Before I Go

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Matt Geiger

I used to have a Darwinian view on parenting. Like all uninformed opinions, it was elegant in its simplicity.

“Kids have survived for thousands of generations without car seats, helmets, vaccines or organic, lavender-scented diaper cream,” I said. “I’m pretty sure the survival of our species proves we don’t need to go out of our way to keep them alive.”

What I immediately realized the first time I looked at my daughter was the fundamental difference between the species as a whole - which includes billions of people, many of whom are murdering, stealing and singing karaoke at this very moment – and my little girl, who is currently gnawing on my leg and saying “meow” while pointing at a picture of a pig.

It’s not that I don’t care about the whole of humanity. It’s that I care about it far less than I care about the little girl whose health, safety and ultimate happiness are my responsibility.

People often think they can save the world. They tend to wave a lot of signs and litter your Facebook wall with their political sentiments, but they are really just wasting time. Shout at your political foes all you want about who you plan to vote for in 2016. It won’t do anything to make the world better or worse; it will just make it more annoying.

But I can, in theory at least, save one small, wide-eyed person who is drinking in everything I say and do.

If everyone did, humanity would need a lot less fixing. The good of the few, I’m starting to think, actually does outweigh the good of the many.

On the Origin of Species, my former parenting guide, is looking increasingly like a scientific text with surprisingly little to say on whether my daughter, Hadley, should be allowed to eat a mummified granola bar of indeterminate origin that she found on the sidewalk.

Plus, billions and billions of children actually HAVE died during our species’ time on earth. Botulism, small pox, kitchen accidents, microscopic organisms, other children, cold, heat, elephants – even paper cuts have claimed the lives of countless individual kids.

While the species has survived – flourished, even – that success has been on a macro-scale. Enough DNA has been passed forward to keep us alive as a species.

The fate of individuals has been far more varied.

So my current goal is far more personal, more modest, yet more daunting than saving the world: I want one brown-eyed girl, with wild locks that looked like they were styled by the antediluvian winds of the Mongolian steppes, to grow safely into adulthood. I’ll leave the fate of humanity up to priests, politicians and people with nothing better to do with their time.

A dark shadow tags along behind this mission. A second thought that is inexorably linked to the first: I will die.

It’s a fact that used to seem like a minor inconvenience. But since I’ve always viewed myself as a net burden on society – specifically on my loved ones – my eventual demise seemed like it would be a bit of a mixed bag. Society, I was modest enough to realize, could probably withstand the loss of a single, tubby white male. There are others, after all.

“If I make it to 40, I’ll feel I’ve had a good run,” I used to tell my friends. “I’ll consider anything after that to be bonus, encore years on earth.”

But that was all before I had such an important job to do.

And as I write this, the thought of perishing gives me a cold, hollow feeling deep within my gut. It’s a fear that makes my limbs feel weak and my vision blurry. It bludgeons me when I hear certain trigger words – “cancer,” “heart disease,” “car crash,”  “spontaneous combustion” – and it is a very new sensation.

My life is no longer a jaunty experiment in Taoist living. It is now the means to an end. I need to deftly guide Hadley into adulthood, and I don’t have my old, Darwinian philosophy to quell all my fears.

Sure, humanity will survive for thousands more years. But more importantly, how many more years will I be here to grab her as she’s about to fall down the stairs.

My daughter is not the sound of a tree falling in the woods. She will go on after me. She will exist, assuming no greater tragedy, when I no longer do. She is of me, but independent of me. But her chances are better with me standing guard, a vaguely ursine sentinel who more often than not is eating some kind of cheese while keeping a watchful eye on my daughter.

But someday I will cease to exist here on the temporal plane, and I will begin a new life within the mind of my daughter. The Matt Geiger who survives in the minds of others who have known me will be pleasant apparitions, I hope, but nothing more than deformed shadows on the wall of a cave. They will be mere echoes of the real me. The real me will reside for the rest of her life in Hadley Geiger’s thoughts, hopes, fears and aspirations.

I’ve never known a feeling as real, as visceral, as the warm strength that fills my musculature when my daughter, spooked by the barking of a dog or afraid of a bug’s sting, runs to me for comfort. It is the only sensation I’ve ever experienced that is more powerful that the cold, empty weakness that creeps in when I ponder my death.

When it first occurred to me that someday I might not be there when she turns and looks for somewhere to run, I decided to get life insurance.

The process was filled with unpleasantness. Partially because it involves mortality. But also because it required paperwork, which I dread even more than death.

The process also included a physical, during which my inevitable death was the primary focus.

“Good morning!” said the nurse administering the exam. “How are you today?”

Her chipper tone was bizarre considering the reason for her visit. This was a woman who was looking at me, drawing my blood and asking me various questions in order to try to approximate how much longer I get to live. She was being paid, like some macabre carnival attraction, to guess the day on which I would draw my final breath.

Even when I passed the physical and received my insurance policy, my relief was fleeting.

“Oh good, I’m healthy,” I thought. “For now…”

I was so bothered by the idea that I will someday leave Hadley for good, that I headed into my library and decided to create a special shelf just for my daughter.  On it, I lined up 15 books. Roughly 8,000 pages of wisdom that helped make me who I am today. On a small piece of scrap paper  I wrote “Books for Hadley to read,” taping the label to the shelf in the hopes that one day – hopefully a very distant one – she can begin to make her way through the ideas I cherish. That way, when the physical me is gone, the Matt who lives on as an idea in my daughter’s mind will have company. Cormac McCarthy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ernest Hemingway, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Lao Tsu will all be there to fill her head with beautiful, complicated, contradictory ideas.

They are and will remain real, existing beyond their physical forms. And if they can achieve such immortality, maybe I can, too. We, with our cool beards and weird thoughts, can be roommates in my daughter’s brain - always there for her to turn to when she gets scared or curious.

The great thing about being a hypochondriac is that eventually you are proven right. Sure, you die like everyone else, but you get to die vindicated, which is the best way to go. Being right, after all, is an infrequent phenomenon and should therefore be savored.

“I knew that cough sounded ominous,” I’ll think as life someday slips from my grasp, adding a sentence I rarely had the pleasure to utter during my more vibrant years: “I was right!”

In the meantime, I keep experiencing waves of optimism that have no concrete explanation. With every day Hadley is still here to bite me, eat stale granola bars, and make adorable but wildly inaccurate taxonomical classifications, I feel more at ease with life, and even with death.

She listens to everything I say, so I tell her that she should glow with optimism, because never again will she have so much life stretched out in front of her. So much vast possibility. So many opportunities to feel joy, sorrow, and even those boring feelings in between.

In fact, her mere presence has taught me an important lesson.

Because with every moment we spend together, she makes me understand that I will never again have so much life stretched out before me. However much time I have in front of me right this second, it is more than I will ever have again.

I don’t know exactly how much it is – it could be 50 years, or it could be five minutes. But it will remain true until I draw my final breath.


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