I recently swapped the nicknames that we give our kids with a friend. We had both, surprisingly and strangely, settled on “Bug.” I’m not sure that our daughters will appreciate that longer into their lives, but for now, it will do.
The first time I met her, my younger daughter bounded across the room shouting, “Baba”—Chinese for father—and into my arms. I was a goner. The names I am called matter. When my daughter calls me, “Daddy,” it stamps me in a more definite way–not just as a father, but as her “daddy.” Sometimes when she is in a softer mood, she will call me “Papa,” and I know to take a gentler stance. She will sit next to me in the car, and say, in that drawn out imploring way, “Da-a-a-addy,” to which I volley, “Dau-au-au-aughter.”
Years of being called “Doctor”—which is more reliably shortened to “Doc,” by my students—has turned me from a reluctant, begrudging authority, to a genial, self-effacing curator of knowledge. A “doc,” in the rural veterinary or GP sense. But I still feel a mild shudder, because of my first “Doctor”—“Doctor Groton,” who taught Latin at my high school, and had an imposing, almost menacing presence. Besides, which of my friends with similar degrees who teach in college would ever sidle up to the honorific with less than irony?
Even more powerful are the words we use around someone. I tell my daughter with almost casual splendor, “I love you.” To which she responds, “I love you too.” Recently she has started initiating these exchanges, “I love you daddy,” which is followed before breath is drawn with “I love you too, daughter,” or “I love you too, bug.”
Giving something the imprimatur of “love” is easy, perhaps too easy. Perhaps I should gird on cynicism and protect myself a little more than I do. Instead, when I feel the connection, which reveals all the connections in the universe (“every atom as good belonging to me belongs to you”), I find love to be the easiest, truest response.
And I do know the other side. I know how easy it is to let upset slide into hate. And I know that once uttered—by an adult, not by a child, because children must experiment with all words and all emotions—it breaks the bonds in a nearly irrevocable way. I have said it, out loud—either in the perpetual external conversation I have with the world or directly the object of scorn—and the immediate thrill is followed by a deep remorse as the tendrils that connected me to another person wither immediately into dried spiked vines, like the hedges of multiflora rosa that grew brown and foreboding in winter. All that was planted must be uprooted. Maybe something can be saved, some sprig, somewhere.
And because love is, well, love, there is fertile soil. The assurance and reassurance that I give and receive from my daughter spreads new life, almost instantaneously. My bug is a pollinator and the fruits are plenty–the golden apples of the sun, the silver apples of the moon.