I came home from work the other day and Claire was in a bad mood. “I’m so tired,” she said, when I asked what was wrong.
I offered up a number of ideas. She could read a book, listen to music, or just chill out on the couch. No, she could not watch TV. That was for after dinner and showers. She did not like this, and let me know.
“Well, Claire,” I said, “I’m going out on a bike ride with Tommy and Austin. You can join us if you want.”
She rolled her eyes at me and audibly sighed. Her hair was high on her head in a scrunchie (“it’s the new style, mom”) and she wore her cross-country running shirt. She looked so big in that moment, and I let it register that she’s almost done with elementary school.
But Tommy was calling me, so I left with the boys for about an hour. By the time I came home, Claire was happily cooking with my dad.
Later, when we were eating dinner, Claire told me about this story she read at school. “My teacher wanted us to read it because it’s about growing older,” she said, “and we are getting older.”
“Yes, you are,” I said.
“But, like the story said, when it’s my 11th birthday, it’s not like I’ll wake up on that day and be totally different. It doesn’t work like that. It’s much slower. And even when I’m 11, I’ll still have parts of me that are like myself when I was 5 or 6 or 7 or 8. You don’t just become a different person on your birthday, even if you do grow up.”
“That’s pretty insightful,” I said. “I think we all imagine that our birthdays are special markers and that we’ll be different once we are a certain age. I know sometimes I think my life should be a certain way now that I’m 40.”
She looked at me and smiled a blank smile. I was talking about something that was a bit beyond her worldview. So, I decided to tell her something fun about her dad.
“You know, when your dad was just about to turn 25, he actually thought he had already been 25 for an entire year. Two days before his birthday, he realized that he was still only 24! So rather than turning 26 (like he thought) he was only turning 25. He was so excited and went around everywhere telling people that he got an extra year of life!”
She laughed. “That’s silly!” she said. The boys laughed too. “Dad was funny,” she said.
“He was,” I agreed.
Later that night, I found Claire and my dad on the couch. My dad had a book propped on his knee and he was reading out loud. His voice was low. I realized he was reading from one of his medical journals, explaining an internal organ to Claire. She was resting on his chest, her head in the crook of his arm. She smiled slightly at me, her eyes content and a bit sleepy.
I thought about how much her father would have loved to be there, reading to her about the political landscape or space exploration or the future of rock climbing. How big he would think she was, right on the cusp of adolescence. How surprised he would be at her complex thinking.
In that moment, cuddled up with my dad, she seemed so small. I could remember being that age, laying my head on my dad’s chest and listening to him read.
In a way, I could remember being her. Different, of course. I had my dad, and she doesn’t. But the same in other ways. Feeling the push of adolescence alongside the pull of childhood.
As I put her to bed, we talked about age again. “It’s like this,” she said, “I’m ten. And that means that I can do lots of things like go to the store by myself or cook things like ramen. But sometimes, I just want to curl up like a baby. I can be old and young at the same time.”
“I get that,” I said. “I’m glad that you have your Grandpa Tom to cuddle up with when you feel like that.”
“Yep,” she said.
I didn’t say it, but I was thinking it: I wish it was your father here. I wish he was the one watching you grow from a baby into a pre-teen.
But, I thought, I’m glad she has her Grandpa Tom. Because, sometimes, you just need to curl up like a baby.