by Greg Swann
Meredith Katherine Swann, born on December 14, 1988, learning how
to stick out her tongue not long thereafter.
A very grave Meredith as a toddler.
Meredith Katherine Swann, born on December 14, 1988, learning how to stick out her tongue not long thereafter.
A very grave Meredith as a toddler.
When first I saw her, she was red and blue and screaming, a rosebud set
with little willful thorns. Since then her color has changed and her
vocabulary has burgeoned and her arsenal has increased. And now she is
like Athena, armed to the teeth, divinely tall and most divinely fair.
And most diabolically intransigent, to my delight, though I am careful
to hide my pride behind my hand.
Knowledge comes but wisdom lingers and thirst is best slaked with eyes and fingers: I am caressing savages into peaceful revolutionaries, the most subversive act of all. And Meredith Katherine Swann is the young revolutionary who gave me this job--before whom not, the piece of paradise god forgot to hoard. Here in the City of the Night, at the quiet limit of the world, where eyes meet only darkness and fingers entangle the empty air, she seems to be as she once was: small and helpless and nearly always outraged. But even then I could see what she would become: enormous, intemperate and nearly always enraptured.
Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,--
And might I come to such a one with a little hoard of maxims preaching down a daughter's heart? Surely not. She is not listening, anyway, and she will not be fooled by histrionics. She knows so much, but no one has ever taught her anything she did not want to know, and she is utterly untainted by compliance or obedience or conformity or doubt--even when beset by the most profound ignorance. When her jaw is set, when her foot is down, not one inch will she give. And as taxing and frustrating as that might be, still I am proud of her for standing so frustratingly, so taxingly, so firmly for what she believes. From me she can learn self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control. From the world I hope she never learns self-hatred, self-neglect, self-abnegation. This is what our culture teaches children, I think, and Meredith knows so much because of the things she has never been taught.
When she was still red and blue and wrinkled up like a suckling puppy, I taught her how to stick out her tongue. Her mother thought this absurd, but I reasoned that if she learned that one little bit of self-control she would draw a true and profound conclusion about the nature of the universe, that it is utterly hers to control. And her mother laughed and my father laughed and all of our visitors laughed to think that an infant could learn anything at all. And within weeks, Meredith learned to stick out her tongue at will. And within weeks after that, she learned to make raspberries. And knowledge grew from more to more, and at thirteen months, she had a vocabulary of hundreds of words. She slept on my chest in her earliest days, every day. I remember the sleep as being completely restless, so fearful was I for this frail little bundle in my arms. And I remember it as being completely serene, so much did I love her, then as now. There were other times when she could not, would not, did not sleep, and it was my duty--not always my happy duty--to pace endless laps around the dining room table, carrying her and singing dirges and ballads at the deepest register my throat can plumb. Those songs are with us still, and we sing them at bedtime and in the car, but their accompaniment at the time was less than ideally harmonious: Meredith could scream from her first breath, and sometimes it seems as if my ears still ring from traipsing ten thousand weary miles with a shrieking infant.
And when I tell her about this she finds it immensely funny, incredulous that she was a baby girl inconsolable when not enraptured or asleep, incognizant that less has changed than has remained the same. But with every day her rapture grew, ever reaping something new, and as the cries of outrage waned, shrieks of delight moved in to stay. There is so much I remember from her toddlerhood, so many little snapshots of the life divine, far too many to detail. One that stands out is learning to sing the harmony parts of R.E.M.'s "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)". The lyric is bleak and absurd, but the spirit of the music overcomes it, and I can recall hours and hours spent driving and singing and laughing our way through that song.
My son Cameron, who has just turned four, learns by seeing and doing, but Meredith learns best from words. It's odd how very different their minds work, and I work with each of them to gather strength on the weak side, so to speak. But Meredith's facility with abstractions is nothing short of amazing. She reads voraciously at the age of seven and can lecture--cogently, accurately, authoritatively--on a host of arcane subjects. As a baby, Meredith had the hiccoughs all the time, six or eight times a day. To amuse myself, I would say to her again and again, "Hiccoughs are a standing wave in the esophagus." This ended up being one of the first sentences she could issue, and for a while she issued it authoritatively to every passing stranger, a grave toddler, barely able to walk without falling, gravely intoning, "Hiccoughs are a standing wave in the esophagus." And hiccoughs, ludicrous and uncontrollable, have become for us a potent metaphor for grasping control of the life of the mind. We have used hiccoughs to illustrate the difference between the snake brain (the autonomous nervous system), the mammal brain (the mid-brain) and the thinking brain (the cerebral cortex). And while she has a crude but accurate understanding of neurophysiology, she is nevertheless still a child: when her mother confronted her with a lie and asked her why she told it, Meredith replied, "My mammal brain told me to say that."
And I hasten to point out that, despite her vast arsenal of abstractions, she is not the cloistered apollonian you might be envisioning. She is charming and outgoing and very pretty and jaw-droppingly imaginative. She is her own person, and she leaves an indelible impression on everyone she meets. It would be gratifying to her mother and I, I suppose, to claim some great credit for what Meredith has become. But this would not be just. She began with a certain few predispositions, red and blue and screaming, and crafted from them her own heart's desire. What she is is what she has made of herself, and to the extent that her mother and I are due any credit at all, it is credit for not having prevented her from becoming her own heart's desire.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
The story of my life right now, and of Meredith's and Cameron's, is the story of the awful divorce we're going through. And the divorce is awful for this reason alone: I did not spill the seed that resulted in Meredith's life. I swore fealty to her life when first I heard of it, long before she was born, and I have never wavered in that commitment. I have never regarded her as being less my daughter because she is not the get of my own loins, and I have never thought of Cameron as being more my son because he is. My children are my children because I raised them from birth and before, not because I ejaculated or didn't. No sane person doubts that this is true, but a lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies, and the core and substance of this awful divorce is that my wife is using my failure to ejaculate in Meredith's behalf as a pretext for usurping custody of both of my children.
I defend my children's lives by working as hard as I can to provide for them. I defend their lives by guarding them and guiding them and teaching them not just what I know, but how to know, how to discover the truths they require to defend their own lives. And now I defend my children's lives in appeals court and in appeals to the legislature. I grasp at the skirts of unhappy chance, I breast the blows of circumstance; I fear to lose their sight and touch, and hope could never hope too much.
Before I met Meredith, I hated nicknames and diminutives. But we called her "Thumper" before she was born, because she kicked so much. And since then, I've given her a great host of nicknames, whimsical, alliterative, elevating, comical. I named both of my children, giving them names nearly teutonic in their grandeur. But it is to the nicknames I return, to "Thumper" and to "Arthur"--the pre-natal name Meredith gave Cameron--in every realm of my life. I am the same man I was before they were born, but I remember almost nothing of that life. My children define me, they surround me and influence every small thing that I do, every word I speak, every decision I make, every act of mine that caresses the splendor of life.
I am caressing savages into peaceful revolutionaries, and Thumper is the young revolutionary who gave me this job. A rosebud set with little willful thorns, I have taught her nothing so valuable as what I have learned from her own patient example: to strive, to seek, to find, and never to yield.