I wrote this for Father’s Day in 2005, in the midst of some deep reflection on how fast our daughters were growing up. Eleven years later, my daughters are adults, living their own lives, and these words feel even more prophetic. Life isn’t short but it sure is speedy. Enjoy your kiddos every day.
The girls are growing up: How wonderful, how sad
I was flipping through TV stations one morning, looking for something more nutritious than the network news when I stopped at “Arthur” on Channel 19.
“Arthur” is a cartoon about a grade-school aardvark and his friends and family, including his wisecracking younger sister, D.W. It’s also one of those shows written with adults in mind, so it can grow on a guy who watches along every day while his kids eat dry cereal on the couch and he folds laundry beside them.
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Many years ago, when our daughters were in preschool, “Arthur” became a fixture in our morning routine, so I’m nearly as familiar with its early episodes as I am with every show in the “Seinfeld” and “Sopranos” catalogs.
I’d been watching “Arthur” for a few moments that morning when I noticed my 11-year-old daughter standing in the kitchen doorway, looking at me like she’d caught me drinking water out of the dog’s dish.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Um, I miss D.W.,” I half-joked, flipping back to the news and shaking off a faint pang of nostalgia and grief — the feeling that something familiar had gone away. Later on, I figured out what was missing.
Couples who choose not to have children are afforded more than just better cars and more exotic vacations. They are also spared something that inhabits parents the moment their first child takes its first breath: the dread that something bad will happen — serious illness or injury, disappearance, death.
That partly explains why we lock into news stories about missing children and abductions. We watch and react with panic (That could be our child) and relief (Thank God it’s not). For a few morbid seconds, we entertain the dread.
But even parents who watch their children grow into healthy adults aren’t completely spared the sadness of loss, because our children disappear in phases and stages throughout their childhoods. One day you look up, and the little kid you used to swing between your legs is gone, replaced by someone taller, smarter, more sarcastic and more remote.
Those losses, those little disappearances and deaths, can be sudden and obvious: One day your kid takes a first step or says a new word. She grows out of diapers or loses a tooth. She changes the way she wears her hair.
But they also arrive in more gradual ways and subtle places: in the words they no longer mispronounce, the toys they no longer play with, the books they don’t read anymore, the clothes that disappear from the laundry (the Disney socks and the Blues Clues shirts) and the ones that appear out of nowhere (the tiny Aeropostale T-shirts, the slingshot training bras).
We notice those losses, too, in their behavior: how one day they’ve stopped kissing you or holding your hand in public or crawling into your lap, how they start bathing and dressing with the doors closed, how they start spending more time with friends, more time on the phone, more time connecting with anyone but their parents.
And sometimes you confront those losses unexpectedly, like when you’re flipping through TV channels one morning and you bump into a cartoon they quit watching a long time ago.
The poet Frank O’Hara wrote: “There’s nothing so spiritual about being happy but you can’t miss even a day of it because it doesn’t last.” You could say the same thing about being a parent: Don’t waste a good day because it can be gone before you’re ready.
“They grow up so fast,” says my widowed mother, and her words feel like a warning and a confession. She ought to know: She has seen her eight children leave home and then suffered the infinite sadness of burying one of them.
She has also seen two grandchildren move out and onward, young women who spent a lot of their childhoods in my mother’s care. Now she reaps the wistful rewards of the decades she spent raising children: an empty house, lots of pictures and memories and children who call and visit when they can.
TV is no place to get your psychiatry, especially from a show about gangsters, but sometimes even a fictional shrink can make some sense. In an episode of “The Sopranos,” Tony is grieving something he can’t put his finger on. He only knows he’s peeved that his son chose a day at the mall with friends over a fishing trip with his father. So Dr. Melfi leads him to what’s eating at him.
“He’s getting to that age where he has a life of his own,” she tells him, “one that doesn’t include you. It’s bittersweet, this period. You’re glad they’re growing up, but you’re sad to lose them.”
More than bittersweet, it’s ironic, too, the way we measure our success as parents: in how well we prepare our children to have lives of their own, to live without us, to leave us behind, to not include us in their lives anymore, at least not every day. In what other vital relationship do you plan from the start to let go of someone who has always been more important than yourself?
Today is Father’s Day, and if the weather holds, my daughters and I may resurrect a tradition we ended years ago. We’ll go see the Royals play. And if the girls want to gorge on things they shouldn’t, I’ll say yes. If they want to stay until the end, no matter what the score, I’ll say yes, too.
And I’ll remind myself to savor the day and its little moments because there will come a time when their rooms are empty and quiet and there are no shoes on the stairs to trip over or dirty bowls beside the couch to curse at or battles to wage over chores and homework. And I’ll look back on this day as one of many long-gone episodes in my own life that I’d love to flip back to and relive, just one more time.