I found them on the floor in her room. She hadn’t hid them, which means she didn’t feel the need to, which is probably good. They were there in plain site, inside the familiar wrapper.

I picked up the package, turned it over in my hands, felt the cool, slick foil, its edge jagged where it had been twisted, but not yet opened.I heard her voice downstairs, laughing, carrying on a conversation about her toy animals.

I felt I had to confront her, and as I walked downstairs each step became heavier with the thought of what could have happened. I was wading into deep water, inside a tunnel, the world closing in, its weight squeezing me, my heart pounding.

Ella, I found this in your room.

The words came out calmly.

She looked at me, looked into my hands. Her laughter stopped. Her smile retreated. She had the universal look of “oh, shit,” on her little face. Her lip quivered. She turned for her mother.
My father never really disciplined me the way my mother did. When I was with him on weekends and holidays, I was just expected to behave, and I did. I always feared the “or else,” whatever that might have been. But once, when I carelessly put regular gasoline into the 2-cycle lawn mower, he did something that was worse than whipping me with a belt or a fresh switch. “You should have known better!” he said. He was angry, but it was the disappointment in his voice that swung at me and landed like an open hand across my face.

I hoped I hadn’t wounded Ella the same way. I wasn’t angry. I was worried.

It was largely our fault. We hadn’t secured the package. Or the kid has figured out how to manipulate the double loops and double buttons of the safety locks, which is likely.

Ella enjoys visiting the doctor’s office. She’s been very healthy, only a couple of ear infections and a case of roseola. Sometimes she pretends to be a doctor. Or, she pretends to be a patient and asks for medicine. When she’s sick, she swallows antibiotics like it’s milk. She holds cold medicine under her tongue until it dissolves. But she doesn’t understand that she can’t take medicine when she’s healthy. That’s why I shut the bathroom door when I take my meds. I look healthy, seem healthy.

Luckily, all of the children’s Benedryl were still in the blister pack. When we talked with her, she knew they were medicine, but they’re treats, she kept saying. There’s so much sugar in them I can’t blame her. She was adamant about wanting them. What will she do if she finds medicine that mommy or daddy hasn’t given her? Six times, she answered, “I will eat them.”

It was a little scary. If she had eaten just two or three tablets, it would have wigged her out pretty badly, could have made her very sick. My kid’s not the kind to stop at two or three. This was a relatively minor episode. But the most difficult thing I do as a father, so far, after all these long 30 months, is to keep my childhood from creeping into my daughter’s, to keep from confusing the two.

If this had been me when I was a kid? My mother would have freaked out, completely. She would have seen a child seeking drugs, and distorted it into a slick move by a toddler destined to be a junkie.

My mother had kept a lot of demons locked inside. Part of them come from my sister’s childhood.

I didn’t know my sister as a child, but I’ve pieced together glimpses of her life. I remember her when she should have been a child, at 15 and 16. But she was 12 when I was born, and by age 14 she was heavily into illicit drugs, and she lived … wherever. Not with us. I watched drugs create horrid problems for her. Watched her almost die because of them. At 50, her life is still in shambles.

I don’t know how my sister started on the notion that drugs weren’t dangerous, I don’t know how she began experimenting. And, I don’t know where my mother or my father were, why they weren’t there to better explain life and carry her over its pitfalls. I do know, however, that they were elsewhere.

I read today somewhere that the nature-vs-nurture debate is dead. Now, at least among certain academics, it’s believed that nature is nurtured, that natural predispositions could be switched on, or not, or overridden, by the environment a child grows up in and how she’s treated.

I like that. It means the circle can be broken. It means that my daughter’s playing with medicine provides an opportunity to nurture her natural curiosity and intellect; it does not portend a lifetime of self destruction.