The Stranger in the Mirror and the Unexpected Adult on the Stretcher

The times they are a changing.

A couple weeks back I got one of these really unwanted calls from school that you know you will get once or twice in a lifetime. There is a rule that they cannot arrive until you are frantically busy with a deadline. Our 14-year-old daughter Rosie was injured during gym class at school. Some jock hit her not once, but twice with a basketball. The first blow landed on the back of her spine. She apparently didn’t think it was enough to bother moving off her bench. The second hit the back of her head. This one made her feel dizzy and nauseous. Since these were signs of a concussion the school clinic called 911 and us. I frantically dialed my wife who was resting at home in her easy chair recovering from abdominal surgery the week before. We made plans to rush to her high school. But before we could a subsequent call said Rosie was in an ambulance on her way to Fair Oaks Hospital. Despite her condition Terri managed to drive the van and pick me up at work (I had taken the bike) and we hurried to the hospital. We ended up beating her there by a couple minutes.

I hate hospitals and I particularly hate emergency rooms. I hate the gnawing feeling in my gut when someone I love is in danger. Fortunately when we saw her on the stretcher we breathed a sigh of relief. She looked fine. In case she had a spinal or head injury she was wholly immobilized. She had to be checked out by the ER doctor who ordered multiple X-rays. We knew that she was going to be fine. But it was an odd feeling to see her there on a stretcher in her gym clothes. She was uncomfortable because she was strapped in very tightly on a very hard immobilizer board. She wanted out immediately but we couldn’t let her off.

Perhaps most striking in the couple hours she lay there was to see the adult woman I apparently had raised. This couldn’t be. This was my daughter, the same girl I had bottle fed, read to, potty trained and played endless tedious games of Barbie with. But except for the acne she looked very much like a woman. She is already taller than her mother. She is likely to add a few more inches before she stops growing. I held her hand when she would let me but that stage seemed very much over. I offered empathy and found her a snack from a vending machine in the lobby. That’s about all the nurturing we dads are allowed to do for fourteen-year-old daughters. Our role at this age is pretty cut and dry. We show up when they appear in plays or recitals. We give lectures about grades and completing homework. We ferry them from party to party and sleepover to sleepover. We try not to give too much offense and give them plenty of personal space.

Still it took my breath away to think that in so short a time, a mere fourteen years or so she had gone from a fertilized egg to someone nearly as large as I am and on the cusp of independent living. As Tevye laments in Fiddler on the Roof: “When did she get to be a beauty? When did he grow to be so tall? I don’t remember growing older. When did they?” After several hours she was released. We retrieved her stuff from school. At home she made herself an overdue PBJ. She seemed back to her old self, but I she was no longer the child in my mind’s eye. She was an adult. And I felt very much like I was in a time warp.

It was a week later at a hotel in North Carolina. I woke up alone and staggered toward the sink for a glass of water. I needed it to drown out the acrid taste of dead bacteria in my mouth. I happened to look into the mirror and I was shocked. My father was staring back at me. But it couldn’t have been him … that person somehow must be me! Overnight I had arrived at middle age. And I was looking so much like my father, sans the gray hair perhaps. But mostly I saw him, right down to the long bony English nose. I was depressed for the rest of the day. Eventually after a long day at my conference, a long run, a hair wash and a fresh set of clothes I gingerly approached the mirror again to see if my father was still there. And he was still there. But I was also there too.

I don’t remember becoming middle aged. Someone threw the switch overnight. I realized I was different too, at least to myself. I no longer saw myself as youthful or virile. Unless I became Bill Clinton interns wouldn’t be chasing after my body. It was time to throw out those occasional foolish fantasies that dared to cross my mind. The reality was that someone other than my wife would never give me a second glance. I was yet another invisible middle-aged male.

Yet I rebelled but didn’t know what to do. Eventually I said no to a high caloric fern bar dinner. I bought a large Chicken Caesar Salad at a Schlotzsky’s Deli. I ate it quietly in my room and tried to accept my new reality. I don’t know if it will ever fully sink in. I suspect when I am in my eighties, just like my mother, that I will still ask just who is that stranger in the mirror.

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