Heading off to a week of Summer League, hands-down the most difficult thing will be leaving Baby Point Guard for an entire week (and then some). I haven’t been away from him for more than a few hours since he arrived in the world. I haven’t slept any farther away than across the hall from him, nor failed to check his breathing before I go to bed, nor ever missed it when he woke up crying.
Even making this short trip makes me appreciate the sacrifice the players, coaches, team officials, and broadcast crew make for their jobs. We tend to think that everything must be great for these guys 100% of the time because they are multi-millionaires. The facts are:
1. Most of them aren’t, especially if you’re an assistant cable technician on the T.V. team or, say, one of the local beat writers.
2. Even for those who are, there are some things money cannot buy. The chance to watch your children grow up is one of those irreplaceable things.
No doubt this will seem strange to a certain portion of our readership--those in pre-parenting or non-parenting mode--to whom a career involving fame, fabulous wealth, and the opportunity to play a dearly-beloved game would seem like the pinnacle of human achievement. Heck, it would have seemed strange to me a little over 7 ½ months ago before Baby Point Guard arrived. If you haven’t experienced it, it’s nearly impossible to describe how one little creature can so transform your life and priorities.
I still remember Day One, Moment One of the new era. The last second before my life changed I saw a tiny bit of hairy head sticking out. Then all of a sudden there was a rush, and then all I saw were these two relatively enormous hands coming towards me, just to the side. Those hands plopped down on mama’s chest, then the head turned, and I saw two barely-open eyes all bleary, as if to say, "What the HECK just happened?" Then came the crying and the measuring and all of that stuff. By the time the hands came back they were followed by a little face, still bewildered, and a body wrapped in a towel. By this time the eyes were saying, "Dude! It’s cold in here! And by the way, got anything to eat?"
It’s hard to describe how surreal the experience is. Only death and marriage come close to holding that kind of transformative power. You know that a certain number of seconds and minutes have ticked off the clock. You know logically there was a "yesterday" with no baby and a "today" with one. And yet somehow your mind can’t grasp that yesterday anymore. It has been robbed of its friction. Every time you try to hold onto it or remember it, it slips away somehow.
Frankly you don’t really get what’s going on in the "today" part either. You’re driving around town to get diapers or a chocolate bar for your wife (who, you know, did play at least some part in this whole affair) and you can’t understand why people are still acting normal. You want to honk your horn, roll down your window, and shout, "I’m a daddy!" It’s as if every sentient being on the planet should acknowledge that fact. You’re not self-centered, mind you. You just don’t understand why everybody doesn’t see how the world has changed. How can they be waiting for a red light at a time like this? Shouldn’t they be doing…something?
The truly humorous part is that you don’t know exactly what you should be doing yourself, other than the simple things like finding candy bars and diapers. (Hint: Those numbers on the packages are NOT based on how you think your child stacks up in the baby world. Just get "N" for "Newborn", smart guy.) So you go about your merry little way until they pat you on the head, double-check your car seat, and send you home with this thing. The usual response is to sneak out of the hospital, not looking back, as you’re thinking, "I can’t believe they’re letting me get away with this!" You do, however, tend to slow down for yellow lights and check intersections far more carefully with a newborn in back. You could literally spend all day at a four-way stop. "No, really, you guys go first! I have a BABY in back! It's MY baby! I’ll just wait until it’s clear and safe."
Despite all of this, the relationship is uneasy at first. Whatever personality days-old babies have is overwhelmed in ceaseless tides of crying, eating, pooping, sleeping, then crying again. They don’t know how to smile yet. They don’t have any idea that their appendages are attached, let alone that they could administer some kind of control over them. (Side note: Few things are as hilarious as a baby first discovering his hands. "Hey! There’s this thing moving in front of my face. Whaa? Where’d it go? Oh, it’s back! Wonder if it tastes good? OW! IT HIT ME!") In other words, most communication outside of screeching is one-way, from the big person to the little. That’s a difficult way to build a relationship under most circumstances. But any gap gets bridged immediately the exact second the little booger is crying his eyes out and you pick him up to rock him and all of a sudden he goes asleep nestled in your chest. The concepts of love and mutual appreciation are still too far beyond the first week mind to have credibility. But from the beginning, without anything but a soft sigh and regular breathing, the baby is able to say, "You are warm. I feel safe with you." This pretty much defines your role as a daddy.
