Sunday, February 23, 2003

Sometimes parenting can be heavenly

You are talking to the other fifth- and sixth-grade fathers, because this is the annual Father-Daughter Dance, and she strolls toward you, across the floor of the dressed-up cafeteria. She is wearing a blue, crushed-velvet dress, with a matching jacket.

She is 13, a young woman in bloom. Confident, happy, smiling. Beautiful like you've never seen.

She asks for your hand.

You tug sharply on the lapels of your sport coat. You straighten your boutonniere, brush back your hair with the flat of your hand.

"C'mon, Dad,'' she says.

When did she get this old? She was 6 five minutes ago. She was 7, running on a Florida beach in June, then she was 8, helping to drop a live lobster into a pot of boiling water in a Cape Cod cottage on a glistening pond in the perfect glow of a July twilight. She was 9, learning to ride a bike. Ten, 11, 12. . .

"Let's dance,'' she says.

Her own hair design

Her hair is pulled back from the moon of her face, secured with clips and ties, a peculiar and fantastic engineering only a woman can master. In front of the mirror at home, she insists on doing the design work herself. She takes her time, running the brush through her brown hair, pulling it back just right. "There,'' she says, finally.

When she was barely two months old, she contracted bronchiolitis and nearly died for lack of breath. A doctor saved her by jamming a needle into the sole of her foot, hoping to start a line for some medication or another. She screamed so loudly, in anger and pain, it dislodged the mucus that was strangling her.

Now she is here, 13 years later, looking into a mirror, fixing her hair.

Some of life is fate. Some is beauty. The rest just happens.

It's a slow dance. She takes my left hand in her right. She drops her left arm onto the expanding, 45-year-old continent of my waist. My right arm moves over her shoulder like a shawl.

Halfway through our dance, she drops her head into the crease of my chest. This must be what heaven feels like. We move timelessly, in slow circles.

This is what dreams are made of. Sometimes, you are good. Sometimes, you are blessed. Occasionally, you are both at once.

Seeking the answers

You spend years banging around the strange, misshapen rooms of parenting, seeking the right ways to raise your children. Seeking affirmation and a little affection. Hoping, mostly, that you haven't screwed it all up.

You poke, you prod, you thump the melon. Grounding isn't working. Let's try more chores.

You guess, you wish, you rely on principles learned. Be honest, be compassionate, be on time. Show empathy and respect. Make your bed. You hope you're getting it right.

When you're a kid, you think your parents have all the answers. When you're a parent, you know better.

If children only knew how powerless parents sometimes feel, they'd be bigger anarchists than they are already. It's the hardest, most frustrating thing you'll ever attempt.

Then, she slips her arm around your neck. She lifts her head, looks up for a god's instant and says, "Thank you, Dad, for bringing me to the dance.''

She drops her head back to your chest. Heaven lingers. The music plays, slowly.


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