He watches her, a pretty stranger standing in his kitchen. She is telling her mother how she is sleeping better now; the nightmares are beginning to subside. Dinner burbles and a house he does not remember building speaks of years passing that elude him.
He remembers her as a tiny child. Even then something dark would grip his baby girl so she could not sleep. She would crawl onto his lap at night while he read his books, both of them cocooning in the safe cave of words and stories. He remembers placing his hand on her back and feeling her breathing mimic his until eventually she would be convinced of safety. Even then her tiny hands would grip fistfuls of his shirt, demanding protection from those leering monsters.
She is older now and the same exhaustion that haunts him seems to live in the crinkle of her eyes and the restraint of her laugh. He sees so much of himself in her. If he could he would protect her from everything and the fact that the world is corroding her fills him with a desperation he cannot name.
He remembers fights, grounding her when she was 16 and believed she knew everything. He remembers Christmas mornings when he would wake up to his two girls screaming for everyone to wake up, sleepy eyes not catching up with the excitement of presents. He remembers Disneyland, telling her stories, listening as she explained her Lego game of Indiana Jones. He remembers her soccer games and her small little legs tripping clumsily. He remembers taking her to get their first puppy on that brilliantly cold November day, she looked up at him covered in mud and grass and grinned from ear to ear when he nodded and handed her the leash. He remembers her tireless steps in caring for him when his oldest begged for freedom, a pain he still does not believe was possible to live through. He remembers dropping her off at college and as he drove away swearing it was his little 7-year-old bandit that was waving goodbye. He bites his lip and rolls his eyes, at himself not at her. It is unfathomable to love something so much you cannot understand it.
She seems unbeatable now. She is in love with a man but will not admit it to him. He remembers the first time she had her heart broken, she lay on the couch with her sister and he brought them bowls of ice cream. At that moment he considered threatening God for his affront in daring to create anyone that would harm her. He sees her today and realizes she has borne so much more pain than she has ever told him, realizes this need to protect those she adores through silent martyrdom is the same thread that is unraveling him now.
Now he is expected to let her go, his little baby that fit in the crook of his elbow. Now he is to let someone whose face he cannot even hold accountable grab her hand when she can’t sleep, trust that she will have someone love her through those gut wrenching dreams, pick her up when she cries, and protect her from everything he could not. Worse yet, his life is being haunted by demons he cannot control, cannot even describe. For the longest second in the world he has to say words that twist daggers into her limbs. All of a sudden in the space of breakfast she has grown up, and it is him she is seeking refuge from. He realizes with a flash of pride that she is strong enough to handle anything, but breaks with the weight of knowing that what he is saying is hurting her.
The superhero is gone but he adores her and is desperate still to protect her from what he can. When she lifts that bowed head and smiles through clotted tears, he wishes for a second that he could still swoop her up in his arms, laughing as she shrieks and makes him measure her arm muscles in case they’ve grown. It is cruel for men to have daughters, no person is capable of watching small angels grow up, and worse yet, away from you.
She asks forgiveness from him and he smiles at her through his pain, someday when she forgives him it will be with the understanding that she is his whole world, all he ever wanted was for them to be happy. His jaw clenches in anger at himself, for letting the years go by without realizing it, for what he considers weakness and what she calls humanity, for allowing the chasm to open between him and his little one. One too many tragedies have shaken him and he wishes he was the god she always saw him as, all he wants is infinite stretches and no end.
He blinks, time has crawled across his face and now he does not recognize his life. But he looks at his two babies and knows; with love like this nothing could have been in vain.