It's early morning. My 8-year-old daughter, Clara, and I are downstairs while the rest of the house sleeps. This is our time. Like her daddy, Clara is an early riser. She often creeps down the stairs before sunrise, plants herself in a chair beside me, and reads, assembles a puzzle, plays on the iPad, and chats my ear off as I try to meet a deadline. She tells me about her dreams. She asks me questions about geography. She reports on the three states of matter, the Fourteenth Amendment, and her favorite historical figure, Clara Barton. One of my friends recently spent some time with my daughter and said that she “never runs out of words.”
As I rise to prepare breakfast, Clara grabs my wrist and asks, “Daddy, will you pick me up?” Clara’s not a little girl anymore, and she’s tall for her age. It’s gotten harder for me to lift her off the ground.
I also have a torn ligament in my left foot. Still, when she asks, I always do.
I lift her as the light filters in through the back windows. She wraps her hands around my neck and squeezes. Eventually my foot throbs, and my arms ache with fatigue. So I move to put her down. In response, she jams her face into the crook of my neck and whispers, “It’s just so nice to be held like this.”
I freeze. It occurs to me—for the very first time—that I am the only person in Clara’s life who can still hold her so close for so long. She’s too big for my wife to lift her. Too heavy for her grandparents. She’s nearly as tall as her uncle. In the yellow glow of the morning, I realize that I’m the last person who will ever hold my little girl like a little girl.
I resolve not to put her down until she asks. I will hold on forever if necessary. I must. There are so many things that Clara is doing for the last time. She’s graduated from nightly baths with plastic princesses to solo showers. We’ve packed away her booster seat. She’s traded in board books for chapter books and prefers to read by herself. I found a note on her bedroom door that reads:
Leave me be.
I am naping.
I am reading.
I am just playing by myself.
I thank God that “napping” is spelled incorrectly and that the j in “just” is backward. There’s still some of my little girl in there.
Suddenly, I am awash in memories. Diaper changes and first foods and wobbly steps across hardwood floors. All of them slipped away quietly.
My foot now screams in pain, and my biceps tremble. None of it matters. The sun is rising. A new day is here, and it’s a terrible thing. I would freeze time forever if I could and stop my daughter from becoming even one day older.
I cannot. Instead, I will stretch this moment out as long as possible. Hold her as tightly as I can. Mark it. Remember it. Keep it close to my heart for the day when Clara is either too big for me to pick up or too old to ask.