It usually happens like this: I am sitting in my chair, quietly typing, as my daughter Katie "plays" in the next room. The next moment, she is gently tugging my sleeve. I glance over the top of my laptop and smile, oblivious.
"What is it Bear?"
"Daddy," she says. "Everything is going to be fine."
By this point, it is too late. I slam the laptop shut. I am no longer Daddy, but DAD. I rush into the play room to find my dog painted blue.
When Katie was born, I spent the first two nights by my wife Annmarie's side, half-sleeping in a half-reclining hospital chair. We were both exhausted, yet filled with awesome anticipation. I remember a few specifics. The TV stuck on the shopping channel, the smell of antiseptic, the little pink hat on Katie's head. Mostly, I remember emotions. An intense devotion to my wife, and a looming doubt. I did not know if was up to the task of raising this child.
Katie came home on the third day. It took us a full fifteen minutes to strap her into the car seat. We wanted to do everything perfectly. To swaddle her just right, to change her often enough, to cradle her like we'd been taught. Over the next few nights, none of us slept much. Annmarie breast-fed every few hours. Whenever Katie made a sound, however insignificant, I woke up to make sure she was alright. Whenever she seemed too quiet, I woke up to make sure she was still breathing.
Katie is now six (six-and-a-half, she insists). There are times I think back, longingly, to those nights of invented worry. Especially when Katie empties all of the shampoo bottles onto the bathroom floor. Or cuts the sleeves off of her nine favorite dresses. Or dismembers her mother's string of pearls.
Still, there is something wonderful about the chaos. When I take the time to play with Katie, totally uninhibited, I feel a version of that anticipation from the night she was born. Who knows where our next game will take us? A beauty salon for plastic ponies? Pirates in space? With a few stuffed animals and a cardboard box, a rainy Saturday becomes a raging storm at sea. All hands on deck! Being a father is the best, perhaps the only, excuse a man has to be unabashedly childlike.
After Katie's original blue-dog moment, I wondered why she had done it. She said she wanted to play 'Blue's Clues,' after the TV show with the blue dog. Apparently, she had asked me to join her several times, but I was too busy. So, she enlisted the dog.
Of all the excuses not to play with my kid, being "busy" is the lamest. Too often, I do not play because I have forgotten how. The other day, Katie asked if we could make a fishing stream in our kitchen. My first thought was "No, that is impossible." I considered the engineering challenges -- levy construction, hatchery management. Both seemed beyond my expertise.
But when kids ask grownups to join their games, they expect us to leave our grownup rationalism behind. So I overcame my doubts. I said, "Sure, we can catch fish in our kitchen."
For the next twenty minutes we searched for supplies. Katie found old strips of greenish drywall in the basement and dragged them out. We arranged them like a stream. For fishing poles, I used a pair of chopsticks, some string, and two magnets. We made fish out of construction paper, folding a flap at the bottom so they would sit upright. With a couple staples punched into their top fin, they were catchable.
We built a bridge with two chairs and a leaf from our dining room table. Dangling magnets from our chopsticks, we caught fish until Mom came home. Then Katie taught Mom all the tricks of kitchen fishing. By the time we were done, the kitchen was strewn with crumbling drywall scraps and loose staples. But what a magical day.
The peaceful home is a trap. Whenever Katie is quiet for too long, especially with friends over, it is time to worry. But that is not the worst thing. Even when I am cleaning toast out of the DVD player, even when I regret not making time for my daughter, my biggest fear is not that she will repeat one of her misadventures. It is knowing that the day will come when I no longer need to worry. I will not check her in bed to make sure she is breathing. I will not grow suspicious at the sound of nothing. My little girl will grow up, and I will not need to play with her.
One day, I will be sitting in my chair, typing away, and realize that the quiet I hear is no longer an indication of mischief afoot, but a sign that blue-painted dogs and gentle tugs on my sleeve are gone for good.
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