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Reprising a Starring Role--Father

June 16, 2002|JAMES RICCI

I have a daughter who's 29. she has just moved to Los Angeles, hoping to find a job and establish herself as a fine artist. She needs an apartment and a car. I'm trying to do my fatherly duty and help.

I have a daughter who's 26. She lives in New York, works part time as a nanny and aspires to make a living eventually at what she's trained for: singing opera. She recently realized she's neither immortal nor immune to physical catastrophe, and so is trying to get health insurance. I'm helping.

These two have amassed a lot of debt getting through graduate school. I hope at some point to be able to help in that regard, too.

I also have a third daughter. This one may or may not be artistically inclined, although her voice has a thrilling timbre when loosed at full volume in the middle of the night. Her I help by trailing behind her at close quarters, lest she fall and bang her head on something hard. She's just learned to walk, having turned 1 on May 1, the same day I turned 56.

Fatherhood, it seems, never ends.

Daughter No. 3 was, to put it calmly, a great surprise to her dilapidating sire. She wasn't exactly figured on or psychologically planned for. Yet, here she is, toddling the world on round little feet, turning a hopeful face to whatever is new (which is practically everything), falling every 10 or 12 steps on her cushiony behind.

Fathering two generations was a little more reproduction than I'd countenanced. Most of the superannuated men I know who undertake second batches of children do so because they regret having been inattentive to the first ones. I maintain this was not true of me.

When I informed Daughters No. 1 and No. 2 about the pendency of No. 3, they were amused by the prospect of watching me contend with a baby half-sister of theirs. It would be like observing themselves being reared, only with adult discernment-- "Aha! That's why I'm insecure about public speaking."

Having hoped for a few carefree years before true senescence set in, I was a little unsettled by the prospect of daddying-up yet again. Daughters No. 1 and No. 2 confronted my unease forthrightly. No. 1 urged me to think of renewed child-raising as an opportunity to get "out of myself." No. 2 assured me I could do a good job of it even with my eyes closed, and reminded me the coming baby had as much right to good fathering as she and her sister had.

I was really quite moved by all this role-reversal. When No. 2 and I were about to end our telephone call, I said, "I'm really grateful I have you in my life."

She replied, "What makes you think you won't feel the same way about this little girl someday?"

Still, paternally speaking, I know I'm not the man I used to be. My patience with little people's noise and disruptiveness has gone as thin as my hair. My desire to do as I please burns hotter. I do not take gladly to synchronizing my rising and retiring with baby sleep schedules. In all, I'm considerably more fatigable.

I'm concerned, too, about the effect my geezerhood might have on Daughter No. 3. Frightening visions of Indian Princess camping trips aside, I worry that just as she rounds the home stretch into full adolescence, my scoreboard clock will expire and the race, for me, will be over. My father died at 74. I might never see No. 3 settled into full adulthood (of course, the way No. 1 and No. 2 are going, I might not live to see them in that state, either).

When my mother, who's 88, first saw a photograph of me and No. 3, she chuckled and said, "You look more like the grandpa." I suspect that's much what I'm like, too, handing the baby off at the first whiff of a malodorous diaper, making myself scarce at bath time and generally shirking domestic tasks as I never permitted myself to do the first time around.

Nonetheless, Daughter No. 3 is an opportunity for me to increase my net volume of fatherly love. And properly constituted, a father's love (like a mother's) is the purest distillate of the substance, because it is the most selfless. It flows with such momentum, moreover, that it can never be returned by his children, but only passed on by them to their children. Coded with instruction and example, it's the emotional equivalent of the DNA he's projected into the unknowable future.

A man, after all, shouldn't choose insignificance lightly; plenty enough of it typically is thrust upon him in the course of life. I've never doubted that, vanished visions of a late middle-age idyll notwithstanding, fatherhood is the most important role I'm likely ever to play, so, why not return grandly to the stage when the applauding fates are demanding an encore?

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