The Princess’ First Ball

Ella, the Dancing Queen.

I’ve been married for almost eleven years. For all that we’ve been through together as a couple, nothing in my life with Rachel was as hard (or as embarrassing) as our first date. It was, to be honest, an unmitigated disaster. I was nervous. I was over-talkative. I was braggadocious. I was rude. I was insufferable.

It was so bad, she didn’t talk to me the last 45 minutes of the date. So bad she didn’t even say goodbye when she got out of the car. So bad, I called and apologized to her the next day.

(Which is why there was a second date…and a marriage. But I’m digressing.)

Tonight, I’m going out on another first date, and I’m worried that I’ll screw this one up too. I’m taking Ella to our first Daddy-Daughter Dance at Trip Elementary.

She’ll wear a dress. I’ll wear…whatever her and Rachel pick out for me. We’ll have snacks. She’ll get a corsage. We’ll get our picture taken together. And at some point, because she loves to dance more than almost anything, we’ll get out on the dance floor and boogie for a while.

Honestly, I’m nervous. I want her to be proud of me. I want her to feel special. I don’t want to embarrass her, or treat this like a waste of time. I want to set the bar high for whichever unlucky kid comes to my door to ask her out on a date (unlucky, because they’ll have to deal with me for at least an hour before taking Ella anywhere).

I’m also nervous because my history with school-sponsored dances is spotty at best. I was ditched at 2 of the 3 homecoming dances I attended, and I can’t even mention prom without throwing up in my mouth a little (let’s just say I opted out of the first dance under the guise of not wanting to waste my time–when the reality was I didn’t have the guts to ask someone–and the second one…well, I don’t quite remember what happened. I think I did something stupid and so did someone else).

So the idea of blowing my daughter’s first dance, my princess’ first royal ball, is turning my stomach into the single largest producer of acid this side of the 1970’s.

But mostly, I’m nervous because I want to earn what happened in my kitchen this morning. I was trying to get the coffee ready, and Ella was avoiding getting dressed for school. She was pushing my patience, really, and I was about ready to get sharp with her. Suddenly, she just wraps her arms around my waist, tucks her head against my hip and says, “I can’t wait for tonight! It’s just time for me to be with you, just us!”

And then she skipped away to try on her third outfit of the morning.

I felt like a superhero. Ella never asks for time alone with me, so I compute that as her not needing time alone with me. But I should know, after nearly 11 years of marriage, that not all needs get communicated verbally.

I should know, really, because little girls need time with their daddies. Period.

So in a few moments I’ll go get her off the bus, bring her home, show her the selection of dresses that her mother has laid out for her, and we’ll decide on her outfit (complete with shoes and hair accessories). Then, we’ll traipse to my closet and let her pick out what I’m wearing. After that we’ll have dinner, and then we’ll head to the dance–just me and Ella, holding hands, laughing ourselves silly, her telling me to stop being ridiculous but then begging me to do something funny.

And in these moments I’ll probably relax and realize that I’m not trying to win my daughter’s heart; I’ve already won it. What I’m doing is preparing her heart for whoever comes along to win it later.

That’s a big responsibility, and it adds to the nerves. But in a good way.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and shave. And find a nice clean shirt.

After all, it’s not everyday that you get to take a princess to her first ball.

So Tiny, So Strong

One of the many ways we passed the time before surgery...

Ella’s surgery went surprisingly well today. She was in and out of the operating room in under 20 minutes, and while she did sleep in post-op for about an hour and a half, she exhibited no real signs of pain. She’s eaten like a horse, however, and we should have seen it coming. All morning long the child kept asking, “Now, when am I going to get breakfast again?”

So it should come as no surprise that when the doctor gave her the medical “all clear” to eat whatever she felt like once she got home, Ella took note – and then took to eating. Herewith, a complete list of her afternoon ingestion, beginning from her time in the post-op room:

– 2 popsicles (orange and pink)

– Jell-O (strawberry)

– Skittles (the entire rainbow)

– pot roast (with gravy)

– potatoes (with gravy)

– carrots

– lima beans

– corn

– half a can of chicken noodle soup (her brother ate the other half)

– a roll

– 2 milkshakes (a homemade chocolate and a Zaxby’s vanilla)

Joey Chestnut wishes he had her game. Kid’s intake was immense.

All of this to say, my little girl isn’t so little as I imagine her to be. She faced today’s entire ordeal with a smile on her face, and only once did she even seem the slightest bit afraid. We watched Tangled, colored, shot baskets (on a kid-sized goal), played with an Etch-a-Sketch (“Cool! Just like in Toy Story!”), and in general just passed the time before surgery with confidence and ease. It helped me, as a matter of fact, to be involved with her, and I think she knew that.

There are those moments when you realize that the kid you see is a mirage; that you look at your child through a refracted lens, the light bending in such a way to show you a small baby or a cute little toddler just learning to navigate the big bad world and utterly dependent upon you to guide and hold them, to be their foundation. I still see Ella as the curious two year-old who loves to smear chocolate on her face, or as the suddenly verbose three year-old who can’t wait to tell me the latest word she’s learned.

