A letter to read at night

Mia’s with her seventh grade class on a trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It’s a big deal, and she’s been looking forward to it all school year. We spent a good portion of Sunday getting ready for it; she pulled out a checklist and studiously checked each box with a big pink marker as we assembled all the necessary items. Sheets, pillow, several changes of clothes (some of which, we’re warned, we must be ready to consign to their demise in the mud pits), two pairs of shoes. More and more.

I watched her carefully pack her big duffel bag, and it was one of those moments when it was clear how much older she’s getting. She’s twelve now, nearly halfway down the road to thirteen. Her body is developing, and so is her mind. I see wisdom taking root: she makes difficult decisions, and she accepts responsibility for things it would be easier not to. I’m fiercely proud of her, as are all of us whose children are crossing the border into adulthood. And watching her that night, preparing to leave me for a few days as she engages in her own adventures, I was reminded that it’ll only be a few more years before she’s packing a similar bag to go to college, or to her own new home, or where ever it is she decides to go when it’s time.

It’s bittersweet, of course. You feel pride for her, but if you’re honest you indulge in a little pride in yourself, too: despite every catastrophic mistake and every wrong turn you’ve made as a parent, she’s doing it. She’s getting smarter and wiser and funnier, and now she’s making these little trial runs into the world without you.  Look at her go.

It’s sad, but it’s right. It’s your job to teach her to leave you.

And then she puts her stuffed animal in the suitcase. Not her favorite — her favorite is also her cat’s favorite, and she leaves that here so the cat won’t get lonely. She takes another instead. She fits it snugly in there. She tells me other girls bring them too. And I see at that moment all these girls, shortly to be riding the bus together and bunking in the cabins together, each standing at the cusp of the world. Every fundamental thing changing around them and inside them at once in huge earthquakes of identity. And they pack their stuffed animals because, after all, they are little girls yet.

Later, when I’m tucking her in and she’s worried about whether or not she’ll be able to sleep through the anticipation, she asks me for a favor.

“Will you write me a letter?”

“A letter? By the time it gets there, you’ll be home again,” I say. Not getting it.

“No Dad, a letter I can take with me. So I can read it at night when I get homesick.”

“Of course I will,” I say.

And I do. I go out into the living room, where Mia will shortly make another appearance for a glass of water because the anticipation does make it hard to sleep, and I get a pen and paper and write her a letter, telling her the things I think she might like to hear when it’s dark and she’s the only one awake, lonely for home.

The next morning as she checks her list again I hand it to her. She doesn’t look at it, folds it in half and slips it safely into the bag.

“Thanks, Dad,” she says.

Then we’re out the door, on the way to the car. It’s early enough to still be dark. She moves ahead of me, eager to be on the move, dragging her huge wheeled duffel along.

I’m right behind her.


Sleep dread; or, the yearning for absolute love

“I’m afraid to go to sleep.”

I sat beside Mia on her bed, running my hand through her hair. I couldn’t quite process what she’d said. It was nearly midnight, and she had school in the morning. It was well past time to be asleep.

“What do you mean?” I’d read something recently about “sleep dread”: an insomnia-related anxiety so acute that you actually dread the effort of going to sleep. Mia worries about everything anyway; it seemed cruelly natural that she would develop this affliction.

But if this was sleep dread, it wasn’t that kind.

“I feel alone when I sleep,” she said. “It’s like, nothingness. You aren’t anywhere. And you’re all alone.”

There’s not much you can do when your child comes to you with existential fear. She’s looking between the girders of existence and asking you to explain the darkness she sees there. Something like this happened when she was five years old; we’d just moved to Asheville, and along part of our regular daily commute we drove past a cemetery. She would ask me if I was going to die. Whether it would be soon, and what would happen to her when I did. What would happen to her when she did. My answers to her were geared toward a five-year old. They were simple, and unsatisfactory even then. Now she needed something more.

The problem is that there is nothing more. She’s too old for easy answers, and resents it when someone tries to give them to her. I don’t tell her I’m an atheist, and when she expresses curiosity about religion I encourage her to pursue whatever avenue she wants. But I won’t tell her fairy tales, either.

At least, not directly. What I do tell her is that she is never alone, because I am always in the next room. I can hear her in the night and I come in and check on her when she sleeps. She nods; she knows this. She accepts my minor consolations as a gesture of kindness. She doesn’t want to hurt my feelings by telling me what I already know: that none of this is what she means. That all of this is beside the point.

Because when she sleeps, she’s going back into that silence. And much as I might want to be, I won’t be there with her.

Mia is out of town this week. She’s gone to Alabama to visit her mom, and I’ve found myself in an empty apartment again. I’m reminded of the extent to which I rely on her to anchor me to the world. In the past couple of days I can probably count the numbers of words I’ve actually spoken aloud on both hands. There’s a deep peace in this — I am intensely solitary, after all — but there’s a fear, too. What will happen to me when she leaves for school? Will I be this strange old hermit, living in his isolated, book-lined cave? It seems quite likely, sometimes. And it has a kind of appeal. I don’t seem to do well with human beings. But it seems lonesome, too.

