My Child Magazine: What my daughters taught me

9 Sep

My Child Magazine

What my daughters taught me

No tea leaves could have predicted that Joseph Wakim would raise his daughters alone.

August 26, 2015

Once upon a time I lived in my hometown of Melbourne with my young family: my beautiful wife Nadia and our three little girls, Grace, Michelle and Joy. Ours was a house of music, dancing and laughter. And, as Lebanese Christians of the Maronite Church, ours was a house of faith. I was the hardworking king of the Dad-pun, and Nadia the ever-calm domestic queen. After all, we were ‘crowned’ during our marriage ceremony to have authority over our mini-heavenly kingdom of home and family.

After a career in psychology and social work, I was completing a Master of Business degree in the hope of becoming a better breadwinner. Nadia, a graphic designer, was studying to become a teacher and she taught at the Arabic Saturday school. We were both changing professions and pursuing our dreams. We loved and were loved. We were happy.

We dreamed of travelling together, making music together, even having more children.

But Nadia’s worst fear found its way into her bosom. She privately applied positive thinking that the small lump was normal during breast-feeding. In our culture, the C-word was unmentionable. It was as if by merely evoking the name cancer, we were stepping on the tail of this sleeping monster. By the time Nadia was diagnosed with this ‘death sentence’, it had reached her womb and our dreams crumbled. We clung to what we had and who we had like a life-boat in a stormy sea. My arms became my children’s life jacket.

From singing and dancing on our timber floors, our children learned to whisper and tip-toe as mummy’s medication meant that she needed silence. From going to mummy for their everyday wants and needs, I ushered them to my bosom, turning on the valves in my heart to make up for their mother’s heart that slowly stopped beating.

It was suddnely time to progress as a parent from an L-plater to a P-plater, but without an experienced driver by my side. I pretended to know exactly what I was doing.

As I rushed the children to school (and myself to work) every morning, Grace and Michelle quickly learnt to be self-sufficient. I only helped them with their school ties, but like most men I could only do this while standing behind them as if it were around my own neck, not while facing them.

Little Joy needed more help. Grace taught me how to tie Joy’s hair in a ponytail and secure it with a hair tie. It took me a while to realise that this morning routine was faster if I put the elastic around my wrist in preparation, rather than trying to reach for it with one hand while holding Joy’s hair in place with the other.

To my surprise and relief, this did not cut off my circulation and my hand did not turn purple as my mother had once warned. In time, I also learnt that the ponytail looked smarter if I tied it high on her crown; too low and it seemed to sag with gravity as the day progressed.

This was not information I could glean from textbooks. It was more like rock climbing up a cliff face on the Discovery channel—there was no time to look down and I was scared of heights.

‘Dad!’ echoed Joy from the valley below. ‘It’s not straight!’

I pulled on her ponytail as if it was my climbing rope.

‘Ouch!’ she cried. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Straightening it?’ I guessed.

I stood behind her, with my head above hers, and looked into the bathroom mirror—which she was too short to look into without standing on tiptoe. Sure enough, this morning’s ponytail was slightly off-centre. Rather than redo the entire routine from scratch, I tried to wriggle it to the middle by fiddling with the hair tie.

‘Ouch! You’re hurting me!’ Joy reached back, undid the ponytail and handed me the hair tie to start again.

I tried to defuse her mood and cover my confusion by neighing and imitating a flustered horse, having trouble with a ponytail, see? But she was in no mood to laugh. How was I supposed to know that you cannot drag a ponytail like a desktop icon without torturing the child?

The solution was staring at me: the water taps. I remembered that Grace and Michelle usually splashed some water on their hair when they were tying it into ponytails or plaits. Water was the gel that gave the hair a defined shape. So that’s why Joy’s silky blonde curls always ended up making a golden halo!

But I didn’t quite get the water thing. I pumped some liquid soap into one hand and added some cold running water, then tried to turn it into a game. ‘Have you washed your face, Zuzu?’

No answer meant no, so I gave her a face scrub, also splashing some water on her hair.

‘Aagh! It’s cold!’ she shuddered.

I tempered the water to warm. ‘The cold was to make sure you’re awake!’ I explained, pretending it was deliberate. Then I asked her to blow her nose into my hand, cupping her mucus so it would not squirt all over the washbasin, just like my mother used to do with each of us, lovingly, each morning. She used to say it would unblock our ears so that we would be able to hear the teacher. Now Joy would hear the teacher too.

‘Yum! Organic hair gel,’ I mused.

