Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Long-Delayed Hug

One of the great joys of my life is my honorary niece Erin Nicole. Everybody else refers to her by just her first name, but I figured after visiting her when she was a grade schooler, that it might be helpful to remind her that her middle name is not “Stop-Running-Around,” as in “Erin-stop-running-around,” or my personal favorite, “Erin-if-you-don’t-stop-running-around-you’ll-trip-over-Uncle-Kent’s-legs-and-hurt-yourself-and-Uncle-Kent-will-feel-bad.”

The first time I ever saw Erin Nicole was on a late day in May when Ronald Regan was still president. I had just returned from a Navy deployment onboard the USS LaSalle on the Indian Ocean. Her dear old Dad, a career United States Marine, was gently rocking her on his knee and softly crooning to her. To anyone who didn’t speak English, I’m sure it would have sounded like a lullaby. Ironically enough, while the tune was by Johann Brahms, the lyrics would have made Jerry Bruckheimer cringe. He was telling her, in the most graphic detail imaginable, what he would do to anyone who might harm her: “I’ll rip their living guts out, yes I will.” The effect was simultaneously touching, totally hilarious, and downright scary all at once. I thought to myself, If I hold that kid, I better not drop her.

During the course of my visit, I asked Mom if it was OK if I held Erin Nicole. She said OK. I asked Dad if I might hold Erin Nicole. He said OK. Unfortunately, I had not asked three-and-a-half month Erin Nicole if it was OK. A fraction of a second after I’d picked her up, she voiced her displeasure with a decibel level that made me think she might have a bright future as an air ride siren. I was amazed that a child that young could be that strong. She began to squirm right out of my arms. Happily enough, I returned her to Mom before any lasting damage was done.

I didn’t get to see Erin again until almost four years later when I was in LA for a training seminar. I went down to see my friends, where Dad was stationed at San Diego RTC. I had a wonderful time catching up with my friends and admiring Erin’s collection of stuffed animals (Years before, when she was pregnant with Erin Nicole, I’d heard Erin Nicole’s mother express concern that Erin Nicole’s height might cause her some grief. Erin’s mom, who is six feet tall barefoot, told me that she reached her full height very young, and the other kids used to tease her and call her giraffe. That Christmas, a friend and I were in a mall shopping, passing a Toys R Us when we spotted an enormous stuffed giraffe. We purchased “High Pockets” and gave it to Erin’s parents, explaining that kids might call her giraffe someday, but if a giraffe was her favorite toy, it wouldn’t hurt her feelings. Upon viewing Erin Nicole’s stuffed animal collection, it occurred to me that her parents must have an awful lot of friends who thought the same thing, because apparently everyone at the Fort Mead Navy detachment and US Marine Headquarters had had the same idea. Her collection almost constituted a stuffed version of the San Diego Zoo. I tried to count the number of stuffed toys she had, but gave up counting when I reached the eighties).

Erin’s family and I had a great time catching up, and that morning, I figured I’d try to be a low-maintenance breakfast guest—I just helped myself to a small carton of yogurt. Big mistake on my part. I discovered that Erin had thought of the carton as her yogurt, and she voiced her displeasure with a volume that probably startled some on the other side of the Mexican border. Erin’s mom showed up and told Erin to go to her room, which she did. Five minutes later, Erin emerged from her room. Mom asked her, “Erin, can you say you’re sorry?” Dead silence. Erin Nicole gave me the fiercest glare I have ever seen on the face of a four-year-old girl. Erin’s mom said “Erin, go back to your room.” A few minutes later, Erin emerged a second time, and when her mother asked her, “Can you say you’re sorry?”, Erin said, “I’m sorry.” Mom asked, “Can you give Uncle Kent a hug?” Erin once again fixed me with another withering glare. She didn’t say it, but I’m certain she was thinking, You low-down, dirty rotten, yogurt-stealing so-and-so. You steal my yogurt, and then you want a hug? I don’t think so.

I didn’t manage to make it out to San Diego again until March of 1990, when the USS Cape Cod, the ship I was teaching on, pulled into San Diego. When I responded to a dinner invitation, I was touched beyond words when I saw six-year-old Erin and her almost three-year-old sister Seana Christine (off to the side was baby Brian, not quite four months at the time of my visit), jumping up and down and yelling, “It’s Uncle Kent again! It’s Uncle Kent again!” I thought to myself, all the President gets when he arrives somewhere is the marine band playing Hail to the Chief. Personally, I think I was better off.

As always, I had a great time with Erin and Seana, and I happened to be present when bedtime rolled around. What I saw, I could not possibly make up. Dear old Dad called a “Family Formation” and said, “OK Erin, give your father a hug.” Erin gave her dad a hug. “Give your mother a hug.” She gave Mom a hug. “Give your sister a hug.” She gave Seana a hug. “Give Brian a hug.” She gave her three-and-half month old brother a hug. Then Dad asked, “Do you *want* to give Uncle Kent a hug?” Erin tilted her head 45 degrees to one side, tilted it back 45 degrees the other side (I later told her parents I thought she might be a Foxtrot Lima India Romeo Tango—spell it out), and after careful consideration, she gave her Uncle Kent a big hug.

I had been waiting for that hug for darn near six years. It was well worth it.

I’d been quite impressed up to that point, but then Dad pulled off a bit of bedtime showmanship that astonished me. He picked up his daughter in his arms and said, “One for the money,” he swung her nearly up to the ceiling, then back down to waist level, “two for the show. Three to get ready—” another gentle swing up to ceiling level—“And four to go!” And in a fraction of a second he gently laid her in her bed, smooched her on her forehead, and turned out the light.

I often think of Erin, her brother, and her sister. It is my opinion that when fate picked out their parents, they hit the jackpot twice.

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