They grow up so fast. You hear this a lot.
But it’s rare when you can actually see it — when you can bear witness to a sudden, awful transformation that creases the eyes, dulls them a little, weighs down the shoulders, and saps some relic of childhood joy that you’ve probably long forgotten about yourself until this very moment.
You can try it any time, of course.
Just call the child onto your lap and say, “You know, it’s just me and mom. Santa isn’t real.”
Then wait a few seconds. You’ll see a small light of recognition turn on behind her eyes and then, wait for it, because here it comes: The light dies. The eyes are a little darker now. They always will be now. There’s something missing from them — a joy, a fathoming, an ability not to suspend disbelief but the childhood gift of never knowing the need.
I didn’t blow the Santa story. I hope there’s one year left.
Instead, we were sitting in her room, Emme’s too long limbs stretched across my lap. We were reading a Calvin and Hobbes anthology she picked up from the library.
“Ooh, ooh, watch this, watch this,” she laughed, pointing to a panel.
“Calvin’s going to come home and Hobbes is going to just attack him, watch!”
We giggled and laughed. There were times I couldn’t even breathe enough to read and times I wondered how on earth I was going to quickly explain existentialism.
Then it happened. I assumed she knew.
“Did you ever notice how Hobbes is a tiger with Calvin but a stuffed animal when anyone else is around?”
I can think of a dozen or so books and poems wherein a tiger plays a symbol — wisdom, perhaps, or age. Something wild in the soul, maybe. Danger. Death.
Or growing up.
“Yeah,” she said, “I have.”
“Why do you think that is?”
And there it was. The recognition. And then the darkening. A sweep of sadness across her face.
“Dad,” she said after a moment, “Dad, I really wish you hadn’t told me. I … just …”
I wonder if there’s an finite amount of light to growing up. You experience new things and new lights go on, new connections are made. But to make room for this process, other lights, perhaps the most joyful and important ones, go out.
Sometimes you can see it happening, and it will haunt you as a parent to know how many you are already responsible for and how many you have yet to extinguish.