Dad and Daughter

- Guest Column by Bill Graham

It was one of these soft summer nights, and my five-year-old and I tiptoed into one of our town parks to try out its little climbing wall.

The park was closed for the night, so let’s be clear: it was her idea.

As we walked the few blocks from home we’d had a big time kicking soccer balls, walking trestles, hearing fiddles and racing through an obstacle course she made up at her preschool playground. 

“OK, Daddy, here’s what you do: Go once around the see-saw, through the tunnel, down the slide, two times around the bouncy-duck, touch the stink-o tree, catch a firefly, climb the ladder, jump down and run to the picnic table. Ok? Ready? Go!”

I lost. I got corked up in the tunnel like Pooh Bear, with more pants than he's got, but without any of the cuteness.

And now here we are at the closed park.

We climb the bleachers, which are interesting to her. I try to remember when metal bleachers might’ve been new to me. Then we creep around on the climbing wall and move on to the slides, which are already damp from the night and so aren’t any good.

Soon I’m standing on springy playground mulch, looking up, as my girl perches on a five-foot platform next to a pull-up bar. Through some process of her own she’s decided she wants to hang from the eight-foot bar and drop the remaining four feet to the ground.

And she’s scared.

Of course I’m ready to intervene - to snag her by the waist midair and lower her down or to whisk her away home, but that’s my need, not hers. A challenge with our kids (and our friends) is to know when to stay just on the edge of their fears and struggles without elbowing in. I succeed for once, and I listen quietly as she talks herself through this entire feat of daring.

Here’s how Iris gets ready to jump:

Step One: She hangs by her hands for quite a while, eyes and mouth pinched shut, squealing someplace down deep, and eventually scrambles back to the platform kitten-like, in a blur of spindly legs looking for something solid.

A big moon ghosts through the haze, and my eyes follow window lights that climb away up the hillside. This cove holds one of the town’s older neighborhoods: nice family homes with generations behind them. It’s the kind of neighborhood I like, but it’s also the kind that makes me think a little too much about girls who grow up and leave their papas. Naturally I compound the damage by moving on to thoughts about fear and love. John Lennon called them the two fundamental forces. “In fear we pull away from life,” he said, “and in love we open to it.”

Zen teaches the acceptance of fear for what it is: the anticipation of future pain. No need to hide from it or be scarred by it, just understand it. But fear ruins some of us. It slashes at us as we climb and causes us to fall – or merely cling. Most often, though, Lennon’s fundamental forces hold us in a shimmering friction, each about equal to the other. Or so it seems to me.

Step Two: Iris runs frantically in place on the platform, alternately growling like a dog and chanting “OK! I can do this!” Then she repeats step one.

I was in Asheville the other Friday, downtown at twilight, watching the buskers as the city swirled around. Blind Boy Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks played a prime sidewalk location, and were very much in their element. Vintage instruments, vintage songs, hip lyrics.

Hustling for tips, each street performer cultivates an independent style, but there’s an underlying language. I watch as a separate dance plays out in front of the band: listeners creep forward to drop cash into an open guitar case. Some seem driven by the joy of the music, others seek approval from the band. Their gifts come from many places. They wash up and recede in odd cadence, and the musicians pretended they aren’t there.

Step three. A diversion. Suddenly calm, Iris is a tiny owl who perches and swivels. “Dad, was that a school?” she asks, pointing to a nearby silhouette. River stone and broken windows. I explain about the former Sylva High School, which once was nearby. This wasn’t it, I tell her, but someone was once proud of this building, and that’s something. She asks about the size and shape of the school. How many kids? I answer as best I remember and she nods solemnly.

Then she tunes me out and repeats steps one and two.

A cynical notion: I wonder if I’m the victim of a bedtime delay tactic, because I’ve been known to fall for such things. To dampen my suspicion and prime Iris’s pump I offer to catch her in a practice run. She agrees, and though pleased with the result, she’s clearly unsatisfied. She scuttles back around to the ladder.

Andrew Solomon wrote “The Noonday Demon”, which is about depression. He says depression is “love’s flaw”, and argues that love is our most important capacity, that it can’t exist without other feelings to play against and contrast with, and that foremost among those feelings is fear – the fear of loss.

Solomon asks this: “If the loss of someone you love doesn’t make you sad, then what substance would the love have? Great sadness and great pain is essential to the kind of love we form.”

Step Four. Iris is ready. She ain’t the backing-away type. It’s been 15 minutes or so. A little voice floats down from her outline, and I stand there, moonstruck. She gives me instructions: This way. That way. Back up. Perfect.

“Don’t catch me!” my daughter shrieks, dangling.

“I don’t want you to catch me, Daddy. But I want you to be there. Please, please just be there!”