Today is my oldest daughter's tenth birthday. It's hard to believe that a full decade ago, I took this picture on her first night in the world. My wife had got up to stretch her legs after feeding her. I nestled Emma down onto the hospital bed in the warm sheets where her mother had just been sitting so I could help my wife get up (she'd just had a c-section - so I guess we should cut her some slack). When I returned to the bedside a few seconds later, Emma had fallen asleep, content after feeding, warm and, like all newborns, perpetually exhausted. I took a brief moment to grab the camera and snap this picture, and I'm so glad I did.
It is my favorite picture of all time.
Van Gogh never painted a more beautiful tableau. Ansel Adams never took a better photo. Forever this picture will remind me of innocence, beauty and the power of new beginnings. In the intervening years the little snoozing baby has grown into a strong, smart and beautiful young lady. When I see this photo though, I am reminded of the fleeting and fragile notion of innocence. For such a short period of our lives we are innocent and ignorant of the evils of the world. To our child's mind behind every corner is a world to explore, every person a potential friend, every tree waiting to be climbed, conquered.
It's only as we age and mature that we realize not every corner should be looked around, every person is not friendly and sometimes you fall from trees and break bones and bruise pride. That's not to say that growing up is necessarily bad. But there's something sad about the transition from childhood into adulthood. When life and the world around us forces us to be more careful, when villains no longer reside only in the pages of a book or a movie screen.
And it's difficult to watch as a parent.
It's hard to see your children get hurt, watch as friends are mean to them, people let them down. It's hard when you're the one letting them down too. It's painful to watch your little girl grow to the place where she begins to see you're not the perfect man she idolized as a baby. But that you, like all mankind, have your own faults and foibles and you, sadly, are not perfect.
This time last year, my daughter and I were driving in my old beat up work truck, hauling some brush to a burn pile before some friends came over for dinner. After unloading the truck, she climbed into the cab and said:
"Daddy, now that I'm nine, will you tell me about your dad?"
This question surprised me quite a bit. We don't talk about my father much in my home. This is mostly for two reasons. First, my father is not around, and hasn't been for most of my life, so not many stories involve him. Secondly, my father is not a good man, and I try as hard as I can to protect my children's youth as much as possible. It seems to me we are adults for so long, and children for such a brief time, that I fight against the notion that my daughters should hurry and grow up. It is a great irony that we spend our childhood looking forward to adulthood, and our time as an adult looking back wistfully at our childhood.
Don't get me wrong, in the spectrum of men, my father is no Hitler. He's never killed anyone, and though he's spent his entire life addicted to drugs and alcohol, for the most part now, he's mostly harmless. But the topic of my dad simply didn't come up much in my home, so me and my girls never really discussed it.
So last year, while the sky was dark, the night was cold, she and I sat in my truck while I answered every question she had. I held nothing back, and answered as clearly and honestly as I could. My children grow up in a home with two parents. My wife's parents stayed married, and my wife's grandparents stayed married until her grandfather passed away a few years ago. On my side, my daughters know they have a grandmother who loves them dearly. It was a proud moment of sorts, when my daughter looked at me confused and said: "Daddy, why would your daddy not want to be around? Did he not love you and your mommy?"
From the mouth of babes huh?
Children sure ask some tough questions. One of the most shocking things I've had to learn as a parent is the difficult things a child can ask in their thirst for knowledge and understanding of the world around them. So we talked about what it was like to grow up with a mother who loved me dearly and sacrificed a great deal to provide me the best life and education she could, while having a father who was addicted to destructive influences. We talked about why he cannot come around, why I have no extended family on my father's side, why he does not know where we live.
In a way I was proud of the innocence she had in her heart that she struggled to comprehend the sort of man I had to describe to her, and yet, I was sad to see that innocence diminished, tarnished to a degree, and cracked just a little. It said a lot to me about the home my wife and I have built, that what I described would be so foreign to her. And it broke my heart to tell her that villains were not just story book creatures.
Sometimes they were closer to us than we would like to admit.
It's now been a year since we had that talk. For me it's been another year to watch her grow and learn, and to try as best as I can to guide her into adulthood. For her it's been another year of experiences, ups and downs, joys and heartbreaks, successes and failures. While she pushes forward in her desire to grow up, I will continue to keep my foot on the break as best as I can, in the hopes of gracefully slowing her down, while not holding her back. Yet each birthday will remind me of that night long ago where our family grew by one, in a hospital when all the friends and family had gone home and it was just us three there in that room. Each birthday will remind me of that innocent child nestled in those sheets, ignorant of the world around her with her entire life ahead of her. Though I will always be excited to see what the world has for her and all my daughters, I will always be just a little sad to see that child fade.