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O Baby, Baby
"Questa notte senza fine!" sings the father, weeping
By Garrison Keillor

A man would like to keep improving, even in his declining years, and surprise himself with some little feat now and then, such as begetting a daughter, as I did recently, a lovely one with bright eyes and long, delicate fingers. I am a guy who in August entered the 55-to-65 age group, which the New York Times recently referred to as "the near elderly" (thanks a lot), and who in December stood in the delivery room and watched her appear, and who now rises from a sound sleep at her siren call, which comes sooner than one expected and is electrifying.

She is not an easy baby you can shoehorn into your busy schedule the way people do nowadays. Not a hobby baby. It would take a village to raise this child--about 68 people, in other words: walkers, feeders, scrapers, dressers, bouncers and maybe the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to come in for an hour or two in the evening and hum.

My daughter lives on Australian Standard Time, eats like a wolverine, gulps down air, stores up pockets of gas that are not easily jiggled out of her. She poops with gay abandon. Her deepest pleasure comes from pooping while feeding, to engage the entire digestive tract at once. Pure bliss. She fights off sleep, afraid she might miss something. Midnight to 6 a.m. is prime time, and if she dozes, she keeps one eye open for the main action. My maneuver for laying her in the crib is very involved, something I learned from a National Geographic special on the praying mantis: I do it in slow motion. When her tiny, beautiful head touches the mattress, her eyes fly open and tears well up in them. She cries, she keens, she wails and howls. She has no middle range; she is louder than anyone else whom I know personally. She cannot be ignored. And so I sling the spit rag over my shoulder and resume walking the floor, a foot soldier in the old campaign, exhausted, milk stained, borderline paranoid, poorly informed, a man nobody would ever hire to look after a six-week-old infant.

Well, what else did I have in mind for my twilight years? Not that much. A writer turns 55, the old double nickel, and the slender thread of inspiration has unraveled and you clomp around in circles like an old pony at the pony ride and beautiful women come up and tell you how much their mothers liked something you did in 1975. Your prose style turns flabby. Your work has the shelf life of tropical fish. Compared to that, fathering a baby is sheer nobility, a shot at immortality.

I change her diaper and administer the bottle and coax a belch or two and walk my lonely post, kitchen to dining room to living room and back, singing hymns to her and telling her little things about the 20th century, and sometimes she dozes off, and sometimes she weeps terribly, and nothing I do can reach her and it absolutely breaks my heart. Nothing Puccini ever wrote is so tragic as the inconsolable cry of your own child. I walk, and she screams until she gasps for breath, and I bow my head and weep. I weep. I say, over and over, "I wish I could help you. You know how much I love you, don't you?" A tender moment. Madame Butterfly is in the bedroom sleeping, and Mr. Butterfly pours out his heart to the baby.

This endless night! (Questa notte senza fine!) I am exhausted. I can't bear it. O God in heaven, have mercy on us. Will this weeping never end? What can I do to help her, My darling, my beloved? (Cara mia, cara mia)

This opera will go on for a couple decades, may I live so long (knock, knock). My old pals will be sending me postcards from the Aegean, Christmas letters about their grandkids and their prostates, snapshots of them at their condo overlooking the golf course at Plaid Pants Village, and I'll be standing in the back at Miss Lori's dance-class recital and watching my little girl, a swan in a herd of ducks, interpret the Waltz of the Flowers. My pals will become cranky geezers who can't tolerate loud voices, can't bear to be contradicted and go around snarling about the disappearance of all decent standards and the long grim slide toward Republicanism. But the father of a baby daughter is, ex officio, an optimist.

I believe she is finally about to sleep for a few hours in a row. I believe this in my heart. Lord, You can do it, if only You will walk across the lake and grant this little girl a little rest.

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