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“You have a pseudo-beard, a necklace with a snake, and are way over two hundred pounds,” my 16-year-old daughter Kerry said in a pleading voice. “What are you saying?” I asked, with just a hint of a grin. “He’s totally scared of you, Dad. If you screw this up I will kill you.” “I think as the assistant man of the house,” Seamus, my 14-year-old son, chirped in, sensing an opening. “I deserve one question.” “Yeah, right.” Kerry sneered sarcastically. “And as assistant man of the house in training, Cole deserves a question too,” Seamus continued, referring to his five-year-old brother. “What could you possibly ask?” Kerry, now staring at her brother with the look of a defense lawyer insulted by a plea bargain offered up by a prosecutor for her falsely accused client, asked. “You know, Cole could ask the kid’s favorite land animal,” Seamus said, with a straight face. “I want to know what farm animal he’d like to have sex with.” For my daughter’s sake, I tried not to laugh. This Saturday afternoon was a really big deal in her life, and mine. But I had to look away; my teenage son’s humor hit me in that crevice of your brain that gets tickled at exactly the wrong moment, causing laughter at funerals when everyone else is crying. What brought me back was thinking about my little girl, of what she was like as a baby and toddler and teenager. How mighty the struggle had been to get to this moment. County Kerry, or Ciarraí in Gaelic, in Ireland is known for the mixed blood born of Spanish occupation and giving rise to a tribe of dark complexion and wild temperament. A “Kerry Girl” is a free spirit. My Kerry may have long blonde hair and blue eyes, but she is a Kerry Girl for sure. # As a baby she never slept, but I tried, spending the wee hours of the morning listening to Van Morrison and rocking her in a futile attempt to get her to stop screaming. Not long afterward, her mom and I separated. Kerry would come visit me in my rental apartment on Friday
nights, and we’d grab a pizza in the Federal Hill section of Providence and settle in for a night of pillow fights. Given an opening in any public space, the girl would run. She was fast, too. For a time her mom lived on Cape Cod, and when I visited I would take Kerry to Nausett Beach, a huge expanse of sand and booming waves, and set her down. She’d be off chasing sandpipers through the surf. Since there was nowhere for her to go, I would jog behind, making sure she didn’t dive into water over her head. On another occasion I made the mistake of attempting to take Kerry, then three, and her baby brother Seamus in a snowstorm to see my parents in D.C. The direct flight from Boston was cancelled, but we were able to get out on a connection through Newark. Once there all the airports shut down, and for several hours I tried to chase Kerry from one terminal to the next with Seamus in my arms. When we ultimately made it to National Airport, Kerry ran so far ahead I momentarily lost sight of her. By the time I made it to baggage claim she was standing proudly and holding my mom’s hand, having found her way with no help from me. As Kerry grew into a teenager, her wild side took root on the stage. I approached her junior high and then high school performances with great trepidation, but soon I realized that here, too, her fearlessness left me as a dad with nothing to fret about. In packed house after packed house she performed so effortlessly and clearly enjoying herself on stage that I finally had to decide that if she wasn’t going to get nervous, then I had no reason to, either. What continued to trouble me, however, was what I heard from Kerry, and saw in our culture, about how sexuality is currently practiced among high school boys and girls. I wrote widely about porn, prostitution, hooking up, and teen sensations from Bella Swan to Lady Gaga. Kerry and I had many long discussions about why only three girls in her class of 125 had boyfriends and the rest had to put up with guys wanting open sexual contact. I was angered by what she told me, but helpless to do anything but admire her courage and strength in continuing to articulate what she wanted and wishing the terms of engagement with boys were somehow different than they are. # So by the time the doorbell rang, I had stopped laughed and gotten quite serious. The runs on the beach, the scene at National Airport, even a trip to see Gwen Steffani for her birthday circled around in my head. Yes, Kerry had gone to the prom. She had, I feel sure, engaged
in a kiss or two. I had often found her video chatting up on her laptop screen with a mixed group of friends while simultaneously doing “homework.” But this was somehow different. She described the boy in question as an actor and a member of the varsity rowing team. She refused to divulge any further details. Seamus and Cole had conveniently made their way out back to play soccer. Kerry’s stepmom Elena, her protector and confidante in matters of the heart, went to the front door first. I lagged behind, not really sure exactly what to do. I wanted to make sure that both Kerry and her date felt secure in my approval and that my daughter felt loved without me making her more nervous than she already was. In our front hallway, I saw a sweet 17-year-old boy who had taken the subway in from Wellesley to take my daughter to the North End for a romantic dinner. He extended a shaky hand, nervous but firm. He looked down. I did too as I asked where they were going and when they would be home. He said 9:30. And then they were gone. Elena and I had dinner plans, and we kept them. But under the table I sent Kerry a text. “Big thumbs up. Quite a gentleman. Love, Dad.”