to a new place has felt overburdened and has promised themselves, at least on some level, to never move again. Just about every child who has moved has felt, at least on some level, like Ralph Macchio from The Karate Kid.
Our girls are 6 and 9 and, so, have been a spectacularly erratic bundle of emotions. This is particularly true of Elizabeth, the older one. One minute, she’s excited about a new life. The next she’s collapsed in tears. The next, she’s talking giddy about the puppy we’re going to get*. The next she’s talking about how she will never have a happy thought for the rest of her life.
*Fathers are not above bribing daughters.
There are a million things that have jolted me about being a parent, of course, and one of those is the drama. Even as a kid, I thought those family sitcoms on television were overwrought, but as a parent I have found that LIFE seems to be overwrought. A disagreement at recess, a cross word on the school bus, a misunderstanding with a friend, all these turn into long conversations right out of the The Brady Bunch with the slow version of the theme song playing in the background.
Elizabeth is particularly vulnerable to drama. My wife Margo and I have sometimes discussed which one of us she gets this from. Put it this way: I traded in a car two years ago, and Elizabeth STILL misses it. We have had the “cars don’t have feelings,” conversation at least a half-dozen times, but it never takes, probably because I’m not entirely sure I believe it* (which might offer a powerful hint about which one of us Elizabeth gets her overly dramatic side from). So we knew that this move would prey on her emotions.
*I cannot help but believe that somewhere there’s a beige Ford Escort wondering when I’m coming back for him.
One thing about being a father and moving the family — I can’t help but feel a little bit like The Great Santini. OK, Sportsfans, quit your yappin’ and get in the car so we can abandon our old lives. Move it! I see myself as the sensitive Dad, but that means I listen to myself utter those banal sayings again and again: “You will make NEW friends,” and “You’ll love the new house as much as you loved the old one,” and “They’ve got a swimming pool within walking distance!” and “Yes you WILL make new friends,” and “Did I tell you about the pool?” and “You’ll love your new room,” and “The neighborhood is filled with kids,” and “We WILL get a puppy,” and “I promise you will make new friends, I PROMISE!”
I promise … but how the heck do I know that they will make new friends? I mean, on a logical level I know — it’s obvious they will make new friends, they’re wonderful kids. On an experience level, I remember when we moved, and how quickly I made great new friends, and I wasn’t even close to as socially well-adjusted or likable as my daughters. On a gut level, I know — kids make friends pretty much without exception. But on the most basic level, I can’t promise them friends. And yet I do. Because that’s all I have.
Elizabeth did not fully break down until the furniture and boxes arrived. I guess that’s when it became real to her. Up to that point, I think she was able to see this move as a long trip with the admittedly slight but still real possibility of ending back at our old home, not unlike Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz. But seeing our furniture in this new home, seeing her bed and dresser in a new room, I think that’s when that no-going-back realization struck her. And she climbed in my lap, and she cried, and she said in many different ways that she had thought hard about it, carefully weighed all the possibilities, and decided we should cancel the move and go back to Kansas City.
We talked for a long while. It was every ABC Afterschool Special you ever saw — Elizabeth could have been the young Helen Hunt. I tried to think about what my father told me in such melancholy situations, but what I mostly remembered was that he would make me laugh. I think I shouted the words, “It’s not FUNNY!” at my father more often than any other phrase. This situation seemed to require a little bit less Soupy Sales. So I kept playing the friend card. I said, over and over and over that she would find friends, really cool friends, friends who love Harry Potter and iCarly and Wizards of Waverly Place, friends who love to read, friends who have fascination with history, friends who love getting emails. I told her that once she found those friends, she would love Charlotte just like she loved Kansas City. This was on the afternoon of our first day in our house.
The next morning — the VERY NEXT MORNING — Elizabeth and Katie went outside to the backyard to swing on our new swingset (I should probably make the point that I played up the swingset too). Our backyard faces another backyard with a low fence between — and suddenly from across the fence two nine-year-old girls walked out their backdoor to swing on their swingset. Identical twins. They walked over to the fence to introduce themselves … and you already know. They love Harry Potter. They love iCarly and Wizards of Waverly Place. They love to read. It was, to be perfectly honest with you, overkill. Twins, for crying out loud.
The twins came over to our house with their older sister (who has already volunteered to be a babysitter), they took a few empty boxes and decorated them and made them into tunnels. They laughed non-stop. Margo brought them lemonade. At some point, I heard the girls say: “We’ll call ourselves the crazy club!” It was so perfect, so utterly perfect, that I almost wondered these twins had somehow been included in the price of our house.* It was so unreal I kept looking to see if Joey King or Dakota Fanning was playing one of the girls. Margo was so happy, that I thought I saw her tearing up a bit.
*It’s not impossible … we signed A LOT of papers at closing.
But, believe it or not, the story of 9-year-old twins just magically showing up across the fence on the first morning of our new life and making my hopelessly sad daughter light up is not the point here. Fatherhood is a tricky business. There are great moments and tough ones, lessons learned and mistakes made, uncertainty on all fronts. And the wonder of it all is that it doesn’t really end. The wonder of it all is the constant surprise. Every time I feel like I have a handle on things, I don’t. Every time I feel like I know what they’re about, they change. Whenever I buy them the what I know is the perfect lift gift from a short road trip — I buy a book or a game or stuffed animal — I find that when I get home it’s not quite the PERFECT gift anymore. They won’t stay the same, no matter how much I wish it.
When the twin girls and their sister went back home — they had plans for the afternoon — I could not wait to see Elizabeth. I knew exactly how she had to be feeling. I picked her up and said: “Can you believe it? Twins? Right across the fence? They like the same things you like? Isn’t it amazing?”
She kind of nodded, but she did not look very happy. I said: What is it?
And she said: “I miss them.”
I said: “Yeah, OK, but they’ll be back. They live right across the fence.”
She nodded again. But she still looked sad. And she said: “What do I do now?”
And that, best I can tell, sums up fatherhood.