We drive in silence. We always do when I am driving to the drop-off point. I go through the same symptoms each time: loss of appetite, moodiness, and introspection. But I wonder what it is like for her, what she thinks about. What does the world look like through the eyes of a four year old girl?
It’s a cold night. The snow falls softly and vanishes as it hits the warm windshield. We drive up highway 94 through Wisconsin towards her home in Minnesota. Her grandfather, my former father-in-law, has agreed to meet us halfway, at the tiny town of Tomah. This gives Zoe and me about two hours together in the car.
She sits quietly. I can’t see her in the darkness of the backseat that stretches out of sight.
“I was just seeing if you were sleeping.”
She seems to take these final drives rather well. But what is her concept of time? Minutes before she asked me what time I would see her again. If I say weeks or months will she understand? Her concept of time is still forming—one day rolling into the next—that happy, innocent, formless void of childhood.
She breaks the silence by singing one of her favorite songs. “Do you want to sing it too?” she asks.
I laugh, “I don’t know the words, Zoe.”
“Yes you do,” she insists. And, although I don’t, her faith in me and in the sincere belief that everybody must know the newest song she has learned—songs are universal, right?—compel me to try to sing with her.
Suddenly she is asking a harder question. “Daddy, how come you and mommy don’t live together? How come Gavin lives with his family but I don’t?”
This question can take on many forms, but I take it hard. To me she is asking: how come my life isn’t the same as my friends? How come I have to deal with this, I’m only four! Why should I pay for your mistakes?
I meagerly answer, “Your mommy and me decided we’re going to be friends, which means we don’t live with each other.” A weak attempt, but maybe it will pass?
“I remember when we lived in the white house with Sunny!” Sunny was her dog and she seems happy at this memory and perhaps is lost for a moment back when her life was more stable.
“Do you remember my plan?” I ask her.
“No” she admits.
“I’m going to try to see you as often as I can, and you can call me whenever you want.”
“Daddy, it takes you so long to see me.”
“I know, baby. I’m going to try my best.”
Sometimes she starts to falter and cry a little--it’s more like a quiet sob. But this time she accepts. “OK” she says, and then adds, “I’m going to miss you so much.”
“I’m going to miss you too, baby.”
I live 500 miles away, and sometimes I can see her after four weeks, sometimes six, sometimes two months…but it is not anything consistent and that to me is the real issue for her: that I am simply not accessible to her. And it hurts me. When I found out I would be a father I remember reacting: “I hope I get a little girl!” and God gave me one and she continues to defy all my greatest expectations. And I just can’t help but feel guilty about the lessons I’m teaching her.
She rides in the back, always amicable--singing, once in a while requesting some more juice or gum. But now we are nearing the drop-off point. “We’re almost there” I say.
We turn off the highway into the small town and I pull into a Quick Trip parking lot.
I spot a familiar green truck. “There’s grandpa!” I say, trying to sound excited and happy for her. “Tell him all about your vacation! He’ll be so happy to see you!”
But when I stop the car and turn around she is crying, silently. I hadn't even heard it. How long had she been crying? Tears are running down her cheeks and her lip is quivering.
“Baby, don’t let grandpa see you cry," I say. "You know he doesn’t like it.” And I know she is trying as hard as she can, but what can I expect? I am a 28 year old and with all my coping skills I will be crying as soon as she is out of sight. But for now: a brave front, for her.
I undo her seat belt and help her out of the car. “Wait here,” I say. I grab her red backpack out of the trunk. I’m automatically doing these things, my brain has stopped sensing, a defense mechanism I suppose. I hand them to grandpa who greets me warmly. He is a jovial man with a moustache nestled comfortably on top of a sincere smile.
We make small talk for a second as I hand him her things: her bag, her Dora the Explorer pillow, her car seat. Once again I am handing her out of my life one item at a time. I turn around to say a few last words to my daughter. She is standing there, in her coat, head turned to the ground, clutching a tiny, white toy cat she adopted and named Sally.
I kneel down and hug her and lift her. “My big girl!” I say.
“I don’t want you to go, Daddy” she says.
“I know, baby. I will be back soon, I promise. Now…” I’m starting to lose it, “Now, just sit with grandpa and go to sleep. It’s late, and when you wake up it will be OK.”
And I lift her up and she holds onto me tightly. I notice that she doesn’t fight. She doesn’t kick or scream or panic. What is it like being a small child and your whole life is forced on you in one way or another? I place her in the seat but I can’t look at her anymore. I buckle her in and hug her one more time. “Remember my plan, Zoe. I love you. Call me tomorrow if you miss me.”
“I love you too, Daddy.”
I step back outside and her grandpa is talking to me but I can’t hear him. My head feels as hallow as a drum. I feel sick and empty and cold. I shake his hand and get into my car parked next to his truck. I look through the side window and she is crying. I can’t hear her but her face is flushed, mouth open and her head is quivering back and fourth, eyes producing tears. It is the sincere face that says: I am in pain. It is the face that only an innocent child can make. No defense mechanisms, no coping, no faking, none of the facades that adults so naturally incorporate into everyday life.
I force a smile and wave goodbye. She looks at me, biting her lip to keep it still, and finally her hand comes up in a reflexive action, waving back just as the truck pulls away. Did I teach her that? Did she learn that from watching me or other adults? I don’t know when she learned that lesson: that when someone waves you wave back. She must have just picked it up along the way. Now it is so ingrained it is just reflex action to her young mind--that is how society works. And I wonder, what other lessons is she learning?