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After Divorce, a Dad on Raising His Daughter

"As my kid grows up, we'll grow apart — and that's okay"

Published on: May 25, 2018

father daughter having fun

It was Professor Plum in the study with the candlestick.

We would play board games all the time — Grace and I. It was Mrs. Peacock in the dining room with the rope. There were stacks of board games, and we would play for hours. It was Mrs. White in the conservatory with the revolver.

We would roll dice (Yahtzee!), move pieces red and black (checkers), flip card after card (War), move generals across the divide (Stratego) — and all the while laugh, laugh some more, become closer, be best friends like fathers and daughters can sometimes be.

Back then there were clues, playing Clue, that we were close, that we wanted to be around each other, that we nearly needed to be around each other. We were inseparable. After her mother and I divorced, she wanted that stability and warmth. I wanted the same.

She’s in high school now, 14 years old. She’s sullen, sometimes. She can be rude, sometimes. Cold and distant, sometimes. She tells me she feels lonely, those precious times she wants to talk to me. “I’m here. I’m always here,” I say to her as I make dinner. She grumbles something that could feel warm if it wasn’t cold. She takes her dinner, goes into her room and closes her bedroom door. Oftentimes, I won’t see her again until morning. My lonely girl feels alone and goes to her room to be alone in her loneliness. I understand that, sometimes.

Colonel Mustard in the library with the wrench. I’ve thrown away a lot of board games that we used to play. She’s too old for them now. She’s too busy now with her homework and whatever else she does behind her bedroom door: Text her friends. Scroll through Instagram countless times. I’m left here, cleaning the kitchen after dinner and wondering what I’ll do with the rest of my night. I sit on the sofa, thumb through a book and hope she’ll crack her door open again. Hope against hope that she’ll say some kind word. She’s not unkind, far from it. She’s just far from me now. However close she is, she seems far.

And I know that she needs this. I know: It’s important for her to have her own quiet times to discover more about who she is and who she’ll be. I can’t help her with that. I shouldn’t help her with that. It’s a self-discovery we all make. I should leave her alone. I will leave her alone. And yet, I miss her. It's hard for me. Difficult. Necessary. But, also, in ways I hate to admit, beautiful.

We will never get back to her on my shoulders on the way to play pinball at the arcade... That's okay.  

Sometimes I don’t want to play games; I just want to get to the heart of it. A drive to school and she’s not speaking. “Am I doing okay as your dad right now? I’m not looking for any sort of specific answer. Is there something you want me to do that I’m not doing? Is there something I’m doing that you don’t want me to do? I want the best for you. As much as I can.” She doesn’t look at me. She takes a breath, though. She then grumbles, “You’re fine. It’s good.”

Is it, though?

We will never get back to her on my shoulders on the way to play pinball at the arcade. We will never play hide-and-seek like we delighted in over and over again. We will not sit on a sled together and go down a steep Seattle street. We will never be awed by a 3-D movie, pawing at the butterflies over our heads, or be so proud of catching a frog in a pond, or laugh ourselves to tears over a very bad fart joke. That’s all okay. There are other memories that have yet to be made. But now, it’s good, kid? You alone and me struggling? Or maybe it’s not a struggle at all — it’s a simple molting of one daughter to the next; one father to the next; one love to one love.

These days, the best days are the ones in which she tells me about her day. A grade she got in biology class or how she’s feeling about her coming tennis match. I don’t dare interrupt her when she opens even a little bit. If I do, she might say, “Anyway,” and push herself up against the window in the car and quietly scroll through Instagram photos. No, I just listen and marvel at how she’s grown, how she’s growing, and how she’ll never stop, just as I won’t. She’s thinking about colleges now, when not long ago she was writing notes before bedtime to fairies who she thought were very real. (I replied in many different styles of handwriting to keep that innocence alive.) More alive than, say, Miss Scarlet, felled with a lead pipe.

I must learn that I, too, have a life to shape. She wants me as happy as I want her to be. And so, yes, if I find love, I should love that person unabashedly. I have. I do. I should pursue the things that make me happy. I have. I do. I should model for her, even in her absence, what a life can be if you let it be and let yourself be open to it.

Sometimes that means opening doors you oftentimes close. Rarely now, late in the evening, when I’m reading on the sofa and the rain clatters deep on the roof, Grace opens the door to her room. She pads out with the empty dishes from dinner, wearing pajamas that have cartoon owls all over them. Her homework is done. She’s not quite tired enough to go to sleep. She goes into the kitchen, haphazardly tosses the dishes into the sink, opens a cabinet and sits down next to me, unboxing the game Clue.

She’ll win. (It was Mr. Green in the billiard room with the dagger.) It won’t matter if she wins. Her love, our love; she loves me as deeply as I love her. That’s what matters. It’s sharper than any blade in this game we’ve played a thousand times. Indeed, however alone we are, we are together in it, rolling the dice to see what will happen next.

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