When will she stop letting me hold her hand when we cross the grocery store parking lot? When will she be too big to carry out to the living room in the morning, grumpy and wrapped up in her warm purple blanket? Will there be a last time she says "I love you, Daddy"?

Merely writing these words is enough, sentimental simpleton that I am, to send me reaching for a Kleenex. (I had to beat a semi-dignified retreat from the living room just yesterday to avoid overhearing the details of Marley the Labrador's death as her mom read Elizabeth the penultimate chapter of the best-selling dog biography. My gentle old Lab's death as I gave her a last scratch behind the ears is still a jagged wound eight years on. I don't need to relive it.)

Fourth grade is a difficult demarcation in lives of daughters and daddies. It is that final tipping point on top of the sledding hill, the place where children begin to speed from our grasp, hollering in joy, life's mysteries flashing toward them at a zillion miles an hour. Fourth grade is a difficult demarcationTrying to clutch onto them is a futile and crippling fight, but neither can we just cast them loose, novices navigating through the rocks we can see so well, but which are mysteriously invisible to each new generation. Better, I figure, to ride nearby as long as she'll let me, laughing with her, hoping with all I'm worth that she lands softly.

A guide to nine-year-olds, perhaps outdated, advises parents to write a journal of this year for their daughters, who may not enjoy the same sense of adventure and possibility again for years, if ever. Like a note in a bottle, these observations are supposed to help her find herself again as she emerges on some distant shore, the doubts and mute agonies of adolescence behind.

Remember, my dear, that you could never stay in a bad mood for much more than an hour before coming up with some cheerful scheme involving food coloring, or wooden swords, or your vast collection of stuffed animals. Keep remembering what you've named each one. Remember how smart you are in all the ways that matter, most especially at reading the strange hieroglyphics on human hearts. Remember that thunder was the only thing you feared. Remember your daddy loves you, for always and always and always.

I suspect my Elizabeth will grow up to be a great mom, or at least a decent psychologist, because there's nothing she loves more than trying to figure out what separates people (and dogs) from their truest selves. She certainly knows how to ask questions that penetrate to the deliberately darkened core of old hurts and subtle pleasures. Or maybe she just likes to explore what makes me cry.

Elizabeth's subject of inquiry this week was my late father - his last words to me, how and where he died, how he got there, how I heard.

Concerning Dad's and my cross-country car trip in the week before his death, the high point was hearing his recollections of New Orleans in the year before the war, croaked out through the cancerous cough that was pulling him down. A young Army officer, he had been delivered a much-coveted invitation to a fancy dress ball, only to have Pearl Harbor blow everything up. He was a tough guy, certainly no crier, though with an infinitely kind heart. I'm sure he didn't mean to hurt me when he told me in fourth grade I could no longer kiss him, but it cut me deep. I went years not knowing even what to call him - it seemed he had stopped being my daddy.

"I love you" were my Dad's last words, as I left him dying at home in the dreadful last gasps of his illness. I didn't say it back. Oh, how I wish I had. I thought I'd see him one more time. But in every life, there is a day that is the last. What fools we are if we arise in the morning without a little niggling awareness that the words we speak could be the last our loved ones ever hear from us, or choose to hear.

So be kind, Sweetheart, and save a kiss for me. In your darkest moment, remember your dad will always hold your hand. I know my dad holds mine.

- M.S.W.

Matt Winters is editor of the Chinook Observer


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