Carrying the Future On One Strong Arm

SHEATHED in a shirt sleeve, my left arm looks unremarkable, though the biceps might appear a bit chubby. A friend who plays tennis and is built like a wire coat hanger reached over for a playful pinch one day, but drew back his hand back in surprise.

''What do you have in that sleeve?'' he demanded. ''A rock?''

No, just a story.

It's the story of a father and a child, and it begins just over five years ago when a baby girl was born to a couple who married comparatively late in life and began a family in their 40s.

This seven-pound baby cried nearly all the time, and often needed to be rocked and carried for hours before she would surrender to sleep, nestled into the crook of her father's left arm with her downy head leaning trustingly against his left shoulder. She'd scrunch herself up as small as she could manage, and her tiny feet and little bottom actually fit into the palm of her father's left hand.

The father often carried the baby that way throughout the day, because their family had an unusual arrangement: The mother was the president of a company, and the father had left his high-pressure job to stay home and care for the baby.

But the baby wanted her mom, not a bottle, and the father's day often became a series of holding actions until Mom came home for lunch or for good. The baby grew each day, and the father carried her to the store, out for walks, through naps, and through tears. Or he propped her in a backpack as he worked around the house.

The days became months, as the child began to cry less and laugh more. The months became years, as the father carried the little girl to play groups and playgrounds, to gymnastics and ceramics classes, watching her learn and laugh.

And now, it is the second year of preschool, and the little girl is sounding out written words and printing her name, running her own way on playgrounds and in stores, and constantly declaring, even a bit peevishly: ''I can do it myself!''

But there are still those mornings, after saying goodbye to Mom and driving to school, that she climbs out of the car, lunch box in hand, and looks up at me with happy eyes, opens her arms wide, and asks: ''Daddy, will you carry me?''

As I bend down, she coils her legs, then springs upward into my stout left arm and settles her 37 pounds into the bend of my elbow. She circles my neck with her right arm. We walk into school, embracing the past and the future.

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