It seems silly from the outside looking in, but your life quickly becomes defined by an endless series of "firsts". Baby’s first time tracking you with his eyes. Baby’s first real smile. Baby’s first time sleeping more than two hours straight. Baby’s first time in each outfit. Baby’s first time meeting the cat. Baby’s first time unintentionally smacking the cat. Kitty’s first time looking at you and saying, "How long do we have to keep this thing?" (It will not be the last.) Baby’s first time sitting up. Baby’s first time discovering fingers. Baby’s first toy. Baby’s first attachment to some object so weird and obscure you had forgotten it existed. (Hello tacky ceramic angel with jingle-bell bottom.) Baby’s first bath. Baby’s first peek-a-boo. Baby’s first time getting startled playing peek-a-boo and falling backwards, bonking his head and crying. Daddy’s first time feeling like a big, fat jerk. Each of these things (save the last) and a hundred more fill you with pride. Each cements you more firmly in the little guy’s grasp. Like a magician your baby will weave a web that you can’t get out of. You know in the back of your mind that some of this stuff really is endearing and some of it is just biological instinct releasing chemicals in your brain but you really, really, really don’t care. You are smitten, suckered, and stuck and you don’t want it any other way.
After the "firsts" stage starts calming down and interaction becomes more routine you start getting into the rewards phase of this little project. These are the things you remember…things that make you smile every time you recall them. One of Baby Point Guard’s first discoveries was the power of flight. Daddy would lay on his back and cradle Baby in his hands and whoosh him all around. Of course Baby completely missed the hand-cradling part of the equation. The kid really thinks he can fly. After he started recognizing the bathtub, which taught him that he could propel himself through water by kicking his feet, it was a natural for him to start propelling himself through the air the same way. So now he whooshes everywhere kicking his feet up and down, an amazing smile upon his face. With daddy always being just below him, Pops gets the benefit of all of those smiles.
Then there was the discovery that you could cure anything ailing Baby by sitting him on your shoulders and giving him a ride. As long as he’s up there you can shop for hours or watch whatever TV show you want. Unfortunately this was coupled with his new-found way of expressing deep approval with objects or activities by smacking them with his outstretched hands. Baby wants a glass of water? Stare at the water…smack, smack, smack! Baby likes these sweet potatoes? Reach out to bowl…smack, smack, smack! Baby LOVES riding on daddy’s shoulders (with his hands firmly wrapped around daddy’s head) more than anything else in the world… SMACK, SMACK, SMACKETY-SMACK, SMACK SMACK, SMACK, SMACK! That stupid, sloppy grin on dad’s face is half delight in pleasing baby and half concussion.
But see, here’s the thing. After a while baby starts associating daddy with certain things, like fun and flying and big hugs and tickles. Mommy has her things too--most of the important ones, actually--but certain things are just…daddy’s. And that is the moment you know you’ve made it. That’s the moment you become irreplaceable. And it happens so darn quickly! But you never want it to end.
The sum total of all of this is pretty much wrapped up in the picture just below. That’s Baby Point Guard with his first ball, which he dearly loves, by the way. He is also amazed by daddy’s dribbling Skillz and is trying to emulate them by smacking the ball repeatedly. (This saves some wear and tear on daddy’s head.) But even though he is pleased with the ball, that’s not the cause of the smile on his face. Mommy took the picture. But guess who he’s looking at? That would be me, daddy.
Look closely at that expression. That is his "daddy smile", which he never fails to employ while greeting me. Since I have the night shift with Baby, he and mommy always get up before I do. That means that THIS is the first thing I see every morning. And when you get greeted like that every morning without fail, man…it doesn’t matter what else is going on. Your day is not only good, it’s complete before it even really begins.
Anyway, maybe this gives you an idea of how hard it would be to do without all of this once you’ve become used to it. Giving up one morning "daddy smile" would be quite a loss, let alone a whole day. It gives me great empathy and appreciation for all of the Blazers and Blazer employees who have to do without it--or do it from a distance--half of the year or more. I don’t think I could. To us it seems like they should put the game first and families second. Having experienced even the small slice of family-hood that I have in the past 7 ½ months I would never blame a guy for doing the reverse. In fact that’s the way it probably should be done. We can always draft new Blazers. Their kids only get one dad.
As for me, I know there’s a lot more to experience. We haven’t hit the perils of Baby mobility yet. (Why crawl when you can fly?) We haven’t experienced the terrible twos, or the "Gimme!" fours and fives, or the too-big-for-your-britches eights and nines. We’re nowhere close to the raging hormones and parent-despising currents of adolescence. But I imagine that the longer you spend doing this the more bonded you get to it. I can say with confidence that should my son, in a fit of teenage rebellion, come to the dinner table wearing a L*kers jersey, well…I would kick his no-taste-having, infidel butt to the curb and make me another one! (This one presumably with some brains.) But short of that, even with all of the ups and downs, I can’t imagine anything--personal or professional--being more important.
I suspect my hotel room will be plastered with pictures of Baby Point Guard this week. Wish me luck.