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Farewell to the Fourthies

The call comes just as I am trying to pry open her stuck bedroom window. It’s almost time for dance class, and she’s forgotten her jazz pants. They’re in the bottom drawer of her dresser, she says. And can I bring them right away?

Here in this quiet room, I look around at everything that has been her life up until now. The table shaped like a flower petal sits in the corner, next to its matching chair. Her bulletin board holds cutout flowers, a paper fan, a tiny calendar with pictures of singer Taylor Swift. Painted butterflies and bumblebees float above the princess bed we bought back when we never imagined she would ever grow big enough to fill it.

But outside, beyond the sticking window, the seasons have turned again. Winter passed to spring, and now the trees are filled with respectable leaves. Dance class is almost done for the year. School is winding down, too, but in a way that’s different than before. Just last night, Lucy and her fourth-grade classmates stood on the stage, heard their names read aloud, and came forward, one by one, to graduate from lower school.

Hard to believe, but where Lucy goes, middle school begins in fifth grade, and we’ve listened to the experts explain the special logic of it. Their brains are growing now at an amazing rate, they say, and besides, the fifth and sixth graders form a special bond, much as the seventh and eighth graders do. They are ready now to change classrooms and teachers for each subject. They will need much larger backpacks. They’ll get their own lockers for the first time. Don’t forget to buy a combination lock.

Still it’s easy, standing here at her windowpane, to think of her as so much younger. She’s always been petite for her age – her younger brother outweighs her now, and he’s taller, too. The clothes here in her drawer look small enough to fit a doll. Her Minnie Mouse voice is still intact.

But we have come to the end of the single digits. Age nine turned to ten just a few months ago, and now, with hot months upon us, nearly all the other Fourthies, as the fourth-graders call themselves, have reached that auspicious year, too. And, yes, something is different, something is shifting, there’s an air about her. Maybe it’s the slant of her smile, a new angle to her cheek, the fact that she just got her ears pierced after begging for countless months. Whatever it is, I see the first sketch lines of the young woman she is on her way to becoming.

These days, caught firmly in the Fourthie net, she’s suddenly curious to hear the story of how her mother and I met and fell in love. She’s also taken to rolling her eyes at both of us. She can’t wait to tell us about a friend who said she’s given up saying “crap” for Lent. As a group, she and her pals seem to have given up the Jonas Brothers for Johnny Depp. And even the Fourthie title seems to be fading. “We’re ‘tweens now,” she tells me. “It’s a new system, Daddy. You need to get used to it.”

Yet she remains a girl on the cusp, one foot in each world. She loves the stuffed animal her grandmother gave her for her birthday, and she still sleeps with a coterie of bears. She cries when her cherry lime shower gel accidentally spills down the bathtub drain; I say we’ll buy more, but she only cries harder. We can’t, she says, because Santa brought it, and how will he know we need more?

Just last year, she was excited all week as the night of a sleepover party approached. But then, late on the night of the event, the call finally came. I dashed across town still hearing the sound of her voice, homesick and tremulous, and couldn’t stop thinking over and over as I drove: I am your dad. I will run to you no matter how far away you are.

I remember taking her to school on her first day of kindergarten, then driving to the café around the corner to write her a short note to mark the occasion. The letter ran to eleven pages. I filed it away and will give it to her someday, years from now, when she’s deep into her double digits. Even now, my head swims with all that poured out that morning. And what thoughts to offer her now for the journey ahead? Taylor Swift offers a hint from her calendar: You’re lucky enough to be different – never change. Yes, there’s that. But I would add the words of Camus for good measure: In the depth of winter I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.

The window pulls free, and I think about the commencement, when she heard her name, and stepped forward, and took her bow. And about last month, when she went off to another sleepover, and the sun went down, and dark descended, and I held my breath. This time, the call never came.

But right now, a Fourthie just needs her dancewear, and standing here at the window, I realize I don’t know what jazz pants are. It’s a new system, I guess, and it will take some getting used to. Well, there’s time for that, I think, as the warm air fills the room. Because off in the distance, I hear her voice, high and light on the breeze.

It’s all right, Daddy. No need to be sad. Don’t you know? Today is the first day of summer.

Tony Farrell has written about parenting for many books, magazines, and websites. The father of two, Tony has written the DadZone since 2009.
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