Last Christmas, my oldest daughter, Whitney, purchased a doggy hat with earflaps for our youngest, 5-year-old Emily. It is pink and white with a big brown nose, eyes, and ears and has become her favorite piece of headgear. If you were to meet Emily on a cold winter day, however, you would be immediately struck by the fact that she takes this hat quite seriously, despite its cartoonlike appearance. She will entertain no lighthearted discussion about the fact that she appears to be wearing a dog on her head.
That, I suppose, is the essence of being 5 years old; reality is simply whatever you decide it ought to be. Saturday mornings, Emily will stride into my office and ask me to assume the role of husband to her wife, who then has to cook dinner on her bright yellow plastic kitchen set (the menu is limited to ersatz hamburgers, pizza, pickles, and cookies). Other times, she will dress up for the role of princess and I have to win her love. Of course, she understands that royalty is a tough business, so things usually do not go well for me, the prince. Princesses are, in Emily's view, not patient people.
Adrienne and I have four children, and Emily is our last. Being parents is nothing new for us and so we are less apt, perhaps, to treasure every cute drawing, every charming utterance. (That being said, Adrienne has collected a basement- full of childhood drawings, plaster handprints, class photos, and other childhood memorabilia.) Once the first (and second and third) blush of parenthood is gone, however, the true miracle of life remains. This notion is, admittedly, a bit tread-worn, but I defend the thought nonetheless. As when a scientist contemplates a remote corner of the universe, there is no percentage in being offhand and incurious. So before my last child grows up and leaves home, I want to offer this goodbye.
Dear Emily. You are about to forget many things. You will forget the icy spray of snow -crystals as you sled with your mother down toward the horse pasture. You will no longer know how to whisper wet nothings in my ear and how to chase guinea hens around the yard. You will have forgotten the many goldfish won and then lost at the fireman's parade, the sound of fiddlers at the Ox Roast, and perhaps even the taste of the buttermilk biscuits I make for you on Saturday mornings. You will no longer be startled by your "Dragon Breath" on a cold winter's morning nor demand a Hug, Kiss, Tickle, and Taste from your mom when you get home from school. You may still remember Bartholomew and the Oobleck but have forgotten Mr. Popper's Penguins, Arthur's Teacher Trouble, and the windup alarm clock with the organ grinder and his monkey. And, of course, you will no longer talk like Elmer Fudd, telling us that you fell down and got a "bwues" or that the toilet's "pwogged." And, by the time you go off to college, we do hope that you are no longer sucking your thumb.
But perhaps it is what I am likely to forget that is more the issue. I won't remember that you used to call me "Dumb Pants" or that you usually ask for a scary story at bedtime but halfway through the telling often cry out, "Not that scary!" I will forget that, when told that all-beef hot dogs were no longer a lunch option owing to Mad Cow Disease, you thought for a moment, looked at your plate of insipid chicken salad, and then said calmly, "Well, I bet you haven't heard about Mad Chicken Disease!" I will also forget what my lap is really for, the sweet smell of childhood, and the spidery touch of tiny hands around my shoulders as you creep up from behind, standing on a chair.
Most of all, I will forget the push and pull of youth, when you venture out into the pond just a bit too far from shore, panic, and then frantically paddle back or when you taunt your older brother, Charlie, in order to liven up a dull evening and then end up in a shock of tears. Adults have no prescribed limits, there is nothing lurking on the edge of darkness, the woods have all been mapped. Yet on a cold winter's morning, your world can still be measured in inches from the wood cookstove while the rest of us pace off the universe in light-years. Your day is measured by the length of a crayon, the size of a lollipop, and the pieces of a puzzle.
You have shown us the importance of the inner eye, the one that sees a bear in a bush, a face in a fire, or a mountain in a cloud. There is no need to instruct a child, "To thine own self be true," yet it is the greatest struggle faced by those more traveled in years and adversity. You see the world through imagination; adults see it through opportunity.
These "airy nothings" of childhood--fairies and flying monkeys--can fade and be forgotten or, instead, as Shakespeare put it, "grow to something of great constancy, however strange and admirable." You have taught us that childhood is not like the passing mist after a summer rain but that we should learn to see a world "as new as foam and as old as the rock." Perhaps our best hope is to eat biscuits by the woodstove on cold mornings or to sled, your mother and I, down the hill toward the lower pasture with eyes wide open, blinded by fresh snow. And then, just before bed, we might peek into the mirror and see kings and queens, remembering that our love for you is limited only by your imagination.