Sleep dread.

I found this video a little while ago and showed it to her. I didn’t mention it in context with the conversation we had that night, but I hope that she makes a subconscious connection to it.

“It’s so beautiful, Dad,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said. “It really is.”

This, I think, is the final consolation. If we are all, finally, just chemistry, then this is love’s ultimate expression. It makes me happy to know that whenever some five-year old child casts a fearful eye at the earth where I’m buried, my busy ghost will be at work. That life will have made a city of me.

Ten Dollar Prom, and the boyfriend question

Mia is weighing the merits of two potential suitors, and for what’s likely the first and last time in her life, she’s soliciting my opinion on the matter.

On the one hand we have Scout. He is big, handsome, well-groomed, smiling with confidence. He looks good at her side, and she is old enough now to know that this matters. Scout is a stuffed dog, about the size of a football. On the other hand we have Cletus. Cletus is an orange stuffed cat. He is small and awkward, with hair that looks matted and a body that is loosely stuffed, floppy and gangly. Cletus has one thing working in his favor, though: he is a cat. Mia loves cats.

The occasion is the Ten Dollar Prom being held at Hanger Hall School For Girls. It’s one of the rare times the girls can come to school out of uniform; the conceit is that they come dressed for the prom, without having spent more than ten dollars on an outfit. I like this, because it’s single-dad friendly. Many of the special dress-up days at the school leave me bewildered and feeling out of my depth. With this, though, I can pretty much turn the reins over to Mia, and let her design her own outfit with a minimum of expense.

At first, there was no contest. She needed a date, so she went to the stuffed animals and picked Cletus immediately. She introduced me to him (I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and frankly this was my first time learning his name), and pleasantries were exchanged. Cletus and I came to an amicable understanding, and all seemed well.

But ten minutes later Mia came into the living room again, this time holding Scout under her arm. Strong, handsome Scout.

“Dad,” she said, “I don’t know what to do.”

Dogs are generally affable creatures, and I understand how the heart is beguiled by beauty, so I just said something inane like, “Wow, tough decision, kiddo,” and left her to it. She thought for a moment and said, “I’m going to take Scout, because he just looks better, you know? And plus he’s black,  and that matches my outfit.”

She went back to her room. It was bedtime, and she was reading before turning out the light. (At least she was supposed to be reading; clearly her mind was occupied by other things.)

And here she is now, about fifteen minutes later, holding Scout. “I’m leaving him out here. Look at his creepy eyes! I can’t go to sleep with that in the room.”

“Okay,” I say.

She sits on the couch, pensive. She retrieves Cletus from the coffee table, where she’d left him. “Dad, I can’t decide. Which should I take? Scout is better looking and matches me, but I don’t like his expression. And Cletus is a cat!”

“Kiddo, here’s a life lesson. It applies here and throughout your whole life. If someone you’re thinking about dating makes you uncomfortable or creeps you out, no matter how good-looking he is, he’s not the man for you.”

She doesn’t even have to think about it. Cletus wins the contest, and is, at this very moment, accompanying my daughter to school for her Ten Dollar Prom. Scout is lounging creepily in my room, because Mia decided she didn’t want any more of his weird face.

“Thanks for the love lesson, Dad!” she says, walking back to her room.

Life lesson. I said life lesson!”


Mia’s friend Hannah, who carpools with us, also brought a date. She brought a stuffed microbe. When I dropped them off this morning I wanted to see how many other girls were bringing stuffed animals. There was only one other car there at the time, and older girls were climbing out. None of them had any. I’m willing to bet that it was mostly sixth graders, on that sharp edge separating childhood from young adulthood, who brought stuffed animal dates with them to the prom.

It’s unbearably sweet, and it makes my heart hurt. Mia had put her army of stuffed cats away a long time ago, and as far as I knew, never thought of them at all. But recently Grace, a friend of hers from school, has been coming over for the occasional sleepover. Removed from the pressurized environment of a middle school, in which everyone is always pretending to be be older and wiser than they are, both girls very quickly shed their adult pretensions and became children again. They played hide and seek, they shot at each other with Nerf guns, they played with dolls and stuffed animals.

This is a freedom she can’t even indulge in with me. More than anyone else, probably, she wants me to see her as a mature adult. So to see her break out the toys and be a little girl again was a rare, vanishing treat.

After that first weekend Grace stayed with us, some of the stuffed cats never got put away. They were left sitting on a shelf, conveniently at hand. On that Sunday, we sat down to watch Angel on dvd. I noticed she had one of the cats on her lap. (This was Cletus, though I did not know his name then.) She didn’t talk to him, or hold him really, or acknowledge in any way that he was there. Not while I could see. But later, when it was time for her to get ready for bed, and when I was in the kitchen making tea, she got up from the couch and he tumbled from her lap, onto the floor.

