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American Coming of Age

“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”

The voice that came through his phone's speakers sounded so different than Emily’s did just minutes ago when she'd asked to watch Minecraft videos. How had she changed so much in just a few short years? Emily was only 3 then, her hair was shoulder length. Sharon had put it up in pigtails that morning. They bounced along with Emily as she implored him to wake up.

He was glued to the small screen, replaying the video from four Father’s Days ago. How had he forgotten about that yellow flower dress? It was her favorite. She bawled when Sharon told her she was too big for it and that they were donating it. She begged, pleaded, for them to let her wear it again. They had to pry it from her hands, like they were separating her from her best friend. He really liked that dress too, now that he thought about it.

The video ended for the fifth time, Emily freeze-framed in midair, one fist pumping as Dave slowly began to rise from the bed. He didn't restart it, but he didn't close it out either. He just stared at her infectious smile and that gap between her front teeth that had all but disappeared in the years since. 

How many times had she screamed out Daddy! over the years? 

Every time he got home from work.

Whenever she'd fall and would need the magical power of a Daddy kiss on her booboo.

At 8 AM on weekends he had to audacity to still be asleep.

It all seemed so normal back then, as if none of it would ever fade. He never considered that her excitement and innocence might disappear; it never seemed possible. Like she would remain 3 for the rest of her life, adorable and loving and full of life.

She was still wonderful and precious, but the adorable things he loved so much when she was younger had already begun to fade. The unintentional mispronunciations, excitement over every innocuous thing, and love of Paw Patrol were slowly replaced by a desire to watch Minecraft videos and shows on the Disney channel that had just a bit more maturity in them than Dave would have liked. 

How had he missed her growing up? He was there the whole time. Then again, maybe he wasn’t. He thought back to that Father’s Day four years ago, to the breakfast Emily had helped Sharon make for him. The Lakers played the Celtics the night before. He'd spent the entire meal checking the box score of the game, worrying about his fantasy lineup. He couldn't even recall if Emily had eaten with him or not.

There was always some game for which he had to check the stats. Fantasy lineups he had to adjust. And if it wasn’t sports, it was Candy Crush. Or Angry Birds. Or whatever the newest game was. How much time did he spend on his phone? How much had he missed? He didn’t even know anymore.

He’d originally opened his Photo Gallery to delete photos and videos to make room for a new game. Instead, he tapped the Home button and swiped up to open the apps list. What game was he playing this morning while drinking his coffee? While Emily was trying to tell him about something a YouTuber named Stampy did in his Minecraft world? 

Candy Crush.

He found the game and looked at the icon as if it caused him, forced him, to play. He blamed it, hated it. He pressed his thumb on the game’s icon - hard - as if trying to crush the game out of his phone. He felt the quick vibration of the secondary menu popping up and smashed “Delete”. His chest felt a little less tight.

He went through the rest of his app list, first removing the games that he felt took up the majority of his time. Then, he went back through and deleted them all. He checked the time on his phone. 2:47 PM. Emily would be getting out of school soon. And when she walked out of school, bounding to his car as he waited in the pickup line, she wouldn’t find him swiping through his phone or launching a pixelated bird at terribly constructed buildings.

She’d see him recording her. Capturing every possible moment of her innocence, her wonder, her beauty. 

How many moments had he missed over the years, thinking them to be normal, everyday occurrences that wouldn't someday disappear? Now that they were gone, he could never recapture what he'd missed – but he could ensure that he never missed anything again.

It began innocently enough. That day, when Emily walked out to the car from school, she squinted and ducked her head to look into the passenger window. 

“Are you recording me?”

“Yep! You look so cute in that outfit. Great job picking it out!”

Emily smiled. "Thank you! Are you taking a picture?"

"No, baby. I'm recording you. You're on camera."

She laughed. "Why are you recording me?”

Dave would come to hear that question countless times in the coming days and weeks. 

Breakfast in the mornings. 

Soccer practices. 

Watching videos of people on the other side of the world playing Minecraft. 

Nights spent cuddling up to Mommy on the couch watching America’s Funniest Home Videos. 

Everything was recorded. At first, Dave’s phone sufficed. Since he’d wiped out all non-essential apps, he felt he had quite a bit of room for videos. It didn’t take long for the device to fill up, though. So, Dave invested in external hard drives, terabytes of treasured-memory storage space. It became a regular habit, dumping the mass amounts of short videos from his phone onto the external hard drive to make room for more.

Emily viewed the regular recordings as fun, even playing up to the camera when she saw it – like an A-list actress flashing poses on the red carpet. For a while, even Sharon got in on the fun. She'd long chastised him about being on his phone too much before; now, she praised his newfound desire to be involved in Emily's day-to-day life during late night discussions in bed. Dave finally felt like he was doing right by his daughter, his family.

