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My 8-Year-Old Daughter Makes Me a Better Man

Photograph by Serge Bielanko Private

She doesn't even have to do anything—just light up. Violet walks in through the front door after her mom drops her off at my house and I smile. It's never forced. It's the real thing. I can't help it. I don't care if it embarrasses her in her teenage years or whatever. She's 8 now and when I hear the screen door creaking, the front door thumping as she shoulders it open, I lose any street-cred cool I might still be clinging to. I get giddy. I bite my lip trying to pace myself.

None of it ever works.

I roll her up in a hug as she strolls across the front room. She wants to grab the TV remote or to see what new Kool-Aid flavor I might have in the fridge, but I stop her in her tracks and pull her in tight. She goes along with it. She hugs me back. She tolerates her dad's coffee breath. She freezes in my squeezes. Then she shakes me loose to live her life.

Three years ago, her mom and I separated. A year after that, we were divorced. It's been tough and sad—all the words you might toss around when people get divorced. The kids (Violet and her younger brothers, Henry, 5, and Charlie, 2), though, they've been sort of magic. I fear that I miss stuff. They hurt sometimes, I know they do. Children run with pain in trickier ways than adults. They cry about things that aren't really what they're crying about. They move into zones that aren't what they seem. I've learned a lot about looking for that stuff these past few years. Being a single parent does that: You form a new sense, a hyper-recognition. That's a strange, beautiful addition to my limited cache. I've grown as a man through their mysterious tears. I'm not proud of that. Or maybe I am.

Violet, especially, has made me better. She's the least likely to tell her mom or me if something's bugging her. What is that? Tough? Resilient? Early on in all of this divorce stuff, she likely realized that because she is the oldest, she might have to look after her brothers if certain situations arose. It's a sobering notion for a single dad to stumble across. Sometimes empathy and being protective comes at a cost, you know? I figure she hasn't always given herself the time to process much of what has gone down in her family. I think she's unconsciously wanted to be ready if she had to defend her little brothers against their own blues or confusion. Or dragons. Anything, really.

I get that. I've been kind of strolling through those same haunted woods myself. You lose a marriage, you lose a lot, even if you know it's for the best and blah blah blah. I watch Violet closely here and there the past few years and I have to turn away sometimes. It's beneath the surface, her sacrifices. She's not diving on live grenades in the Hollywood way. She's not saving her brothers from getting nailed by buses in the street or pushing them out of the way of buffalo stampedes. That shit is in the movies. This is real life. Divorce. Your whole kid world turned upside down when you're 5. Then 6, 7, 8. Her heroism isn't CNN award stuff. It's subtler. It's quieter. But if there was some kind of cosmic medal handed out for brave kids in the everyday world, I'd spend the rest of my days making sure she got one. Especially if they were made out of chocolate and peanut butter. Which is—quite frankly—the only way she'd give a damn.

Lately, I'm thinking that my daughter is the only person I have ever known who basically doesn't play people games, or mind games. She's as honest as they come. Is that a good thing? I want to believe it is. This world, though. She doesn't even seem capable of lying. Or fibbing. My sons: different story. I love those meatheads with all I've got but the truth is, they're both con men/shysters; they'll look you in the eye and staple their very souls to the back of an untrue pledge if there's even the faintest trace of possibility that it might lead them to another Hershey's Kiss or gummy worm.

Not Violet.

I don't know why.

I'd let her get away with anything. Don't tell her this, but I'm one of those total sucker dads when it comes to my daughter. She's 8, but I'd probably still give her the Honda keys if she told me she wanted to go meet up with some friends at Olive Garden or whatever.

Thing is, I learn from all this. I watch her more than she watches me and I ponder what I see. Then I start understanding a thing. That she is a some kind of super human in my eyes. When she cries, she means it, even if neither of us know exactly where those particular tears are rising up from. When she laughs, same thing: she's happy. There is no fake laugh coming out of my daughter. She doesn't know how to do that. It ain't in her. That's a good sign, I figure. But her heart is probably in for it, someday.

In my mind, my own struggles are often similar to hers. We're both trying to look after this family in our own way. Me, by doing what I have to do to pay the rent and the bills, and by being a teacher and a cop and lifeguard and cook, by being a dad with three kids. I get so lost in all of that. My aim is true, though. I try so hard. I fall so hard. That's got to mean something. V, she's out there on her own too. She's out there in front of two little guys who look up to her in ways I suspect she both recognizes at certain times and yet has no clue about at others. There is no woman in this home of ours. There is no other man either. There is just me, all of the time. And at their mom's, there is just Mom. All of the time. Someday that might change but until then, it's something for me to watch my first-born baby girl pick up certain slacks in her own little way. There is no big bully mom replacement thing happening. She's still very much a kid in every way. But she's a kid who seems to have learned to both survive and flourish in the wake of something very hard and very sad.

I sit down on my couch at night and I think about that. I think about Violet, about all of it. I hold it up to the TV light, who she has become in the years since this divorce.

It comes to me then. I know damn right well that seeing what I've seen and knowing what I know has made me a better dad and better man. I never expected that. I never expected that my daughter would be the one who saved me on a regular basis.

I thought it would be the other way around.

Seriously.

Jesus.

What a kid.

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