I’m not hallucinating, mind you – I see her physically changing into a school-aged kid just like everyone else, but when she smiles a certain way, or turns her head just so, I still see that little baby I so loved and longed for, the one that showed me the world wasn’t unnecessarily cruel and heartless. I still see the tiny infant who would sigh in my arms as I rocked and sang to her every night before laying her into her crib and staring at her, first to make sure she was still breathing, then just to marvel at her existence. She’s all legs now, but when she runs on her toes I still remember the first steps she took, her little body bouncing uncertainly into the wide open spaces of our living room, her face lit up with the wonder of her own self.

I saw past my mirage today and saw the reality of my daughter: a tough, intelligent, creative girl who will have no problem with school or the bus or anything else that life throws at her. I saw her spirit, her strength, and not for the last time I marveled at the wonder of someone so essentially beautiful and pure and good being given to me as a trust.

This entire day has come and gone without my shedding a single tear, until now. To suddenly just see my daughter for who she is – who she will become – is a gift that demands tears. And I willingly give them as payment.

My Ella, so tiny, so strong, is a big girl now. Part of my heart, that sub-basement level that will always see her as nothing more than the blond bundle of joy that healed me when she drew first breath, is breaking.

The rest is stronger because she is, too.

For Her Own Good…I Hope

Tomorrow Ella will have an elective adenoidectomy. I may have to watch "Toddlers and Tiaras" to rebuild my parenting self-esteem.

Tomorrow morning, my daughter Ella will undergo a relatively simple surgical procedure to have her adenoids taken out. Apparently, they are just this side of Congress in terms of causing problems for people like my daughter. The doctor says the procedure will take only a few minutes at the most, will leave a relatively short recovery time, and should make my daughter’s quality of life increase about 200%.

But they all say that, don’t they?

I’ve heard from many people that the surgery is nothing.

“I was out and about that same afternoon with my kid. She wanted to eat at McDonald’s.”

“Oh, we were shopping for shoes less than an hour after surgery. It was nothing.”

“Dude, seven minutes after we were out of recovery, my kid felt so great she started singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and was signed to a recording contract by an A&R guy who just happened to be at the doctor’s to have his inner ear checked. Best day our lives. Plus, her album drops on October 15th. We’ve got Snoop-Dog!”

OK – that last one might be an exaggeration. But still, the general consensus is Why freak out, dude? Your kid will be fine.

In my head, I know this. The surgery is so simple the doctors can do it in their sleep. The recovery is so easy, I’ll enjoy eating all of the leftover Jell-O. I know this because I’ve read the literature, heard the experts, and heard it again from friends and family.

But in my heart?

I’m freaking out. Part of it comes from our past. We’re the 1-percenters you always hear about but never really think anything of. You know, when the doc is giving you the boilerplate spiel about how “only 1% of all patients suffer from any kind of severe setbacks…” or “less than 1% of people who have anesthesia swell up like fugu and see purple spots.” If you’ve ever heard a doctor give you the legal CYB, you know what I’m talking about.

Well, that’s us. If anyone is going to sprout goat horns and trot across the surgical center because of some minute adverse reaction to anesthesia, it’ll be my kid. If one surgery in a thousand has some grave operator error, where the doc somehow accidentally cauterizes the patient’s sinuses shut, it’ll be us. That’s just the way it’s been in our history, medically speaking.

So you can see why I’m a little on edge.

In the end, we’ll get up, drink a buttload of coffee and drive out to Scottish Rite tomorrow, and everything will go fine. Ella will have no problems with the intubation, there’ll be no adverse effects from the anesthesia, she’ll have no bleeding or other abnormal response to the surgery, and I’ll move on to my next nervous breakdown, schedule for the same day she starts kindergarten.

But tonight, I’m sitting here, my heart pounding in my chest, worried that I’ve chosen something I think is for her own good but can’t guarantee. I’m hoping against hope that this brings relief instead of trauma, healing instead of hurting, and a better future instead of one that seems shrouded in clouds right now. It’s a battle of faith: will I or will I not trust God with the life of my daughter?

It’s gonna be a long night.


Disciplining My Child Through “Criminal Minds”

This is a picture I found online. If it had been a picture of the actual incident, the kid would've been crying like Tammy Faye Bakker.

There are times when fatherhood really bites. Sure, most people want to hear about the glorious poetic moments that make people reach for the Kleenex or look back longingly at their child’s baby pictures, but those moments don’t tell the whole tale. If every part of fatherhood was sunshine and sundaes, men wouldn’t build massive basement rooms into which they escape.

I don’t have a basement, so I just blog about the things that drive me crazy. Like yesterday, when I picked Ella up from school and learned that she had told one of her good friends in class, “You need to shut your mouth.”

Now, my daughter is, by all accounts, quite spunky. I would say sassy, but that can be taken too negatively. She’s bright, highly energetic, and sometimes says things that she shouldn’t (and often she has no clue she’s said anything wrong). So when the teacher told me about the infraction, and about the context of it, I immediately felt my blood rise.

