My 6-year-old daughter taught me a lesson about bravery—and stepping up.

Little Girl and Little Brother Schooled Me
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It's Father's Day. I’m sitting in a McDonald’s PlayPlace eating pancakes while my daughter, Clara, 6, and my son, Charlie, 3, climb on the tubes. They wanted to take me here for Father’s Day, which was their not-so-subtle way of getting what they wanted.

I start to panic a bit when my phone rings for the third time. I step outside to talk to my friend. The father of a former student has died unexpectedly. I knew him well. I know his wife well.

My friend is still talking, but I can’t hear him anymore. I’m staring at Clara and Charlie. I can’t imagine disappearing from their lives so suddenly. We have baseballs to throw and snowmen to build. I need to show them how to mow a lawn. I need to warn Clara about guys like the teenage version of myself. There is still so much for me to do with them.

My parents divorced when I was young and my father disappeared from my life for the remainder of my childhood. I know how hard it is to not have a dad. I’m constantly reminded of the things I still can’t do because my father wasn’t there to teach me. My kids need me. I feel the sudden urge to sit them down and never stop talking.

I return to the PlayPlace. I sit and think about those two children waking up on Father’s Day without their father. Then I hear Charlie calling for me. I look up. He’s climbed the highest tube, crossed some netting, and is afraid to cross back over. He’s stuck.

I try to climb, but the tubes are designed for kids. I’m not even sure they’ll support my weight. He looks to me. “Help me, Daddy!”

I feel helpless. I turn to Clara. “Can you help your brother?”

She’s never climbed so high. She’s afraid too. But she nods and begins climbing. She reaches the netting and stretches her hand to Charlie. They clasp hands high overhead. He still won’t budge. She says, “Charlie, whisper to yourself what you love most, and that’s how you can be brave. That’s what I do.”

I’m so astounded that I demand she repeat what she just said.

Charlie whispers something and crosses over to the net. He lands in his sister’s arms. She giggles, “I’ll never leave you, Charlie.”

Before now, I’d been foolish enough to assume that I was my children’s world. The hinge upon which all depends. After all, I plan on living forever. If not forever, at least until 100. But as I watch my kids come down from those tubular heights, hand in hand, I know that Charlie has Clara, and Clara has Charlie. I grow up a little. I realize, for the first time, that no matter what happens to me, there will be others ready and willing to step in and pick up the slack. Friends. Uncles and aunts. Neighbors. Coaches. To carry them and keep them safe when I cannot. Shelter them from danger. Love them with all of their heart if I don’t quite make it to forever.

Matthew Dicks is an elementary school teacher, novelist, and Moth StorySlam champion.

Parents Magazine