She sat in the back seat. Her mom — my soon-to-be ex-wife — was at the wheel. I was standing in the driveway. She must have known something momentous was happening. She knew, even at her young age, that the orbits of our lives were going to spin off, the trajectories similar to how they had been, but not the same. Never the same. She asked her mom to roll down the window.
“Daddy,” she said.
“Yeah, sweetheart,” I said, getting as close to her as I could. I knew it'd be some time before I saw her again. Knew that I'd have to be in the empty house alone with my thoughts. Knew I'd come home from work the next night to cold rooms, quiet and solitude. No laughing kid. No fun music playing. No smells of fresh-baked cookies and shampoo in her hair.
“I want you to have this,” she said, as she handed me a little stalk of lavender. “When you miss me you can smell it and then you'll think of me.”
“I will,” I said, taking a sniff. “Hey, it works!”
She smiled. “I know. I love you,” she said matter-of-factly. And like that, the window was rolled up, the car crunched down our gravel driveway and cruised up the hill, turned left and out of sight. Gone. I had never felt worse in my entire life. Yet I had never felt more loved.
Me and the kiddo would always find ourselves with flowers in our hands. Every day when I got home from work to my wife, exhausted by taking care of our child all day long, my kid and I would go out. We didn't have to go far, just a walk around the neighborhood. She loved exploring the world right outside our front door and I was all too happy to oblige her.
We'd toddle along the road, coming back to the house with fistfuls of dandelions. Those are always the first bouquets made in a young life, aren't they? A bunch of cheery, modest flowers (by some definition, weeds, really) arranged in a shaving mug in the bathroom until they droop and wilt away? Soon, we graduated to daisies and daffodils, errant and scattered, growing in clumps in our Gold Beach neighborhood. “This daisy's as big as my face!” She'd squeal. “This daffodil is daffy!” We'd quack like ducks.
Later, we made flower gathering a game, a challenge. “We have to make a bouquet with nothing but yellow flowers.” We'd pluck California poppies, goldenrod, butterfly weed. (Apologies to our neighbors for our surreptitious clippings. Flower thieves, we were.) We'd go home, slide open the back door. “Mom! We have something for you!” Our kid would hide the bouquet behind her back as if her mom didn't know what we had brought home. “Ta da!” Flowers! We owned only a couple of vases. Most all the kiddo's flowers were found in cups and mugs, old sippy cups and kitchen bowls.
When she got to be a tireless walker we'd go further afield. Sometimes up to The Point, an undeveloped piece of property owned by a gravel concern where we found a mammoth lilac bush. We'd pick it clean. She'd get so many stems she couldn't hold them all, obscured by brilliant purples. Our house would be perfumed for days on end by those stems. We'd go to the forests nearby, pick holly branches, wild huckleberry, rhododendron sometimes. We'd go to pastures and meadows and pluck apple blossoms, pretty grasses, water lilies from the pond if we could reach them. A bounty of color, shape, size and smell enlivened our home. Perhaps she knew, not even consciously, how drab the house was without them.
There are countless divorce stories. No need to evoke them here. "We grew apart" is an old adage but it's apt as far as it goes. What we missed from each other, a connection, we found in our daughter. Love — pure, unadorned, simple and complex, raw, honest, unconditional. Again, this is nothing out of the ordinary, a parent's unending love for a child. The kiddo became my life, consuming all else. I gave to her and her alone my utter devotion. Did it strain my relationship with my wife, who had a similar devotion to our child? Undoubtedly. It's what happens, sometimes. Our child is loved though. That's for certain. An enduring, overpowering love.
The neighbors would see me and my daughter most every day, rain or shine. They'd spot us with a clutch of wild roses from the empty lot across the street, maybe a stray tulip or two liberated from The Point, or perhaps some cherry blossoms from that tree that hangs over the old founders' cemetery on top of the hill. “That's sure a pretty bouquet,” they'd say. “Almost as pretty as you,” they'd say. My girl would smile. “Would you like some from our garden?” The kiddo's face would light up. The neighbors would pick gorgeous dahlias from their plots, sumptuous roses, elegant poppies. “Your vase will like these, won't they?” My kid would smile and say, “Thank you.” We'd trundle home and do our best to find places for all of them. If all the cups were taken, we'd use the plastic bucket she'd take to the beach down the big hill.
We still collect flowers. Now, a few years later, my daughter is in third grade. I'm writing this in her room. Nearby, amidst her Harry Potter books and hamster paraphernalia, is a flowering miniature orange tree she asked for at Christmas, a flower fairy figurine sits on her desk, mini pink daisies from the neighborhood park fill a little dessert dish, and lilies picked near the stairway we use to walk to school peek out from her bathroom.
She's with her mom right now. It's the schedule, the Parenting Plan. It's how things are. I'll never be able to see her every day like I did when I was married. I'm not able to tuck her into bed every night and wish her the sweetest of dreams. A lot of nights, I have her though. Lots of days. Many walks together home from school, picking flowers along the way — columbine and coral bells, wisteria and bleeding hearts.
It's not hard to see how much love there is here now — just look and see what's in the nearest vase. Lupine, camass, hollyhock... And if I'm here, and she's not, and the glasses are empty of buds and the vases are absent of flowers, I just pull out the little box in my closet — the one with the little lavender sprig in it that she gave me so long ago — and I take a deep breath.
Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer who lives with his daughter in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood. They enjoy the outdoors, board games and vigorous games of tag.