My wife was stuck at work, so my daughter and I were enjoying a quiet dinner when she asked, “Daddy? How many girlfriends do you have?”
“I don’t have any girlfriends” I said. “I’m married to your mother.”
“Did you have girlfriends?”
I paused before answering that question. I met my wife when I was forty-two and, despite having studied to be a priest, I didn’t exactly live a celibate life after I left the seminary. While I can’t post numbers like Wilt Chamberlin, I have enjoyed the company of women on more than one occasion – but the exact number is classified since my wife reads this blog. So, after editing out high school romances, summer flings, and a couple of painful and stupid escapades, I came up with an answer I thought was appropriate.
“I dated a lot of women,” I said, “But there were only three I ever thought about marrying.”
“Why didn’t you marry them?” Natalie said.
I shrugged. “It just wasn’t the right time,” I said. “Or they weren’t the right person.”
“Did you love them?”
“I did,” I said. “Every one of them. But there is more to marrying someone than just being in love.”
“Why did you marry mommy?”
“Because I love her,” I said. “But also, because we balance each other out. There are things your mom does better than I’ll ever do and there’s things I can do she can’t.” What I really felt like telling Natalie was something a wise woman told me long ago; that you marry the person whose craziness meshes with your own, But that would just confuse her.
“I think I’m going to marry (Name redacted)” she said.
“Maybe you will,” I said, “Who knows?”
“Daddy,” my daughter said, nervously. “I have to ask you something.”
“You can ask Daddy anything, dear.”
“When you’re boyfriend and girlfriend, do you get naked?”
Stifling a laugh, I almost regretted my open-ended offer. But it was a legitimate question that was bound to come up sometime. “Yes, dear,” I said. “When you’re older that’s all part of it.”
“That’s what S-E-X is?” Natalie asked, giggling. God, where’s this girl’s mother when I need her?
“That’s part of it too,” I said. “And when you’re young that getting naked stuff seems awfully important and exciting – but do you know what it really means?”
“That you accept the person as they really are – warts and all.”
“Warts? What are those?”
“Forget I mentioned warts, Natalie,” I said. “But one day, when you have a boyfriend or marry someone, make sure they love you for who you are – not what you might become or what they want you to be. They’ve got to love you for you. Got it?”
“Uh huh,” she said. “So, when you’re married, are you naked in the bathroom together? Like when you poop?’ As I feared, my fatherly advice went right over her head.
“Natalie,” I said. “We only have one bathroom.”
“You don’t want anyone in the bathroom when you poop. But mommy will poop when I’m in there.”
“But you don’t want me in there when you have to use the bathroom,” I said.
“Because I want privacy. And you’re a boy.”
“Daddy likes privacy too. And you’re a girl.”
“But you fart in front of everyone.”
“That’s a man’s prerogative.”
“Uh, you’ve let out a few bombs on occasion.”
“But mine smell nice,” Natalie said.
“Eat your beans,” I said. “Then we’ll see.”
After that the conversation segued into Natalie’s newest obsession – Roblox. And, as I listened to her talk about stuff I didn’t understand, I took it that our embryonic conversation about intimacy was at an end. Did I handle it well? Maybe. Maybe not. But as the years go by, I know Natalie will hear about S-E-X and nakedness from other people, probably from older peers on the playground – and not all of it will be good. It’s hard to compete with that; in addition to all the other nonsense that the media puts out. But while Natalie will forget the particulars of our dinnertime chat by bedtime, I hope the tone I set will remain lodged in her consciousness forever. Make sure someone loves you for you.
Of course, that lesson will have to be repeated many times and, in many ways – through puppy loves, crushes, first dates and the inevitable breakups. But ultimately, my wife and I – and how we treat each other – will be Natalie’s first introduction to the complex dance between men and women. Right now, my daughter’s too young to hear about my cancer ordeal; on how my wife stayed unflinchingly by my side when the going got rough. But when we tell her the tale, I hope she’ll realize nakedness isn’t just about taking your clothes off – though that’s awfully fun – but about vulnerability. When I was at my worst; weakened, anxious and afraid, Annie stepped up to the plate. And let me tell you, knowing she was in my corner, loving me for me, gave me the strength to withstand what has been, to this point, the roughest period of my life. I hope Natalie finds someone just as special.
But not anytime soon.