June 2014

Daddy Handbook: Rude Awakening

Steven J. Moss

I was at the first day of a meditation retreat deep within New Mexico’s mountains. After the dozen participants had assembled on the deck of the log cabin main lodge, we spent several hours getting to know one another, and learning the basics of mindfulness. 

As the sun dropped towards the horizon, we were assigned to pre-pitched tents, which were dispersed throughout the forest surrounding the lodge, none located less than a couple hundred yards from another. After a dinner of salad, rice, and chicken, and some casual conversation, we broke up for the night, and made our way to our tents, flashlights in hand.

I unpacked my gear, placing a book and my flashlight on the wooden box that served as a night stand, and got into my sleeping bag on top of a canvas cot. I was drifting towards sleep, when someone called out my name.  

“Steven! Mr. Moss!” a man’s voice urgently whispered. The tent flap flew open, and the retreat center’s night watchman thrust his head in. “Your wife just called. Your daughter is sick; she’s at the hospital.”

“What? What?” I said.

“Your wife,” the watchman said more slowly. “She called the main office and said she took your daughter to the emergency room. She said she’s okay, but she’s in the hospital.” 

I immediately grabbed my things and started stuffing them into my duffle bag. “I need to get to the airport,” I said. The man nodded.

Within minutes I was outside the tent, walking with the watchman, who was in his early 20s, towards the lodge, where the cars were parked, while simultaneously trying to call Debbie on my cellphone. 

“We don’t get cell service up here,” the young man reminded me. “You’ll have to wait until we get down the highway a few miles.” 

We walked in silence, the forest needles crunching beneath our feet. It was deep black, with an occasional star peeking through the overcast night. The watchman’s large flashlight illuminated the trail and the trees crowded around it. 

“You sure you want to leave?” he asked. “Your wife said your daughter was okay.” He paused. “I mean, I’m happy to drive you.”

“Thanks,” I replied. “I need to go.” 

My heart was pounding from having been woken up by such distressing news, so far away from my wife and 18-month-old daughter. We got into the retreat center’s truck, and started down the road. After several miles I tried my cell again; still no reception. I looked at my driver, and noticed the tattoos on his neck. Neither of us said anything, as I repeatedly punched the redial button. Finally, halfway down the mountain, I reached my wife in the emergency room.

“What’s going on,” I asked. “How’s Sara?”

“She’s okay,” said Debbie. “She woke up after I put her to bed and couldn’t breathe. She kept gasping for air. So I drove her to the hospital. She’s okay now.”

“What happened?”

“The doctors said she has some sort of respiratory virus. They gave her oxygen and some medicine.” Debbie paused. “She’s okay now,” she repeated.

“Okay. I’m on my way to the airport. I’ll catch the next flight home, though it may not be until morning. I’ll get there as soon as I can”

“I don’t think you need to do that,” Debbie said. “When I called I was really worried, and thought you needed to know what was going on. But she’s fine.”

“I’m coming home,” I said.

“Okay,” Debbie sounded relieved. We hung up.


Two months after 9/11, Debbie, Sara, and I traveled to New York to attend a wedding. Though the ceremony was being held upstate from Manhattan, we were intensely curious about what had happened at the World Trade Towers, and wanted to see the destruction. Debbie questioned whether it was a good idea to bring a four-month-old near the site. But the federal government insisted that the air was safe. 

Still in mid-hubris about being a new parent, and anxious to view the aftermath of the shocking events we’d seen on television, I didn’t stop to consider that, no matter what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency publicly stated, my daughter’s new lungs would be especially sensitive to airborne particles, particularly the toxic kind that had to be floating around the site as a result of clean-up activities. 

We checked into our hotel, and took a taxicab to as close to where the World Trade Towers once stood as we could. We slowly strollered Sara around the massive craters, peeking through what was left of the towers, gapping at the astonishing destruction. Occasionally a passerby would glance at our baby and give us a hard look, but, swept away by disaster-sized curiosity, I hardly noticed.  


A little more than a year after our New York visit I got the call that woke me from my meditation tent, and brought me home to my family. For the next year after, that Sara struggled with a respiratory problem, the origin and nature of which our doctors couldn’t define. Debbie or I would regularly have to strap a mask over Sara’s mouth and nose and dose her with vaporized medicine. We were deeply rattled, concerned about our daughter’s health and worried that, without a proper diagnosis, we’d never be able to solve her problem. And in the wake of my late-night New Mexico experience I’d tense every time Debbie called, afraid that she was going to report bad news about Sara.

I don’t know if our visit to the 9/11 site caused Sara’s respiratory problems. But it was stupid for us to bring our baby daughter anywhere near what by all accounts was a smoldering, toxic crater. And there’s no lost irony that I was at a meditation retreat, about to go to sleep, when I received a wake-up call.

Handbook Tips: Attention!

• I don’t know about you, but I tend to get trapped in my immediate past, and tripped up by visions of my lofty future. It took me several years after I got married to stop flirting with other women, not because I didn’t love my wife; it was just a well-worn habit. I maintained my youthful wanderlust through most of Sara’s young life, dragging her and Debbie to India when Sara was a toddler and to Africa before she was five. It’s important to know when one life’s phase has ended – you were single; now you’re married – and another has begun. You gotta dress for the right occasion.

• There’s no need to fool ourselves, being a father can sometimes be a big fat drag. But, mostly, it’s a lot of fun. Remember the latter when you’re in the middle of the former.

This is an excerpt from The Daddy Handbook – first published in the paper in 2011 – a book by View editor Steven Moss, sections from which will appear in the paper throughout 2014. tHe’s looking for a publisher for this work. Fellow parents are encouraged to write in with their experiences: editor@potreroview.net.

Subscribe to The Potrero View

All rights reserved. Copyright © 2014 The Potrero View.

Content on this site may not be archived, retransmitted, saved in a database, or used for any commercial purpose without the express written permission of The Potrero View or its Publishers.