Witnessing the wonder of fatherhood

I remember as if it were yesterday.

I was watching a tall man with very broad shoulders as he held a tiny baby, looking into her face with something difficult to describe: a mix, perhaps, of love, awe, relief, apprehension and deep, deep pleasure.

That man, our son-in-law David, had in his arms his second daughter — and our seventh grandchild.

The scene was Carly’s baby naming, a ritual in which Jewish families welcome daughters into their lives by officially giving them their Hebrew names.

It is that micro-image that’s lodged in my brain when I think about fathers and fatherhood, and older fathers in particular. David and Amy came late to parenting, which may suggest that it was an afterthought. But it surely was not.

So when our daughter and son-in-law became parents at a stage in my own life when I was already dealing with sullen adolescents and their issues, I was struck by how different our experiences would be. And I was wrong. Parenthood crosses those age barriers in a single leap. It’s all-consuming at twenty-something or forty-something.

David’s first go-around with fatherhood came on a cold, dreary December day when he reached out his astonished arms to hold Emily.

All of the father-firsts were enclosed in Emily’s early months of life, and David was predictably a frightened rookie. Being 42 doesn’t change the overwhelming sense of responsibility that begins the moment that bleating cry rings out in the delivery room, and suddenly, a man and woman morph into a family.

So David was raw, anxious and ever-so-determined to get it right with his first daughter. He read those “What To Expect” books, he listened to veterans, he bonded with other dads, and a Manhattan apartment became Emily Central.

But it is with Carly that I saw a new dimension in our son-in-law. The sense of wonder — the abject terror that this tall, strong man with the piercing blue eyes might do something wrong — they vanished in the tailwinds of two babies 17 months apart.

Soon enough, David could change a diaper with the best of them. He could recognize the difference between a hungry cry and a bored “I need attention” wail.

When Amy and David arrived for weekends with us, loaded down with babies, porta-cribs and booster seats, endless satchels of miniature clothes and all the assorted equipment that comes with two under the age of 2, I sometimes would smile as I watched David making endless trips from garage to house to improvised nursery.

This is a man who, just a few years ago, would be off to the basketball court for a pick-up game, or who would get on his running shoes within minutes of pulling into our driveway and begin his jaunts through our town’s streets. No basketball these days. No five-mile jogs.

These days, it’s endless daddy stuff. If before it was games of hide-and-seek with feisty Emily, and 15 rounds of “Pat-A-Cake” with Carly, now it’s the soccer car pool, the ballet car pool and Indian Princesses.

Recently, I watched 6-foot-3 David settle into a rocking chair that was considerably smaller than would suit him in Carly’s room and quiz her on her spelling because she was afraid she wouldn’t remember the big words for her end-of-school-year quiz. I was seeing my son-in-law, the daddy, doing the simple, spectacular things that daddies do without fanfare.

David is in the universe of fatherhood, bound up in a love that is of a different order from any other. And I can only wish him more: More astonishment. More wonder. More giddy shock. And the divine pleasure of looking into his daughters’ faces and having the world tip away.

For David — for all fathers — it just doesn’t get any better than that. ••