You came into this world quietly and curiously. I was the first person you saw. The look on your face was one I still see to this day; that distant leer, with a surface of uncertainty which isn’t just youthful naivety. It’s also a desperate endeavour to seem belonged. A cry out to the universe for acceptance. It’s a look of someone trying to find their way in the wide world. I know the look, and the feeling all too well.
Your little eyes met mine for just a second but held on for moments longer. I loved you the instant I saw you and I felt even then that you were comforted by my presence, new and confusing as it was. I don’t know what you saw in my face but I imagine it was a slow, sure change from an expression of daunting perturbation to that of fleeing, unyielding joy.
And when I held you for the first time – when I held my little girl in my arms… I felt happiness, yes, but something else too. A great weight. One that seemed placed there by an imposing entity of some sort, which would no doubt ease off as the months and years went by and I found the correct pair of shoes to fit my new father’s feet as I confidently walked the path of parenthood.
But the path, which I guilelessly saw as somewhat straight with the slightest of bumps here and there, turned out to be rather different. And the weight that was placed on me did not get lighter, but significantly heavier as the years pressed on.
I’d always imagined my parenthood as a combined effort of multiple positive influences. I would take care of your most prominent needs first, and then I would teach you to sing and dance, paint and colour, laugh and make music. Whenever you would fall I would pick you up and wipe away the debris, and always when I didn’t know the best course of action there would be external aid. Other influences who could support me, and us. But Maisie, sometimes things don’t work out the way we think they will.
I know you see your father as a brave warrior. A man who is not afraid of anything. Monsters that prowl the night would come across his house and flee in terror when they caught scent of whose door they had come wickedly sniffing at. All shall respect your father and fear him.
But the truth is, Maisie, I’m scared. I am afraid, and I always have been.
I know you don’t understand this. There are a great many things that are difficult for me to explain to you, and to myself for that matter.
I think of how far you’ve come but I fear how far you have yet to walk on a path that is veiled by fog so thick that it is itself another obstacle on your journey. I imagine myself holding your little hand through as much of this as I can, until it gets so big that one day I shall hold it for the last time and let go, not knowing that I will never feel the touch of it again. And then where will you be? What part of the path will you be on and how much fog will there be? And will you wander off, looking for an answer to that distant leer that’s been with you from the beginning? And will you find it? And how heavy will my weight, and my heart feel then?
When I found myself alone with you, the weight had never felt heavier. As I walked the path of fatherhood I found that it sloped sharply upwards and became dizzyingly steep. As I climbed I dared not look upwards for fear of seeing it become unscalable. But what then, Maisie? What happens to us if that path becomes too treacherous to navigate?
I do not know the answer to a great many things, but I believe I have found the answer to this.
I write this letter to you as you sleep, undisturbed by the maddening thoughts that haunt my waking life. I am writing it for you, but also somewhat to myself. To remind myself of just how possible it is to traverse the paths of parenthood when you have your passing places. When the road ahead becomes distinctly turbulent, a passing place can help ease the journey and make the way less perilous.
Yesterday we made an autumn wreath.
‘What’s a wreath?’ you asked.
‘Like the Christmas one we put on our door,’ I said.
‘What’s an autumn one?’ you asked.
‘One made out of the colourful autumn leaves,’ I said.
‘Cool,’ you said.
We took a walk in the woods looking for the most beautiful fallen leaves that we could find. You excitedly picked out the biggest and most colourful ones and placed them in the plastic zip bag we took with us. You said you could smell the autumn in the air and you told me it was now your favourite season. I laughed. You asked why. I said “nothing” while thinking that you would likely say the same of winter after we visit Santa.
When we got home we glued the leaves to a grapevine wreath I had bought and we hung it up on our front door. You got glue all over your hands and we had to scrub it off with warm soapy water that smelled of strawberries. When your hands were dried you ran out to see the front door and you admired the beauty that we, father and daughter had created together. You didn’t see it, but I quickly wiped a tear out of my eye. If you’d caught it and asked me why it was there I’d have said something like “Sometimes people cry when they’re really happy”. And you would accept this answer, baffling as it would be, but for myself I’d have an even less clear answer for why a tear was there.
The next morning you ran out to see your wreath once again and found that the leaves had curled up and gone more brown. The beautiful colours were lost and I saw that look in your face again; the distant leer. My heart somewhat sank but I had an idea. After breakfast we drove to the craft shop and we bought some construction paper. We drew leaf shapes onto the brown, red and golden pieces, cut them out and folded them into three-dimensional autumn leaves to replace the real discoloured ones on our wreath. We sprinkled these with the extra ingredient we’d purchased from the shop – gold and silver glitter. Our elderly neighbour Agnes came out to shower you with praise.
‘Oh my, what a beautiful wreath!’ she beamed. ‘You’ve given me such a lovely view from inside my kitchen window!’
You smiled, and for a moment it seemed our treacherous paths were almost forgotten, demystified and decorated with all the colours of autumn leaves.
And it’s days like these, Maisie, that help that sloping path of mine begin to flatten just a little, and the weight to feel less than it is. And onwards we march together through the passage, my father shoes feeling fresh and tightly secured, for now at least. I have found that there is not just one pair of father shoes, but many. Today they are made from construction paper and glue, but tomorrow they may be made from marbles or storybooks, and they must be changed often to make sure the path is still walkable.
As you sleep I look through the pictures I took of you making the wreath and I smile, but that peculiar tear forms in my eye once more, and this time transforms into rivers of emotion flowing down my cheeks.
I believe it is a combination of happiness and of the intense, overwhelming emotion associated with that weight that was placed on me when I met you for the first time: the one that is ever growing. Being your father is a tough job, Maisie. You are a sweet, joyful, happy and caring child, but I am a man who is perpetually haunted by nightmares of what might be if I fail you, if I let your hand slip and lose you in the fog, the last thing I see on your face being not the leer but a look of disappointment. That, Maisie, is what I fear most.
But for all the tears, days like these are important for me. Today was a passing place, a place for us both to take a short break and rest to find the next day that our paths have become a little easier. Passing places are found in craft days, visits to castles, walks in the park, film nights, drives in the countryside and baking cakes. They are the moments that I find I can forget about my weight and move ahead with you cheerfully, and be that brave warrior that you think I am, and watch you grow to be the brave warrior that I know you are.
For all the exhaustion of helping you walk your path I am both bewildered and awe-inspired to see how easy it is for you to help your father walk his. For every moment of self-doubt there is a reassuring smile. For every worry that your hand is slipping from mine there is a squeeze from yours. You are my hero, my little saviour, for without you my path would perhaps be freer from obstacles, but profoundly darker. You are the light by which I can see enough to navigate my way through life.
And each night after I kiss your cheek and say goodnight I close your door, take the deepest of breaths and with both a tear and a smile I tell myself: ‘You can do this.’.
And the weight eases.