It is just past 6:00 AM – the quiet time before my wife and daughter wake and the rush to work and school begins. I am standing at my desk in the upstairs library, getting my pre-dawn jump on the day as I do every weekday. My phone buzzes with a text message: “Come see us pls”. It’s from my wife, Kathy.
Every day is a surprise. This one just starts earlier than usual.
In our bed I find Kathy and our daughter, Dessa in a full body octo-cuddle. Dessa is a mess. Red-eyes, tear and snot-streaked face, wild hair. She extracts one arm from the MomDessahuddle, reaches out to me, and chokes out one word: “Daddy.” It is a plea, request, and command all rolled into one.
Rosy pink dawn is just becoming visible in the window over the bed. I’ve not yet had coffee, and I can be pretty dense even after I do, but my role here is obvious. Wordlessly, I pile in, Dessa sandwiched between me and Kathy, clinging to us both. Only after the amoebahug absorbs me and resettles does Kathy say: “Dessa had a nightmare.”
Dessa turned nine a little over three months ago. She is so tall now. And like all kids, she is blithely eager and insensibly impatient not to be one. Just yesterday she told Mom off outside her fourth grade classroom right before school for “spying” on her on the playground. Most of the time, when we both snuggle too close to her, she squirms and kicks and tells us we’re crowding her.
And yet she is still far from even true adolescence. Just last night she was so tired from her crazy Halloween weekend that right before she went to bed, in a frenzy of exhausted giggling, she careened into her bean bag chair, bouncing off of her bookshelf and then her doorframe, and fell to the floor, peeing herself, laughing, and crying all at the same time. This from the same girl who was calculating volume equations hours earlier, telling me she did not need my help.
But right now she is a tiny little boat in a stormy sea of tears and I am harbor, shelter, warmth, and reassurance. Just for this moment, I am irreplaceable. Daddy. Still with an extra “d” and “y” at the end.
I know it is wrong, but I’m almost grateful. It feels good.
We lie together, a tangle of limbs and covers, for perhaps 20 magical minutes. I transition from the interruption of my morning routine to just being present. Slowly we coax the dream from her.
Dessa was standing on some sort of globe with Mommy and me, striding through huge landforms and foreign places. She took a step on her own to explore and reached down to touch the ground. I was a few steps away. When reached out to explore, the ground beneath me crumbled and I fell. Apparently I hung on and made it, but she nearly lost me.
She was clinging and crying because she nearly lost me in a dream. Yeah, Little Girl, Daddy understands that fear. Right back atcha.
When she tells us her dream, I lie. Like all parents do. I tell her: “I’m not going anywhere, Love. I promise.”
It is easy to see where the dream came from. We had spent part of the afternoon discussing geography. And in the bigger picture, my little girl is pre-pubescent, oscillating between kid clinginess and pre-teen push-away. Between holding our hands before school and telling us not to leave before she enters the classroom, and sassing us about not giving her enough space.
Why did I lie?
I lied because my job is actually to make sure she loses me as she strides across the world. For now, we are walking together, and I’m still holding her hand. But my job is to prepare her to confidently and capably explore on her own. To venture longer and further, until she is the one leading, and no longer needs or wants my hand to hold.
But for now she does. So I’m happy to lie. I find it reassuring, too.
“I’m not going anywhere, Love. I promise.” Not yet.