When she’s sleeping

We were doing homework last night: she has a test in grammar today on pronouns. Personal, interrogative, indefinite, demonstrative, and relative. She has to know what antecedents are, and she has to remember the word antecedent. She’s nervous, because she doesn’t have a firm grasp on all of it just yet. She often confuses indefinite and demonstrative pronouns. She has trouble remembering the phrase subordinate clause, and this worries her, even though it’s more important that she understand the concept than memorize the words. This is a learning experience for me, too; I knew all of this once, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had to pin the parts of a sentence to a corkboard and afix their names to them.

We’re into this for no more than ten minutes when she starts to get pissed. I’m coming up with sentences for her and she’s identifying the pronouns and their types.

“Who put it away?”

“Who. Interrogative. It. Indefinite.”

“You’re right on the first one, but ‘it’ isn’t indefinite.”

“What?”

“Remember? He, she, it. What are they?”

“Personal, but that’s impossible! We don’t know what ‘it’ stands for in that sentence, so it has to be indefinite!”

We go over it for a few more minutes, but she’s upset now, and finding it hard to concentrate. We take a break, and she stalks like a thwarted general into her room.

Thirty minutes later we return to it. She’s getting it; she’s doing a good job. These aren’t easy concepts to grab immediately, when you’re not used to thinking of sentences as machines, as a series of individual parts which work in concert. But she is still frustrated, and by this point my own frustration is mounting too. She gets the next one wrong and she throws herself back onto the couch, making a strangled noise.

It’s too much for me. I drop the notebook on the coffee table. “For Christ’s sake. Will you just calm down?”

Her face goes dark in anger, in righteous indignation. But just for a moment. Then it smooths over. She gets up and retrieves her notebook from the table. “I’m going to read over the notes in my room,” she says, very calmly. She walks in that direction.

“Kiddo, you’re doing well. You can’t expect to get all this right on the first try. That’s what homework and studying is for.”

She regards me with a cool eye. Then she turns away again.

“Are you mad?”

“No.”

“You seem like you’re mad.”

She looks at me again, with what appears to be a detached, even somewhat contemptuous, curiosity. “Hm,” she says, and goes to her room.

I gave her about fifteen minutes and then I went into her room, where she was hunched over her laptop. I pulled her to me and hugged her, apologized for being short, told her encouraging things. She seemed unmoved by the whole exchange.

I knew these years were coming. I knew they were going to be tough. And now that they’re arriving, I’m finding that the tools I used to use so well to manage her emotions and her self-regard are no longer working. Tears don’t always dry with a hug anymore, nor do the dark moods dissipate as readily. She’s angry more often. In some ways I see this as a good thing: she has always been hard on herself and I am glad to see the anger directed outward, rather than turned inward, where she can only harm herself. And yet, it’s new, and sudden, and it causes problems. It keeps people at a distance; and in me, it inspires an answering impatience.

There are times when I have no idea what to say to her. I have no idea what she’s thinking, what she’s keeping from me, what’s she’s secretly, desperately hoping I will do or say. I can only react according to what she decides to tell me or what I can intuit, like a doctor treating the symptoms of an illness he cannot diagnose.

A lot of this is normal, of course. And a lot of it comes from me. It’s sobering and humbling to see your own worst traits reflected in your child. You find yourself less patient with the expression of those traits, less ready to forgive them, because you hate them so much in yourself.

As a single father, I had little fear in the early years of her life. She was a little kid, and I do well with little kids. But she’ll be a teenage girl soon, and I am so less sure of myself now.

But at night, when she sleeps, I walk quietly into her room to be sure the blankets are over her shoulders and her head is on the pillow, and there she is still. My little girl. The tiny creature that spent her first week of life in NICU, who was first held in love by my own hands. The little girl who would hear the rumble of the motorcycle when I came home from work or from school and run out to meet me on her tiny legs, actually laughing in excitement. The five year old girl who came with me here to this new place, without a mother to attend her, and trusted that I knew what I was doing and that I would protect her and guide her. The girl who until so recently could bury her sadness in my shoulder, and let my arms carry it away. When she’s sleeping I can still see her: in the roundness of her cheek; her small, parted lips; her closed eyelids and her unfurrowed brow; in the curled fingers of her hand, no longer tiny, but still so small. Still a child’s.

