A Father Never Stops Counting

I’VE done the math more than once over the past 38 years. The first time was in 1969. I was a typical unfocused, unkempt, underachieving and generally unrepentant sixth-year antiwar undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. In a drafty cottage on Lake Kegonsa, with my brand new colicky son howling into my shoulder, I would pace across the messy living room, back and forth, my lips and fingers desperately trying to quantify how many years, months, days, minutes until the tiny screamer would be 18 and I’d be my free and easy hipster self again.

It was immature — I was immature — and the arithmetic premature at best. In the 19 years that followed that July evening, as six more howling infants graced our sometimes graceless, and more often sleepless, lives, I calculated and recalculated and recalculated just how long it would be before that particular crying baby would fly the coop.

And when I got bored or was overmatched by the confluence of math and calendar — which in my defense included leap years — I calculated simpler goals, like when the people-to-bathroom ratio would be less than two to one. Or when we could reasonably unload the VW van and buy a car like regular families. Or, as a measure of my most absurd delusions, the night when I would be able to drift off to sleep free from worry.

And in those long evening hours of marital negotiation before Elizabeth, our seventh child, was conceived in 1987, while six other children were dreaming their own songs of freedom, I did the quick arithmetic and despaired at the thought that I would probably be the oldest dad at high school graduation in 2006. I even checked some actuarial charts, calculating, with a slight quiver of the lip, the odds of making it to the Promised Land.

So now the family version of the Gene Tunney long count is over. Elizabeth graduated from New Paltz High last June: trumpets, alarum, flourish, exeunt ... we made it! Thirty-seven years — from “One more push, babe” to Elizabeth shoving us out the door of her dorm room at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C.

And to commemorate that oh-so-pregnant-with-meaning passage in life, our older kids, with a sweet lump of tongue in cheek, threw Patti and me a party celebrating the milestone: our “graduation” from the New Paltz Central school system. Thirty-two years from Cael’s weepy entry into kindergarten to Elizabeth’s white cap flying in the air.

As one might imagine, the party was heartening — so heartening! — our beautiful kids and dear friends all around. And predictably funny, too: graduation robes, mortarboards, a homemade “yearbook” of images documenting, graduation by graduation, their young parents’ growing older, and then much older, than the teachers in the background. Sandwiched between the good food and the good drink, we happily endured the kinds of age-old jokes you might expect about “Super Seniors” and school colors being gray and gray, and questions about what college we were applying to ... if only, of course, we could remember.

But it was a little disheartening, too. In this post-postpartum world of long-anticipated empty nesting, Patti and I have found that there is also an overwhelming ache, a deep sadness in what has been lost through our newfound freedom. So there was no great sigh of relief, no Tiger Woods fist in the air as we drove down the long rutted driveway back to our quiet house in the dark woods. Just a deep breath and, finally, some time for quiet reflection:

After all those kids and 32 years of stuffing ourselves into skinny desk chairs at public school open houses, the rest of our lives ahead of us in countless ways we never imagined, I think I have finally understood something about the mathematics of life: The counting never stops. While carpe diem makes good copy, it’s pointless advice, an ancient ruse perpetuated by dead poets and living self-help writers who profit from the fearful sound of “time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”

In this vast post-Elizabeth universe, I find that I’m listening more intently to the birds in our backyard, the coyotes howling just beyond the tree line. I hear more clearly the numerical buzz among the post-hippie crowd in this post-hippie town: how long until retirement, till Medicare, how many “good” years we have left, the percentage of income one needs to live comfortably until the numbers cease to have meaning.

And with limits of time and the calculus of existence at my newly agile fingertips, this new wrinkle on the old counting has achieved a far more serious dimension. Free now to consider the world beyond my front porch, I am thinking exponentially, calculating numbers that will affect my grown children, their children and theirs — and theirs. The official American deaths in Iraq since the beginning of the war: 3,506, and counting. The national deficit: $8.847 trillion, and counting. The rise in the sea level worldwide over the last century: 15 to 20 centimeters (or 6 to 8 inches), and counting.

Today I count myself as angry as any grumpy old man when things just don’t add up; as impatient as any young protester demanding accountability; as mobilized and vocal as any toddler who knows the score.

I am 61, and it’s the ’60s once again.