Six months after he first recorded Emily’s walk out of school, Dave decided to install a closed circuit camera system for the house. He figured there was a treasure trove of memories occurring when he wasn’t around. For the first time, Sharon seemed less than thrilled about the idea. When he told her that he’d already purchased the equipment, she questioned the necessity of even more cameras. She also questioned if he was taking this whole thing a bit too far. He didn’t understand; didn’t she praise him just a couple weeks ago for this?

“Don’t you want to remember all of the wonderful things that Emily does when we get older?”

Sharon spoke slowly, raising her eyebrows. “Yes… but not to this degree. You haven’t stopped recording us, recording her, for months now. I know you mean well, but if someone else were to see this, they’d find it a bit… creepy.”

Creepy?” Dave snapped back. 

“I don’t mean that I feel that way. Just…”

“I can’t believe you’d turn an act of love like this into a negative thing. Creepy?”

“Don’t turn this around on me! I’m not saying it’s creepy, I’m just wondering if maybe you’re taking this a bit too far.”

She didn’t understand. If she did, she wouldn’t question this; in fact, she’d be helping install the cameras. Dave shook his head and walked out of the room. It was time to pick Emily up anyway.

Emily didn’t question him like Sharon did. Well, she did, but in the way a 7-year-old questions everything. 

“How do you watch the videos?”

“Can you post my dances to TikTok?”

“Wait, what if I’m getting dressed?”

To her last question, Dave reassured her that he only had the cameras in the common areas of the house – dining room, living room, kitchen. He would never invade her privacy like that. And so, with Emily's approval, Sharon relented. The cameras were installed by the next day.

The house settled into a new normal, though Sharon no longer praised him for recording everything. Even with the cameras installed in the main rooms, Dave still recorded Emily using his phone whenever possible. What if the overhead cameras missed something?

For her 8th birthday, he and Sharon reserved a section of Chuck-E-Cheese. Knowing that he would be recording all day, and with so much to capture, Dave brought his laptop and external hard drive to the party. When his wife noticed the bag Dave threw in the back of the car, her eyebrows shot up as her gaze went from the bag to him.

“Tell me you’re not really bringing all that.”

“I’m going to run out of space before the party ends. I’m just bringing it so I can offload the videos and clear space.”

She threw up her hands and exhaled. “Whatever.”

He wasn’t backing down; this was the first birthday since his epiphany. He would be able to look back on this day and remember it 50 years down the road as if he were back here with Emily. He’d even be able to show Emily later on. She’d like that.

From the moment they left the house, Dave had his phone recording. Even when they walked in and Emily got lost in the crowd of screaming kids, he kept recording. Not even the whispers of other parents, overheard as he walked by, affected his resolve. His phone remained trained on Emily’s every movement. 

He captured everything. The 4 consecutive baskets scored at the basketball goals. The 1000 point skeeball shot. The near-jackpot on the spinning light machine. The camera saw it all.

The drive home had an odd tension to it; Emily was too tired to talk much, and Sharon rode in silence, staring out the passenger window. Dave’s one attempt to talk, a “that was pretty fun” comment meant to test the waters, was met with a telling “mhmm” and the back of her head remaining turned towards him. That was ok, she’d be fine in the morning. Dave smiled at the thought of how much footage he’d captured.

The years passed, with Emily growing as fast as Dave and Sharon grew apart. By the time Emily turned 10, Sharon requested marriage counseling. The counselor worked with Dave, trying to understand his obsession with recording Emily. 

“So, Dave, you say that you don’t want to miss anything. I can understand that desire. How often do you watch the recordings?”

“Well, I haven’t watched any of them yet. They’re so I can look back in my later years.”

“So you’re focusing all of your attention on recording everything, but you’re not paying attention to what’s happening in the moment – nor are you watching the videos at all?”

“That’s correct.”

“Do you not see how that might be a problem?”

Dave shook his head. “No, because even if I'm not seeing everything now, the camera does. I’ll have a lifetime of memories that I can look back on.”

To his side, Dave caught sight of Sharon holding her hand up, pointing at him. She had her eyebrows raised as if to imply “see?”. 

How could she not appreciate the work he’d put in? She would be able to watch these videos too. One day, she’d thank him. The session ended without any resolution. They didn't go back. The distance between them only grew as Dave developed a fear of missing out on any little thing Emily did or said.

By the time Emily turned 14, even she had begun to question him about the recordings. Sharon must have gotten to her, he thought. That was the only explanation. She'd always loved being on camera. 

Now, instead of flashing Hollywood A-List actress poses for the camera, she began to complain about its presence. “I’m just going to get a bowl of cereal Dad. No memories going on here.”

“Baby, you know I have to record everything.”

“No, you really don’t Dad.”

