01/19/2011 02:13 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Growing Pains: A Dad's Struggle

Bittersweet Sock

I suppose I should be proud. And to a large extent, I am. But -- and whether or not I should admit this, I'm not sure -- it also saddens me. A lot.

Dr. Friedman, who last prompted behavioral changes in my five-year-old daughter by some sort of talk regarding "sugar bugs," apparently said something new.

One night last week, as we were curled up in bed reading five... no, one... no, four... no, two... okay, three books, Eleanor declared matter-of-factly, "Now that I'm five, Daddy, I am not going to suck my thumb anymore."

"Really?" I responded, "That's terrific."

But why not? I thought. Those aren't your permanent teeth. So what if they're pushed forward a bit? Hell, there's no reason to even brush them. Oh, don't start with me about gum disease. I still don't floss regularly, and I'm 40 years older than she is. (Sorry, Dr. Golf.) Oh, it's about habit formation. Ok, fine, I get that -- and I don't disagree -- but there's something so sweet about it, so innocent.

The left hand reaches for her "nigh," the soft, pink blanket she's had since birth; short, puffy fingers with half-painted fingernails (again, pink) instinctively find and glide along the smooth satin patches amidst the worn cotton. The right hand rises, fist curls, and red lips gently envelope her half-moon thumb. Quiet immediately ensues. Self-induced calm.

But this night was different; it wasn't like all other nights. We finished the third book, and as I dimmed the lights, she bolted up. "Wait," she said. "I need to get a sock!"

She considered her choices. "This one's good." (I wasn't sure what the basis of the decision was, but it was made with such conviction that I didn't dare question it.) She walked back to our bedroom (I know, I know, a parenting subject for another time), climbed back into bed, pulled the sock over her hand without pausing, and put her head down on the pillow. "Good night, Dad."

I looked at the clad thumb that lay on the mattress just inches from her mouth. Her eyes were closed before I even left the bedside. I couldn't help but be impressed by her strength and determination; she had made up her mind that tonight was the night she took a step away from childhood, toward adulthood. And all I wanted to do was hug her, hold her and convince her that there was no rush...

Traveler's Lament

I'm not entirely sure what prompted it, but when I mentioned the trip the night before, she reacted unusually strongly. "Why, Daddy? Why do you have to go? How long will you be away?" Then she suggested, "One day. One day. Go for just one day. Please... pinkie promise?"

I didn't "shake" because I didn't want to lie. I kept trying to change the subject, but to no avail. And when she saw the suitcase, she immediately opened the back door and literally dragged the bag back into the garage. I had to wait until she was asleep to pack.

I worried about the morning....

I was lying beside her watching "The Nutcracker" (the Barbie version) when the dogs started barking. My ride had arrived.

She grabbed me. Tight. "No, Daddy, I won't let you go... Ok, but one day, right? Just one day. You promise?"

"I'll call you from New York, Sweetheart. I'll call you every day. Be a good girl. I love you so much."

I headed down the stairs, and she turned her attention back to the video. I was pleasantly surprised.

But just as I reached the front door, the soft sounds of Tchaikovsky suddenly gave way to grieving-like shrieks. "Daaaaaddy, no, no, please don't go!"

She raced towards me, tears streaming down her face. I knelt down, held her beautiful round face in my hands and promised that everything would be okay. "I have to go, Sweetheart, there are people waiting for me outside. I'm sorry."

I called out to Genelli for help. Clutching one of the twins, she followed us outside. Eleanor began to run toward the car but paused for just a moment. Genelli circled a free arm around her as my oldest daughter screamed and cried and flailed hysterically. The driver seemed paralyzed. "Va," I insisted. "Necesitamos ir. Por favor." I waived, blew a kiss, closed the window and turned away...

I know, I know -- she'll be fine. And yes, this is a story that my friend Margaret and many others experience weekly. Still, I have a knot in my stomach just thinking about it. Tears well up as I imagine the scene repeating itself next trip. You see, my suffering isn't just selfish hurt; it stems from a pain that's hers. Of course, the analytical experts say she'll adjust, that this is all very normal. But Cynthia Ozick countered, "What we remember from childhood we remember forever -- permanent ghosts, stamped, inked, imprinted, eternally seen." And her words are the ones I hear as my colleague talks, and I stare at the billowy clouds below.

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