My adult little girl, who is developing a crush on the teenager who plays Angel’s son on tv, who is reading To Kill a Mockingbird and writing essays about it, who is now capable of doing more complex math problems than I am, leaned over and picked him up. She pulled his ear to her lips, and said, very quietly so that she thought I couldn’t hear, “I’m sorry.”

When she’s sleeping

We were doing homework last night: she has a test in grammar today on pronouns. Personal, interrogative, indefinite, demonstrative, and relative. She has to know what antecedents are, and she has to remember the word antecedent. She’s nervous, because she doesn’t have a firm grasp on all of it just yet. She often confuses indefinite and demonstrative pronouns. She has trouble remembering the phrase subordinate clause, and this worries her, even though it’s more important that she understand the concept than memorize the words. This is a learning experience for me, too; I knew all of this once, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had to pin the parts of a sentence to a corkboard and afix their names to them.

We’re into this for no more than ten minutes when she starts to get pissed. I’m coming up with sentences for her and she’s identifying the pronouns and their types.

“Who put it away?”

“Who. Interrogative. It. Indefinite.”

“You’re right on the first one, but ‘it’ isn’t indefinite.”


“Remember? He, she, it. What are they?”

“Personal, but that’s impossible! We don’t know what ‘it’ stands for in that sentence, so it has to be indefinite!”

We go over it for a few more minutes, but she’s upset now, and finding it hard to concentrate. We take a break, and she stalks like a thwarted general into her room.

Thirty minutes later we return to it. She’s getting it; she’s doing a good job. These aren’t easy concepts to grab immediately, when you’re not used to thinking of sentences as machines, as a series of individual parts which work in concert. But she is still frustrated, and by this point my own frustration is mounting too. She gets the next one wrong and she throws herself back onto the couch, making a strangled noise.

It’s too much for me. I drop the notebook on the coffee table. “For Christ’s sake. Will you just calm down?”

Her face goes dark in anger, in righteous indignation. But just for a moment. Then it smooths over. She gets up and retrieves her notebook from the table. “I’m going to read over the notes in my room,” she says, very calmly. She walks in that direction.

“Kiddo, you’re doing well. You can’t expect to get all this right on the first try. That’s what homework and studying is for.”

She regards me with a cool eye. Then she turns away again.

“Are you mad?”


“You seem like you’re mad.”

She looks at me again, with what appears to be a detached, even somewhat contemptuous, curiosity. “Hm,” she says, and goes to her room.

I gave her about fifteen minutes and then I went into her room, where she was hunched over her laptop. I pulled her to me and hugged her, apologized for being short, told her encouraging things. She seemed unmoved by the whole exchange.

I knew these years were coming. I knew they were going to be tough. And now that they’re arriving, I’m finding that the tools I used to use so well to manage her emotions and her self-regard are no longer working. Tears don’t always dry with a hug anymore, nor do the dark moods dissipate as readily. She’s angry more often. In some ways I see this as a good thing: she has always been hard on herself and I am glad to see the anger directed outward, rather than turned inward, where she can only harm herself. And yet, it’s new, and sudden, and it causes problems. It keeps people at a distance; and in me, it inspires an answering impatience.

There are times when I have no idea what to say to her. I have no idea what she’s thinking, what she’s keeping from me, what’s she’s secretly, desperately hoping I will do or say. I can only react according to what she decides to tell me or what I can intuit, like a doctor treating the symptoms of an illness he cannot diagnose.

A lot of this is normal, of course. And a lot of it comes from me. It’s sobering and humbling to see your own worst traits reflected in your child. You find yourself less patient with the expression of those traits, less ready to forgive them, because you hate them so much in yourself.

As a single father, I had little fear in the early years of her life. She was a little kid, and I do well with little kids. But she’ll be a teenage girl soon, and I am so less sure of myself now.

But at night, when she sleeps, I walk quietly into her room to be sure the blankets are over her shoulders and her head is on the pillow, and there she is still. My little girl. The tiny creature that spent her first week of life in NICU, who was first held in love by my own hands. The little girl who would hear the rumble of the motorcycle when I came home from work or from school and run out to meet me on her tiny legs, actually laughing in excitement. The five year old girl who came with me here to this new place, without a mother to attend her, and trusted that I knew what I was doing and that I would protect her and guide her. The girl who until so recently could bury her sadness in my shoulder, and let my arms carry it away. When she’s sleeping I can still see her: in the roundness of her cheek; her small, parted lips; her closed eyelids and her unfurrowed brow; in the curled fingers of her hand, no longer tiny, but still so small. Still a child’s.

I see her sleeping and I reflect on every sharp word I said that day, every flash of anger or impatience, every time I answered her over my shoulder as I stared at a computer screen or read a book.

I remember my duty to her.