So now it was two on one. They would both understand one day. They'd appreciate being able to reminisce in high definition after time had passed. Dave understood this, and so he didn’t stop despite their protests. 

Emily began to ignore it, staring at her phone and ignoring him. Even when he pushed the phone in her face, feigning a Hollywood interview, she just turned her head and walked away. Sharon barely spoke to him at all, camera or not.

The situation came to a head one evening after the family’s dinner of chicken cordon bleu and steamed broccoli passed in tense silence. Dave’s phone was set up to record Emily eating. His attempts to engage the two of them were met with sounds of chewing. After the table was cleared, Dave heard Sharon call from the living room.

“David, I need you in here.”

“Should I bring the-“

“Just get in here.”

The curt responses and cold shoulders from the moment he returned from picking Emily up from school had hinted at an upcoming “talk”. These were occurring much more commonly. This was his cross to bear, though. He'd endure until Emily graduated high school; then, things would calm down. They'd appreciate the years-long labor of love he’d undertaken.

He walked into the living room to find both his wife and daughter sitting on the loveseat in such a way that there was no room for him. He sat on the couch opposite them. 

Both wore jackets, Emily sporting the pink jacket he’d filmed her shopping for just yesterday. They both had shoes on their feet, unusual in a house where the rule had always been “shoes off when you walk inside”. It even was Sharon’s rule; she always fussed at him when he forgot.

“We're leaving, David.”

“Ok… where are you going? Should I record America’s Funniest Home Videos tonight or-”

“No, David. We're leaving. We can’t take this anymore.”

Dave’s eyes widened, realization setting in. “You mean.... no. Wait. No!”

“We’ve already made arrangements. Dad will come pick up some of our stuff tomorrow." She paused, a pained expression on her face. "I love you, but I have to get Emily away from here. Away from you.”

Dave’s chest tightened. Away from him? Why would she need to be away from him? There was no one in the world who loved Emily more than him. “But, why? I don’t understand.”

Sharon sighed. “That’s the problem. You have no idea what you’ve done to me, to our family, to your daughter. You don’t realize how obsessed you’ve become. I can’t talk about what goes on in our house outside these walls because everyone would start calling you crazy. I have to cover for you when people see you with that damn phone pointed at our daughter all the time. I can’t do this anymore.”

His stomach felt as if the bottom dropped out, a sinking feeling taking its place. His life, everything he held dear, was crumbling in front of him. “What, is it the cameras around the house? I can take those down! I can, I can…” His eyes darted back and forth as if trying to probe his own thoughts for ways to hold on.

“It’s too late, David.”

“But… but, but you can’t just take Emily away from me like this!”

Emily’s voice was soft, softer than he’d heard it in years. He’d long grown used to her sarcasm, the verbal manifestation of her teenage rebellion. It was the complete lack of it that cut to Dave’s core.

“Mom isn’t taking me away, Dad. I… I want to go.”

His body turned ice cold, starting in the center of his chest and radiating outward until his entire body shivered. “Em… baby. Why? What did I do?”

Emily looked to her mom as if to get permission to respond. Maybe it was to strengthen her resolve. Dave wasn’t sure, but her eyes remained locked on her mother as she responded. “You already know why, Dad.”

When did she get so old? So mature? Wasn’t she just 7 years old? How did her voice change so much? 

Dave watched as the two most important women in his life walked out the front door. He didn’t bother pulling his phone out to record; in fact, the thought didn’t even cross his mind until after the door creaked shut. It didn’t bother him that he hadn’t captured this moment; it was etched into his memory, perfectly preserved as he'd long presumed only a video camera could capture. This particular memory would remain with him for the rest of his life - no camera necessary.

The sound of gravel crunching told him that they were truly gone. He was alone with nothing but his thoughts – and his cameras. The blinking red light of the living room camera reminded him that his worst moment had been recorded, preserved for all time so he could relive this pain in stunning HD. He doubted he'd ever watch that footage.

He was truly alone, his family gone. All he had left were recordings. Maybe in the coming weeks and months he'd open those files.

Right now, all he wanted was to be with them, Sharon and Emily. Spend time with them. Enjoy their company. The files contained mere recreations of his loves; they couldn’t hug him back, couldn’t commiserate about their day at work or school. They couldn’t love him back.

The videos could only taunt him with the sounds of so many “I love you” declarations that he’d missed in the moment to make sure they were preserved for later.

All he had now was a 7-year-long record full of videos of the beautiful life he'd lost.

He had no interest in watching any of them. 

August 13, 2021 19:28

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3 comments

Francis Daisy
13:09 Aug 24, 2021

Heartbreaking.

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Jon Casper
21:54 Aug 13, 2021

A perfect modern day tragedy. Impressive work. Loved it!

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Michael Martin
00:03 Aug 14, 2021

Thanks!! I appreciate the feedback, and that you took the time to read through.

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