This experiment is still on-going. Class is still in session. It will continue, hopefully, for another forty or fifty years or so. God willing, that is. It’s marked with milestones, events, timelines, accomplishments, ceremonies, tears and laughter. Hopefully more tears of laughter than tears on their own. It is the road I have chosen. It is who I am. It is the essence of my soul. I have sixteen years behind me but I cannot, will not, rest. She is sixteen. Sweet sixteen. Happy birthday honey; Dad loves you.
I have stood beside her. I have stood behind her. I have pushed her, pulled her, picked her up, brushed her off, applauded, scolded, rewarded, reprimanded, laughed with her, cried with her, cried for her and cried over her. Things I could fix, I fixed. Things I couldn’t, I agonized over with her. I got things right; I got things wrong. In the end, I hope I was right more often than not.
She stole my heart when she came out on stage in her tutu. I couldn’t find my breath, finally gulping air in hitches and jerks, struggling not to bawl in front of all the other audience members. Maybe some of them were going through the same thing.
She broke my heart when she came to me with tears over the inverted goldfish bobbing queerly on the surface of the small globe of water she called his home. Just another one of those things I couldn’t fix, a small pain I couldn’t erase, one that would keep me up for weeks, her small face appearing nightly as I drifted off to sleep; big blue eyes, glazed over with tears, tears that were staining her bright cheeks. Cheeks tinged the color of fall apples. He rests in peace at the foot of a large hickory on the front lawn, the family plot, near the others who replaced him only to end up bloated on the surface or lying still at the bottom near the small coral structure they “lived in.” Harsh realities for one so young; life is hard to understand when you’re a child. Death is hard to understand even as an adult. Lesson one for dad; some things you can’t change. They are ordered and will be.
The first school dance was ordered as well. As was the first boy who dared to compete with me for her. I won this time. Next time, I will not be so lucky. It, too, is so ordered. It will cause me just as much pain if he breaks her heart, but I cannot forbid her from eventually falling in love no more than I was able to forbid or deny her the small pink colored beta that she fell in love with at the pet store. I know someone will come by and puncture her soul, cause her anguish and self doubt. And still, I will struggle to say the right thing, if I should even say anything at all. And I will hurt right along with her. Not the same level of pain that she experiences; different but still intense. And I will dam myself for not having been able to shield her from it, telling myself that I should have done something to prevent it. Didn’t I strap a helmet on her, teaching her to ride her bike? No you can’t roller blade without your pads. No you can’t go to the mall alone, I’ll go and keep an eye on you. How could I have protected her from the death of a small pet when I couldn’t break her heart denying the purchase to begin with? How will I say no to the man who I just know will break her heart? How could I deny her the chance to find love? I cannot. It is so ordered.
I still believe that this is what I was born to do; the only reason the good lord scraped a useless pile of dust from the earth and formed my person between his hands and set me on this path. To be a father. Sixteen years of the greatest adventure I could ever imagine. The most intense joys, the deepest fears, the lowest sorrows and the most unimaginable sense of pride and accomplishment. I often think of what I wrote the day she was born;
I only want to be a good father. No greater responsibility can be placed on any man’s shoulders; No greater reward can be had.
I may fail in my attempt. But I will go to my death still trying to meet that ideal. I can never repay my beautiful wife for bringing me the two greatest joys in my life. And as an imperfect man, I am still wiser than I ever imagined myself to be; wisdom that I gain in small increments on a daily basis every time I hear her call me dad.
The hugs now are fewer. Kisses are far and few between. I tell her I love her everyday; she does the same. The same goofy things I used to do to make her and her friends laugh now embarrass her. She still loves to kayak; we love to hike together. We don’t have many of her formative years left. College is now looming; we have to road trip colleges soon. But she still loves to have me at her practices. I think she’s proud to be able to have her doting father in the crowd; a place I must confess which is painfully short of other doting dads. No judgment; an observation. One that she noted herself.
So I’ll kiss her, hug her tight and wish her happy sweet sixteen. I’ll have the proud face and try to look away so she doesn’t see the welling in my eyes. She’s gotten to be such a beautiful young lady. And I’m proud to be told by others that they find her just as beautiful inside. I knew I couldn’t keep her an infant; I knew I couldn’t keep her a toddler. And I know someday, I’ll pass her hand to someone I’ll never truly trust because I will always, always be her father. I don’t wish to seem maudlin or melancholy. I’m more a realist. Sixteen is the timeline, the milestone that tells me, tells all fathers, that I now need to start preparing myself for her departure. I’ve been doing my best to prepare her to be independent all her life. Her leaving is so ordered.
But like the pet-store goldfish where I never prepared her for their eventual exit from her life, I have not prepared my self for her exit from mine. Again, there are some things dad cannot fix. And there are some things dad can never prepare for; no amount of planning or steeling myself against it. And I get to go through it all over again with my youngest.
My only wish now is that when I hug her and whisper happy sixteenth birthday I can pull it off convincingly. For her sake, of course….