We were three songs into a dance party in the car when I realized that I was only one still dancing. Gideon had been asleep since before the party had even started and Clara was now slumped with her head against the window. But in the center I could see Lydia was just staring down at her hands with her hair hanging over her face in a way I found quite disturbing.
I reluctantly turned off the Doobie Brother’s “What a Fool Believes”, even though we were approaching the chorus. That’s when I realized she was crying.
Now, I’m used to hearing Lydia cry. She cries a lot, for a long list of reasons. I know her “I just tried to jump off of a moving bicycle and landed on my head” cry, and her “I hate being the middle child and no one is paying attention to me” cry, and her “I’m scared of the Bigfoot in this movie” cry. I could go on. But, my point is, I’m really a connoisseur at this smorgasbord of tears. I have a practiced response for each variable of whining tone; every shape of frown has its own patterned reaction. I’m a prize fighter in this regard. I could parent Lydia’s various tears in my sleep. In fact, I often do. Probably every other night, actually.
I thought I had seen and heard it all. I thought I had perfected my role. But as I looked in the rear-view mirror at my daughter’s rattling shoulders, I realized that this was a type of crying I had not seen before. It was a crying that came in deep sobs. An embarrassed crying that she seemed too weak and fragile to fight back, although she obviously was trying.
I pulled the car off the road and reached back to hold her hand. “Lydia, are you okay?” I asked. “What’s going on?”
She brushed the hair out of her eyes and took a deep breath and explained what she was feeling. Her explanation was just three words, “I miss Nathan.” As she said this a low flying jet plane blasted past my car window and my whole world shook and became cloudy. My ears rang and I had to blink back pained tears of my own.
I squeezed her hand. “I know, Lydia. I understand. It’s okay to cry.”
Nathan and his family had moved away just a few days prior and although Lydia had seemed indifferent at their final goodbye, more interested in sticks and trampolines than hugging her friend one last time in the driveway, this family and this young man had been important to us all. There was less than a week difference between the two of them in age. They had known each other since before they were born. Nathan was a rock in her stream, and now she may never see him again. And, although she didn’t know it, it would definitely not be the same Nathan she would meet if their paths ever did happen to cross someday.
Somewhere, deep down, she had avoided facing this pain for nearly a week. She had laughed and run from it. She had hid under her blankets playing it off as a joke. But it had finally caught up with her somewhere in the middle of “What a Fool Believes”.
I ran my hand down her cheek and she tried to smile. Quietly I turned and drove the rest of the way home.
I had a lot of time to think that evening, as I watched the little girl in my rear-view mirror grow up. I can deal with skinned knees. I can handle disagreements between sisters. I pull my hair out at all of the whining and high pitched requests for “something different to eat for dinner” and the screams of “Gideon hit me!”. I can stand firm and do what I have to when I’m faced with those trials. But I fear, as those tears disappear into my daughter’s youth, I will find myself facing these new tears more and more often. I will have to become a different kind of father. I will have to find a way to understand the emotions of young girls. I will have to feel them myself. I am not sure any of us will ever be ready for that.