Mornings come early for my family during the work and school week — that’s the thing about living so far from the edges of town.
At 6 a.m., the house is dark and quiet and as sleepy as we are, when just hours before it was buzzing and humming and squealing with the negotiation and untimely roughhouse play that dads always bring to the bedtime routine. I remember it from my childhood, too, my dad teaching us to properly make a fist, our spindly arms swinging at him, trying to tackle him to the ground, to show him our muscles while he did things like put one big hand on my forehead, the other on my little sister’s, and we clenched our jaws then laughed and giggled and swung our arms into the air between us.
And there were a hundred other games we made up on the brown shag carpet of the living room, tumbling and jumping, growling and squealing like wild little bear cubs ripe to learn our lessons, doing anything we could to avoid the teeth-brushing portion of the night that led to bedtime. My mom would look over from cleaning up the supper dishes or sweeping the floor to suggest that we “Be careful now. Careful! Someone’s going to get hurt.”
Because someone usually got hurt, even though we tried our best not to admit it.
I hear her voice come out of my mouth now as I watch my own children launch their bodies from the couch and onto their dad’s back while he bucks and kicks and tries to dump them off. They use my throw pillows as weapons, they team up to distract him and execute an attack, they holler and whoop and laugh hysterically, golden hair strung out of their ponytails, cheeks flushed as they dangle from each of his arms, arms that seem made for this sort of thing, cut into shape from years of swinging hammers and hauling Sheetrock, sanding oak smooth and digging in fence posts. They ask him to show them his muscles and he puffs up his chest, rolling up his sleeves for his audience. They do the same, just like we used to do, my sister and I. Then they launch another attack to put those muscles to use.
“Careful now. Careful now girls. It’s almost bedtime. Five more minutes…”
I say this and so you might not believe that my husband is the more cautious of the two of us when it comes to our young children and their play. Knowing the guy since childhood, I guess I understand it. I never pushed my body’s limits the way he pushed the limits of his, driving his three-wheeler too fast over prairie trails, finding the highest cliff from which to jump into the lake, wrestling and playing football, peddling his bike off ramps that just got higher; broken ribs, broken shoulder blade, broken collarbone. A fish hook under his fingernail.
I suppose I can relate, having spent plenty of my youth in a cast, but my circumstances always felt more like bad luck and clumsiness to me. I always thought his scars screamed wild boyhood. I think back on it and the only difference I see now is that the hurt made me more afraid. It just made him want to try again.
I watch our daughters run wide open down the scoria road in their cowboy boots and I can almost feel the rocks scrape and dig into my bare knees. He sees them climb a thing they’re not ready to climb and he moves to help make them stronger. He shows them how to tighten their grip. How to clench a fist. How to bend their knees at the drop. I yell, “Careful!” He shows them how.
I pull my 6-year-old out of our bed, untangling her long, skinny legs from her little sister’s. They both found their way to us in the middle of the night and curled their bodies up in the space between us to ward off bad dreams. It’s my job now to wake us all up. It’s so early, but it’s time.
It’s his job to make them breakfast. It’s my job to fix their hair. It’s his job to make sure their teeth are brushed. It’s my job to drive them to school. It’s his job to pack the snacks, and on and on, step by muddy puddle jump — we make a mess and clean it up and find our way together under this sun, no matter how early it rises…