I called her Potinka. It’s a silly name, I know, and I don’t even remember how it came into being. I can only tell you that as time went by, it seemed to perfectly describe this elfin child with a squinty grin and tinkling giggle.
She entered our lives in February 2000; my wife and I lived in Indianapolis then with our son Graig. Roughly nine months earlier, my son and his new girlfriend, Jessica, had gone off to Chicago to celebrate his 22nd birthday, a celebration spent largely–as he later told it–in bed. Just days after returning, they had a terrible fight, the first of far too many. Jessica took off. They made an effort to patch things up via telephone, but each call ended in an angry hang up, and they soon lost touch.
Until one September day when we arrived home to find a note taped to the door. It read: “Graig, you are going to have a daughter. See you in court.” My wife, Kathy, could not let it go at that, and took a personal hand in bringing about a reconciliation between Graig and Jessica. Sure enough, within a month she’d persuaded the two of them to move in together nearby, so they could cultivate some basic sense of partnership before the blessed event.
And blessed it was. From the first, there was something special about the bond between Potinka and me, something about how she seemed to look to me for comfort. Even as an infant, she’d search my eyes in a way that connected to a place deep inside me.
The proud new parents made several false starts as a family, moving in with us, moving out, moving back. They were forever “starting over.”
Like many couples, they’d try to add symbolic weight to each attempt by trading one setting for another–a new apartment, a new section of the city. And like many couples, they realized soon enough that what they now had was the same bad relationship in a different venue. It didn’t help that both of them were constantly getting, then losing, new jobs. When my wife and I moved to Pennsylvania, they briefly took over our old lakeside apartment in Indianapolis, then decided to join us in our new home. Another fresh start.
Amid these comings and goings, Kathy and I became Potinka’s living, breathing security blankets. If I never quite knew what histrionics I might encounter when I got home from work, I knew at least that my little Potinka, upon hearing my heavy feet on the interior staircase, would lose interest in whatever else she was doing and crawl or stumble toward me as best she could. We tended to meet just as I stepped over the safety gate, where she’d try to hoist herself up on my trousers. I’d pick her up; then she’d nestle into the hollow of my shoulder, lay her head down, and coo. I usually patted her back as I held her, and one night she began patting my shoulder in return. That became our ritual. We’d stand there at the top of the stairs, patting each other. What’s more, this child seemed to have magic, medicinal powers. Her very presence could cure me of a headache or an upset stomach and relieve the accumulated tension often hours spent hunched in front of a computer.
Unfortunately, tensions between Jessica and Graig were not so easily relieved. Threats flew back and forth. Various household items got kicked, punched, or thrown. One combatant would storm out of the house, screaming. I will not try to objectively diagnose the source of these problems or who should bear the blame. But this much was clear: They were a hideous mismatch.
In February 2001, shortly after Potinka’s first birthday, the couple made one last try at a new beginning–in California, the quintessential land of rebirth. On the afternoon that they loaded their meager belongings onto a ten-foot truck and rumbled out of our driveway, my feelings were about what you’d expect. I’d cradled Potinka in my arms almost every day since her birth. But I consoled myself with the hope that maybe this time Graig and Jessica could make it work. For their daughter’s sake.
Needless to say, the old pattern repeated itself: They still fought bitterly, just with palm trees instead of maples as a backdrop. In July, Jessica took the baby to her family’s annual reunion in Ohio. Kathy and I drove six hours each way to spend a precious few hours with our granddaughter. I hadn’t seen her in five months. As young as she was, I feared she might have forgotten me.
We pulled up and got out of the car; tentatively I approached her, marveling at the impossible crop of golden curls that had sprouted since February. For a moment she studied me. Then recognition swept over her face, and once again, she toddled my way and stretched out her arms. When I lifted her, she settled into that familiar position on my left shoulder and began parting. Just like old times. I cried. And she patted me harder.
Jessica returned to California from the reunion just long enough to gather her things and make plans to live for a while with her mother in Colorado. When that didn’t pan out–”strained” was the word Jessica had used to describe her relationship with both of her parents–she and her daughter took off for Indiana, where Jessica had friends.
Suddenly, about a month after arriving back in Indianapolis, Jessica started hinting that the baby wasn’t my son’s after all.
It took several months, and legal maneuvers east and west, before the courts finally ordered a paternity test. I could not imagine an unfavorable outcome. After almost two years? With all this couple had been through? Why had nothing been said earlier? I convinced myself that this was just Jessica’s way of making my son squirm. So confident did I feel that I even bought a nice wooden picture frame inscribed with the words Daddy & Me, inserted a favored photo of my son and the baby, and put it aside to send to him after the triumphant verdict. It was Graig himself who shook me from my reverie. “I don’t know what to believe right now,” he said in one late-night phone call, “but I can tell you this: Jessica definitely believes I’m not the father.”
The grim results came in a week later, via e-mail, no less. So this is how a fatherhood ends, I thought. With two strips of bar codes–like those you find on packs of toilet tissue–delivered over the Internet. Adding insult to injury, Jessica now said she wanted nothing more to do with us as a family. She was seething over the partiality that she felt my wife and I had shown to our son during all the wrangling.
I suppose there are countermeasures I could take. I mean, it’s not as though the paternity test has diminished my feelings for this child (or Kathy’s feelings–she’s proven only slightly better than I am at focusing her attention away from our loss). As it happens, two of my three children are from my wife’s first marriage, and I love them no less dearly than I love Graig, my lone biological child.
But I think, What’s the point? Why force ourselves on anyone? I am loathe to add any needless tension to this little girl’s life. Despite everything, she has always been a delightful, happy child; and I truly believe that Kathy and I helped make her that way, by providing stability and security at a pivotal time in her young life. Besides, I am fortunate to have two other grandchildren. Zoe is a beautiful, blue-eyed, precocious three–and an absolute laugh riot to be around, thanks to her theatrical demeanor and astute observations on the unfolding world. One-year-old Jordan, my rambunctious “little man,” as we call him, shows all the exuberance you’d expect in a child who pulled himself up one day during his eighth month on earth and just started strolling around the room. Neither of them lives nearby–but, because of the happier circumstances of their lives, they don’t desperately need to have their grandparents close at hand.
There’s something else: I know that our continued involvement would only hurt my son, who is trying to forget and move on. He has asked that there be no mention of Jessica or the baby around him–ever–and Kathy and I are doing our best to comply. Yes, we sometimes find it hard to fathom how he can shut all that out. But Graig has the resiliency of youth on his side. Harsh as this may sound, he’s probably better off starting over. At least now he can go on to have a child of his own the right way–that is, a child conceived in the fact of love, not just the act of it.
So I will say goodbye to my beloved Potinka. Tonight, as I write this, I’d want her to know how grateful I am for having had her as long as I did. Tomorrow, if I’m up to it, I’ll put away the pictures, including that one in the nice wooden frame, and I’ll spackle over those small holes I always pass at the top of the stairs, where a gate once was anchored to a wall, and a child and a man were anchored to each other.