This summer, I looked at my daughter’s face and saw, for the first time, that she will leave us.
You know this all along in a practical, commonsense way, but you don’t really know it when your daughter is standing before a tiny Playskool Kitchen Set, making frying noises with her mouth, and then bringing you a plastic hamburger on a plastic bun. You don’t know it in your heart when you walk out to center stage with your daughter during the 2nd-grade daddy/daughter dance recital, take a bow, return to your spot in the line, and then realize that your daughter is still center stage, curtseying and waving to the crowd, listening to the applause build as she gleefully refuses to cede the spotlight to the next daddy and daughter.
You know it, but you don’t know it. And then you see it and you have to look away quickly at the sunstruck horizon, at the little single-prop planes hauling long banners across a cloudless sky. This year, Abby didn’t go in the ocean once. Swimming in the ocean, we are told, “is for babies.” She stopped playing in the sand with Owen, too. This perplexed Owen for a while and then he came to accept it. Maybe he sees it, too.
“Look at that, Owen,” I say, pointing up at one of the banners. “Free body wax. We should do that. Get a free body wax.”
“I don’t want a free body wax,” Owen says. “I don’t have any body hair.”
It’s true. He’s nine years old, lean as a greyhound, without a body hair on him. He lets most of my nonsensical statements go unchallenged these days, only correcting the really outrageous whoppers and forays into foolishness.
When he was younger, he would correct everything, every deviation from the truth as he knew it. It was how he ordered the world around him. I would turn his bib around so it hung behind him and swing him in the air, simulating superhero flight. “Whoa, Superbaby!” I would say. When I set him back down, Owen would right his bib with his chubby little fists and look up at me with a serious expression on his face. “No,” he would say, “I’m just Owen.”
Abby sits in her beach chair and looks out at the ocean. There’s a book in her lap and a Triscuit in her hand. She’s twelve and lost in her own thoughts and one day she will leave us. She is suddenly taller this summer, her limbs longer, and even the shape of her face has changed. Every morning, she stands before the bathroom mirror and brushes her almost-waist-length hair with long, vigorous, determined strokes.
Earlier in the year, back in May, I had the kids for a weekday and I took them out to Sandy Hook for a bike ride and a walk on the beach. It was a cool, windy day. Sweatshirt weather. I had an idea for a YouTube skit that involved Abby as co-actor and Owen as iPhone cameraman, but it didn’t work out. The idea was that I would be standing at the shoreline, looking out to sea, and Abby would enter the frame and peer out in the same direction. Then she would say,”Whatcha looking for, Dad?” and I would say, “My vanished youth.” We would look out to sea some more, and then Abby would say, “If you give me five bucks, I’ll go look for it at the snack stand.” We’d look at each other for a bit, and then I would reluctantly reach into my pocket and hand her a five. She would sprint out of the frame. “Cut!” Owen would yell. It was a goofy thing, in the same spirit as the pool scene from my 49th birthday post, and intended for the top of my 50th birthday post.
We tried it many times, but Owen had to stand too far behind us to keep us both in the frame with the sea, and the whipping wind kept carrying our voices away. Abby indulged me for a while, but grew weary of all the takes and re-takes. She felt that other people were staring at us, that we were making a spectacle of ourselves. She is very conscious of looking foolish. She’s twelve. So I let it go.
My own father could never carry off any bit of foolishness. He just never created a space in our lives where that kind of thing would fly. He was often silent; he could be moody and distant. He had a temper. He did not communicate things, though he may have wanted to. His attempts at levity, rare as they were, had no context to spring from. They made me uncomfortable.
I am prey to all these things, too. Mood swings, withdrawal, anger. But I’ve also tried to make a point of saying whatever fool thing comes into my head. I try not to censor myself. Sometimes I get a little tiresome with it, I know. (Ask my wife.) But saying weird, nonsensical things creates an environment where you can say anything, even the important things. You’re never fenced off from that. For my father, even saying something as simple as I love you would have been the equivalent of a cracking open of the heavens, an extraterrestrial attack; it was inconceivable. There would have been no perspeective in which to place such a thing.
You don’t have long to say the things that have to be said. If I could tell Abby anything (and I have said this to her), I would say don’t surrender your right to look like a fool. Be brave enough to look foolish. Seek those opportunities out. Stretch the canvas of your emotional life broadly enough to encompass anything you need to say. Don’t hold anything back. Time slips away.
For years, when I’ve dropped Abby off at school or said good night to her at bedtime, she’s said “I love you, Daddy,” and I’ve said “I love you, too, sweetheart.” Note the pronouns. None of that Love you! bullshit. We don’t say it as much anymore, but having said it in the past, having established that precedent, we could say it again. Anytime we want. Same thing with Owen.
On the beach, I set my book aside. “It’s getting late,” I say. I look over at Owen. “Gather up some of these seagulls, Owen. It’s time to leave.”
“The gulls stay on the beach, Dad.”
My wife gives me the look she gives me when I’m egging Owen on. Everyone has a role in our family life. I bring the foolishness and talk to myself a lot. My wife is the rock we frolic around in fair weather and the rock we hang onto in white-knuckled desperation when the flood waters rise.
“No, we’ll stash a few in the car,” I say. “It’s like bringing shells home.”
“The gulls stay on the beach, Dad.”
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