ometimes I catch myself just staring at this amazing little perfect stranger across the dinner table from me. Sure, I was there when she was born. I brought her home from the hospital. I’ve been there for every single day and every single major event of her life. But every so often she says or does something that totally blows my mind. She changes so fast (and so profoundly) that sometimes it seems that during the 14 seconds it took me to put more pasta on her dinner plate, she mystically transformed from the fragile little infant we brought home into an amazing, articulate, self-assured young lady. In those moments you do a double-take and try to reconcile the total stranger before your eyes with the little girl in the picture frame on your desk at work.
Mommies don’t seem to be tormented by these ghosts as much as daddies are, but I can tell you this: fathers of daughters are haunted by innumerable specters, and they are all terrifying. We think about the first boyfriend, the first leg-shaving, the learner’s permit, the prom… My wife tells me “Woah there. Ease off the accelerator. We’ve got many, many years to go before we have to worry about that. She’s only 5”. Of course she’s right, but there’s nothing rational about being the father of a daughter, and in those moments when it’s clear that your daughter is growing up at light speed, it’s easy to let your imagination run away with you.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the following story. All events are completely factual. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.
It was a Wednesday morning. A father (let’s call him… “Anakin”) was eagerly anticipating taking his daughter (let’s call her “Leia”) to kindergarten. After three weeks Leia had the routine down pat, and now approached the entire kindergarten experience as an old pro. Up until this point every morning Leia was walked to school by her mother (let’s call her “Padme”), younger brother (let’s call him “Luke”) and Anakin when his work schedule permitted it. But this morning Luke wanted to stay in bed, and Padme was happy to let Anakin handle the kindergarten drop-off duties on his own. Anakin secretly looked forward to it all week and when the morning finally came he attacked it with zeal. He got breakfast ready, gently coaxed Leia out of bed and got her dressed. Padme mercifully got up early to fix Leia’s hair because let’s be honest, Anakin’s skillset does not include hairstyling.
Anakin and Leia got a kiss on the cheek from Padme at the front door as they quietly snuck out without waking Luke. Backpack donned, cute clothes proudly on display, hair done-up to the nines, Leia took Anakin’s hand with a sweet smile and the two proceeded to walk to kindergarten. It was a wonderful father-daughter moment – just the two of them. As cheesy as it sounds Anakin actually wished that the walk to school was a little longer, because he didn’t want it to end. After a short time they made it to school and the playground drop-off point. Leia immediately saw a classmate and the two ran off hand-in-hand to play before the bell rang, leaving Anakin with all the other parents, alone with no 5-year-old’s hand to hold. Anakin stood there in the morning fog, watching Leia play with her friends. Of course Anakin was thrilled with how well Leia conquering kindergarten. If this was Leia’s first soccer game I might… er, um he, HE might have done a fist-pump. But the best he could manage that morning was a lump in the throat that seemed to be growing by the minute.
The bell rang and Leia and her classmates lined up in their spots as if they’d been doing it for years. Once they were settled down their teacher walked them from the playground to the classroom to start the day. Anakin followed the troupe with the rest of the drop-off parents. At the classroom door one mother was persistently trying to convince her crying daughter to go into the classroom, as she had to do every day since the first day of school three weeks ago. Through the window Anakin watched as Leia expertly went about the kindergarten morning routine – putting her backpack in the right spot, hanging her jacket on the right hook, taking out her daily folder and putting it in the appropriate place; no help from daddy required. This was her territory. She knew exactly what to do and took great pride in doing it well. As Anakin watched Leia move to the carpet for circle reading time (just as she was supposed to) he realized that he was rapidly losing his composure. The lump in his throat was threatening to take over entirely, and he realized he was going to have to leave quickly, lest he should do something that might call his masculinity into question.
Anakin stole one last look at Leia through the window. That was his fatal mistake. At just that moment Leia turned and saw him looking at her. She must have sensed it. From her spot in the reading circle she pointed to her eye, her heart, to Anakin on the other side of the window, put two fingers up and smiled confidently. It was their secret code for “I love you too.”
There were two people that cried in front of the kindergarten class that day, a 5-year-old girl and a 37-year-old man.
Anakin’s lonely walk home was a blubbering mess of un-manliness that he would be very happy to forget thankyouverymuch.
Of course that story wasn’t about ME. Oh no. But I can tell you this. I’m going to have to get my act together and man-up. I’m going to have to send that girl to college someday.