‘Eeuw!’ she protested, grossed out. ‘Don’t you dare!’

I washed it away with another dollop of liquid soap and now made sure that the sleep was removed from her eyes.

‘Aah, Dad!’ she cried, pushing my hand away. ‘It stings!’

But the more I added warm water, the more the soap bubbled up around her long eyelashes. She squinted in irritation and I kept splashing and rubbing in frustration. Her eyes tightened, her mouth opened and her cries for help echoed throughout our home.

Maternal Grace came charging in. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘Oh, just some soap in her eyes,’ I shrugged.

‘Haram (poor thing). Use the towel, Dad!’

Despite the tears and drama, in the end the soapy water did give Joy’s hair a crisper contour and removed the halo. On special occasions, I graduated to plaits and braids, but only once I’d qualified for my hairdressing P-plates. When we shopped together next, Joy and I looked for blue hair ties to match her eyes and her uniform.

On weekends, we used her fancier selection, which included ties decorated with butterflies.

When Joy’s long hair became knotted, I knew it was time to untangle it with a nice hard brush. I ran a warm bath and added some bubbles, hoping to make it a pleasurable rather than painful experience.

‘Turn around, Zuzu, and close your eyes,’ I instructed. ‘First, we crack the eggs!’ I squeezed some shampoo onto her head and lathered it into her scalp with both hands. ‘Second, the waterfall.’ I poured bucket after bucket of water over her head (warm this time) to wash away the soap.

Then I held her head up with my left hand and brushed her hair down with my right hand. I had expected the shampoo to make the brushing easy, but if anything the knots seemed worse. The only solution, then, was to apply force. But the firmer I held her head, the more she screamed. I gritted my teeth and brushed harder and faster, all the way down, so that her pain—and mine—would be brief.

‘Ouch, Dad!’ she cried. ‘You’re killing me!

I added more shampoo and rinsed thoroughly but it made no difference.

At this point, Michelle rushed in and gasped, ‘Grace, have a look at this!’

As Joy heard her rescuers arrive, her cries became hysterical.

‘Stop, Dad!’ Grace exclaimed. ‘Can’t you see the red lines down her back?’

I lifted her hair and indeed there were scratches on her back from my vigorous brushing. Luckily, her skin was not bleeding, or I could have been arrested! Maybe our neighbours had heard her screams and already called the police. That’s all I needed in my situation!

‘But I used heaps of shampoo to make it smooth!’ I pleaded innocently, shaking the now nearly empty bottle.

‘No! You need conditioner to make it smooth!’

How was I supposed to know this silky-smooth secret? From that day on, Joy’s hair would forever be an effortless pleasure to brush.

Whenever I washed it, I cracked emu eggs of conditioner on her head.

Was I too paranoid, too protective or too private to take ‘driving lessons’ from experienced mothers? I could have asked my extended family or many others in the mothers’ club who were always obliging.

But at the time, I did not want to give anyone any ammunition to gossip about my family. I would imagine them chattering as soon as I walked away, or hung up the phone .

‘Oh, Joe phoned me the other day. You wouldn’t believe what he asked me. He said, “Sorry for the stupid question, but do I use

shampoo or conditioner to remove tangles?” So cute, but those poor girls. How will they turn out with only a man to bring them up?’ . . . Blah, blah, blah.”

Yes, I was probably too paranoid and too private, but I soon learnt not to underestimate the wisdom to be gleaned from the treasures under my own roof—my daughters.

It took some time for me to progress from a P-plater, proving myself, to a B-plater, being myself. My car became a mini-bus for picking up and dropping off their friends.

My daughters and I all resisted the offers for someone else to step in and ask me to step aside. They knew that a man suddenly hopping on one leg was going to fall and fail more often. But they were there to pick me up, with their silent smiles that spoke a thousand words.

It was not me stepping up to the sacred stage of their mother, fearing failure. It was my daughters stepping up to the mother roles, trusting me with their lives, trusting that I had it deep and dormant within me to paddle our life boat to safety.

I used to whisper bed-time stories in their ears to lull them (and myself!) to sleep. Now they whisper reassurances to me, or is that Nadia speaking through them?

My inflated fears have been conquered by their piercing love.

When my eldest two daughters were overseas, I asked my youngest child Joy why she missed them so much.

‘Because we are much more than sisters, Dad. We are best friends.’

This is an edited extract from WHAT MY DAUGHTERS TAUGHT ME by Joseph Wakim, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $32.99, on sale now

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