Apparently, Ella sensed it too. She immediately started crying.

I can’t remember who wrote the line, but someone once said that it’s easier to stop an out-of-control train than a woman’s tears. That’s certainly true of Ella – once she gets the water flowing, it takes forever and a day to get her to stop. She’s a sensitive little girl, and it just doesn’t take much to make her cry.

So when she started squalling, there was a part of me that felt bad. I knew she knew she was in trouble, and really, isn’t that what discipline is all about? Teaching your child to have a conscience? But I’m too easy on Ella sometimes, so, determined not to be fazed by the tears, I gave her my “disappointed” look, a gaze that, when trained upon my children can wither steel and crush the human soul, but, when trained upon my wife, earns me a “What? Do you have to fart?” Ella withered. The tears flowed harder.

Did I mention we’re still standing inside the church? We hadn’t even made it to the car yet. There I stand like an unfeeling statue and my daughter is weeping so hard she might choke. I gently placed my hand on her shoulder and guided her down the hall.

“Would you like to tell me what happened today?” I asked.

“No,” she replied.

Ask a stupid question… And, if I may have an aside for a moment, this is something I learned from my dad – asking the guilty child to provide their account of the crime – but it’s only been through watching Criminal Minds recently that I’ve learned just how effective this technique is, actually. You watch Hotch or Rossi in an interrogation, and they almost always nail the bad guy by leading him/her into telling their side of the story, and BINGO! – case solved.

And actually, there’s really something to that idea – part of parenthood is being able to profile your kid, to understand their likes and dislikes, to know their personalities so well that you can almost interpret an action without needing the child to do it for you. Maybe I’m just a nerd who likes that sort of thing, but I have to confess: knowing Ella the way I do (and knowing that I don’t know everything about her) helps me to be a better parent.

So, for all you new parents out there: you can learn much about parenthood by watching Criminal Minds. Just sayin’.

In this instance, I knew it was unlike her to say something so brutal to anyone, let alone a friend. It’s just not Ella’s style or personality; she tends to be more affirming than that, even when she’s being bossy. So, as we hopped in the car, I was pretty sure that if I pressed her for an explanation, I would uncover some extenuating circumstances.

Another aside – this doesn’t mean that I was looking for an excuse NOT to discipline her; I was looking for the answers to know how to discipline her correctly. There’s a big difference, in case you didn’t know. Any fool can punish a child – that takes no imagination and next to no skill; but it takes a honest parent to correct a child and teach them something that helps them learn. I’m not down with just punishing a kid (though, sometimes, I see the merits…) so I push to understand and then correct. It also gives me time to calm down so I don’t just beat a butt in my anger.

OK – where were we? Oh yeah – getting the story from Ella.

As it turns out, her friend had been the subject of some teasing all day (apparently Ella and her classmates have become enamored with the subject of pooping in non-bathroom locations) and Ella’s friend wasn’t saying anything to defend herself. And, if you know preschool kids, they don’t know when to back off. If a poop joke is funny the first time, it’s funny the next 312 times. So naturally they just kept pouring it on the poor girl. Finally, Ella had heard enough and, in an epic FAIL of an attempt to support and encourage her friend, she said, “You need to make so-and-so shut her mouth.”

My daughter, the life-coach.

Suffice it to say, after hearing this, I felt differently. First of all, what she said made more sense than what the teacher had reported. Let me pause for a second and say I support the teacher 100% in telling me what she heard and how she handled it. She did it the absolute right way and I got her back. Just because it didn’t sound like something Ella would say doesn’t mean Ella didn’t or wouldn’t say it; in point of fact, she said something pretty darned close, in both verbiage and meaning.

But I felt differently because I now understood that Ella didn’t mean to attack her friend, she meant to help her. And honestly, I see how she comes to this: it’s a bizarre and perfect mix of her mother’s and my personalities. I tend to be the more compassionate, side-with-the-victim person in our family, and Rachel tends to be the shut-up-and-fix-it person. Ella somehow meshed both into one statement and simultaneously encouraged and berated her friend.

That’s a little thing we like to call talent.

Anyway, long story short, I did what any good parent would do:

“Well, thank you for the explanation. We’ll have to see what your mother says when we get home.”

That’s right – I shifted the burden to Moms. Well, part of the burden. When we got home, I gave Rachel a quick rundown and then had Ella recount her crime for her mother. Rachel seemed satisfied with the mea culpa, and worked out a plea bargain for Ella: Ella would have play quietly in her room instead of being able to watch a movie, and she would have to apologize to her friend at church last night. Ella nodded and slinked away her room, halfway between relief and devastation. I watched approvingly.

If it had been an episode of Criminal Minds, we would’ve quoted some author everyone says they’ve read but no one really has. And we would have been on a private plane. But this is life, and real drama isn’t so tidy.

Postscript – Ella apologized to her friend last night before their Bible class. Her friend looked at her, said, “What are you talking about?”, and then skipped away to play with a puzzle. Again, not as tidy as a TV ending, but ultimately good for my kid.