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We Have A Bad Connection

by Jeff Stimpson |
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My wife Jill and I have a baby on the way. And I'm realizing that I didn't connect with kids even when I was one.

I have connected with kids twice in my adult life. In 1991 I cradled a month-old boy, one of my sister's platoon, and told him he would be proud someday because his dad was in the Gulf War. The baby agreed, if falling asleep indicates agreement. Then there was the time I visited a friend who was teaching at a weird school in the woods of Maine. These kids would plunk themselves unasked on your lap and talk to you just like strangers on a stuck subway. Except for the lap part. And you could talk back and they seemed to understand.

Still, one's on the way. To my house.

"But when you look into that little face..." Jill says. Her words trailed off.

"My words didn't trail off," she said later. "Why didn't you finish what I said?"

Because at this point I've looked into plenty of little faces: babies, kittens, gerbils. Only one of those groups locks its eyes on mine and finds me wanting. The little face disintegrates, first cracking between the eyes with a spreading furrow. Then eyelids squeeze shut, lips gape, and fingers clinch into won-ton-sized fists.

Then, the howling.

Not all of them howl. Once I said "hello there" to a one-year-old in a drug store and he looked at me as if when he got old enough he'd never ever let me sell him a car. Another time I accidentally piggy-backed another one-year-old into a wall. When I let her down she didn't cry, but clapped her head and fixed me with twin blue barrels of outraged amazement, as if when she got old enough she'd punch me right in the mouth.

More typical is what happened last Thanksgiving when I visited Jon, an old high school friend. Seems like only yesterday Jon would spot somebody wearing his pants too low and make a joke that usually contained the word "crack." Now that sense of fun lives on in Ben, Jon's own little kid, who got his father to spend most of a holiday afternoon trying to head him off as he darted, again and again, for the highway. Jon caught him every time.

Also there was Jay, another friend from high school, a cool guy I remember for his holding a trumpet in the senior portrait. Now he has a nice car and a good job in Washington and the handshake of the president. And a way with kids. He scooped up Ben and piggy-backed him crash-free through the muddy twilight, and even between the low pine branches without a scratch on the little face.

If I'd tried that, Jon's day off would have ended with his son and wife screaming in the back seat, his knuckles white on the wheel as he sped to the emergency room. Not to mention all three of them wanting to punch me in the mouth.

A month after that, I learned Jill was pregnant. v"You'll be a good father because you have to be," Jon said.

I called my sister. "Your baby will bond with you because it has to," she said.

Have to. Has to. I'll repeat that to myself that first day home with the baby. The crib, the blanket, the fresh talcum, the fresher poop, the clink of the mobile of animals on which I constantly bump my head. Jill and I will be all smiles, Mom and Dad Goofus on their first patrol, gazing at the howling thing.

"Watch him-her-it for a minute, OK?" Jill will say, and leave the room.

And I will, because I have to. For the rest of my life, I dread and hope, I will have to. I'll be thinking stuff like this when I'll notice the kid looking at me, and one of us will just have to marvel, "You're the father?"

Jeff Stimpson, 37, lives in Queens, N.Y. with his wife Jill and their baby son Alex. Stimpson writes twice a week for his essay Web site, JeffsLife. The address is http://members.tripod.com/jeffslife/HOME.HTM His e-mail is jtstimpson@aol.com


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