The training wheels came off last week. You and your hand-me-down bike already have done more laps around our cul-de-sac than Talladega.
People keep swearing to me that I'll look down to, say, tie your shoes or pour milk on your Honey Nut Cheerios, and when I look up again, you'll be gone.
Backing out of the driveway, going to high school.
Trunk full of stuff, racing off to college.
Walking down the aisle, flowers in your hair, about to ... to ... I can't even say the word. (It starts with an "m." Rhymes with "scary." And "tarry." And "bury.")
I refuse to believe them.
How could you go to college? You can't even go to sleep at night without me reading to you, your hand glued on mine as I turn the pages, talking about bears and castles and magic gardens.
How could you get married when, every morning, as sure as the sunrise, you hug my neck like you haven't seen me in years?
Do you remember when I gave you that acorn on the first day of school? I told you to put it in your pocket. Tiny pocket. Tiny hand. Tiny yellow acorn.
We were standing near the big oak. I wanted you to remember that, even though you're small now, and the First-Day-of-School can scare like a monster, you've got a lot of growing inside of you that's about to burst out.
That tree, it's the biggest one in our neighborhood. But it was once small. Like you.
Look what it did. And what you will do, too.
More monsters, hiding on the midnight roads of life, will come. I'd hobble them all if I could. Pull out all their teeth. Knock them down like Mickey cuts down the beanstalk.
"Daaaad," you say.
I'd start with the movies, TV shows and advertisements that only portray women if they're wearing clothes the size of, say, a juice box.
I used to think like that. Lots of guys did. When we were 14.
Then I'd move onto anyone who bullies. Harasses. Uses gender as a leverage to push women and girls down like they're trying to drown them.
Behavior like that stinks. It pollutes. It spits on the idea, which we keep telling you, that you were made in the image of God. Wonderfully, my girl, exquisitely made.
Your mom reminds me that you will always right yourself, like some unsinkable buoy, with your heart like a magnet that will always know the way.
And she's right.
Like most dads, I've got my eyes on danger when I should stop, with you, to smell the flowers. Lie down on the October ground and watch the white clouds. Count the leaves, waving to us in the autumn wind. Talk to the birds when they fly near. (You keep telling me you can talk to animals. This will help in college, if, let's say, you ever go to something called a fraternity party).
So many fathers I know love their children more than life itself and will understand me when I say that you, little girl, have already taught me far more than I will teach you.
Like the other night. It was Daddy's Night at school. We walked in, sat in those little chairs about 4 inches off the ground, and drank sips of lemonade in 2-ounce paper cups.
We colored pictures with washable markers. At the bottom of the page, you wrote your name. I wrote mine. We read books and played with blocks. You built. I watched.
And when we went outside, the moon was up, and you said hello to it, as if chatting with an old friend. We buckled up, and I still feel the hug you gave me.
On the ride home, you said something. It hit me like a prayer.
"It was a sweet kind of night, Dad."
My girl, it was the sweetest.
David Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...