I see her sleeping and I reflect on every sharp word I said that day, every flash of anger or impatience, every time I answered her over my shoulder as I stared at a computer screen or read a book.

I remember my duty to her.

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15 thoughts on “When she’s sleeping

  1. For the love of GOD, Nathan, compile all these single daddy posts into a an ESSAY book and GET IT OUT THERE. (Even if it’s just on Kindle for electronic rights. I can think of 30 people off the top of my head who would buy it. Billie and I included).
    I know personal essays aren’t your typical m.o.—but sometimes we don’t have control over what facets of our writing inspire others.
    Seriously, if you don’t compile these into some type of collection, I am SO not going to the prom with you. And I sure won’t wear an effing red dress. 🙂

  2. april

    I second Dawn here. This is beautiful and moving and so much better than many parenting essays. And I won’t go to prom with you either so DO IT!

  3. I’m backing up April and Dawn, here. It’s a great essay, and so honest about the trials of parenting. And don’t worry, you’re a great dad. 🙂 She’s just making the discovery that you’re a human being, too.

  4. Veronica Schanoes

    Nathan, I was just thinking about you today, and so came over to see how you were doing, and how you are doing is continuing to be a writer of luminously beautiful prose as well as a deeply loving father, conscious of his love for and commitment to his daughter. This piece moves me so deeply, both for your topic and your gorgeous writing. You are wonderful.

  5. E.S.

    Allo Mr. Ballingrud,

    At the end of this interview:
    http://www.theshortreview.com/authors/PaoloBacigalupi.htm
    when asked for author recommendations, you are mentioned with Ted Chaing and Kelly Link — two of the very best short fiction authors working in genre. I have read three of your stories to date and two of those three are definitely worth that praise: which begs the question, is any progress being made with a short fiction collection? Night Shade Books has found some success breaking out short fiction authors, but Small Bear Press would coddle you and McSweeney’s might provide an opportunity to cross-over. Regardless, even if you end up with Prime Books, I want to read a collection by you. Egaads man! Well, hope you are well.
    -E-

    1. Hello E.S., and thanks! I’m very pleased you liked the stories (well, two out of three — I won’t ask which one wasn’t up to snuff!). I do have a collection in the submission process right now. I hope to hear something in the next few months. (I confess I never even considered McSweeney’s; having some cross-genre marketing would be absolutely wonderful.)

      A note like yours is a very nice thing to receive out of the blue. It kind of made my day. Again, thank you.

  6. E.S.

    Allo again Mr. Ballingrud,

    Most welcome. I actually did like all three stories — my apologies for the confusion: it was just that two of the three were so very affecting that I agree that they are worthy of comparison with the best of Chiang and Link (more than worthy, really). I very much look forward to the appearance of your collection and hope it establishes you as a rare author, such as Harlan Ellison, that can succeed and sustain himself largely from short fiction alone; although your work is so cinematic that I can easily imagine a brilliant collaboration with someone like Douglas Buck.
    Have you read Lisa Tuttle’s “Replacements” as of yet? It was a pleasant surprise to find it and “The Monsters of Heaven” so close together given their affinities.
    Have an excellent New Year.
    -E.S.-

    1. Thanks, E.S. Funny that you mention Douglas Buck; I loved Family Portraits. His vision is both beautiful and heartbreaking. I can only hope that someday such a collaboration happens.

      And I’ve read “The Replacements.” It’s a terrific story, and I was happy with their close proximity too. I think a good anthologist — and Langan and Tremblay definitely know what they’re doing — knows how to find stories that resonate with each other.

      Have a great new year yourself. I really appreciate your comments here!

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