When all the happy teeth of your mischievous smile were covered the other day by your shiny new braces, I remembered brushing your hair. But that doesn’t make any sense at all, I imagine you saying without hesitation. No? Well maybe it doesn’t. But that’s the way I think, all over the place, all the time. Don’t you? Doesn’t everybody? Well I do and, for all we know, it does make sense. Let’s see if we can straighten this out.
When you were a little girl, I used to give you baths, which I loved when I wasn’t consumed by myself and my own ambitions, which was often but, nonetheless, there was always a part of me that stayed aware of loving to watch you play with cups and water and I loved the way it felt on my big hands when I washed and conditioned your pretty hair. It was after the bath when things got ugly. I went downstairs as you dried off and put on your pajamas. Solemnly, you descended the stairs with your detangling spray, a comb, and a brush. Your mouth was a straight line and your eyes were half-lidded. You walked straight to me and turned around, rigid, like a soldier. I doused your hair with the spray and so it began. First, the comb to rake through the bigger tangles and then the brush. You tried to stifle your outbursts but sometimes you squealed as big raindrops formed in the clouds of your eyes and rolled down your cheeks and God it killed me to hurt you.
One of the many beautiful things about primal cultures and children is their convincing ability to inhabit a world of amazingly creative theories of causation. I don’t look upon this ability in a disparaging way at all. I admire it, respect it, yearn for it, and fundamentally believe that it’s a truer way to dwell in the shelter of the world than the diminished world merely understood through the lens of science and its useful discoveries. People used to have gods that oversaw almost every form of activity and nearly everything they did was a prayer. They made sacrifices to influence the harvest. Mimicked myth through ritual. Created idols to protect their homes and sleep. Attributed good fortune to the goodwill of deceased ancestors. Danced for rain.
It’s been almost 4 years and you don’t talk about the divorce much; you never have. But I imagine you might shoulder the burden of your own ideas about what went wrong in your secret and magical way of making sense. What did you do wrong? Were you perhaps mean to the cat? Did you steal cookies? Did you think a horrible thing in anger that you quickly wished you never thought and couldn’t think away? Or maybe you stepped on a crack or forgot to water the plants and your parents got divorced. And though I wrote above that I admired this ability to live in a world where what happens occurs in the realm of art, one of my deepest desires is for you to know and understand in the deeps of your bones that nothing you did caused your parents’ divorce. That blame lies solely with me. Your dad made sacrifices to all the wrong gods and incurred the wrath of their vengeance. And, even though I’ve told you so many times that we’re both sick of hearing it, I remain always on the ready (when you are) to discuss my mistakes with you, to make amends, and set things straight. God, it killed me to hurt you.
But eventually the brush would slide through your long yellow hair like a hot knife through butter and I could see your body slacken with relief. And I would keep brushing for a good long while because I knew it felt so nice to have a brush running through your shiny clean hair without a single snag or snarl. Loosened up, you would climb on my lap and start telling me your funny stories about the way things appear and happen for little girls. The cat likes to sing when she thinks no one is listening but you have heard her, on more than one occasion, sing I Shall Be Released by the big glass slider. When you fell off your bike and skinned your knee, you yelled at your bike and now she doesn’t feel much like riding no more. If you ever get scared at night, you just talk to the moon, which makes you not scared, because the moon is maybe your best friend in the whole world next to Maddie. And I would just listen and love you, brushing and brushing your long yellow hair until it was perfectly straight.
Now it has come to my attention that a smart little girl has taken to sneaking a peek at what her daddy writes on the Internet, so I will break one of my rules—a magician should never ever never reveal his tricks—and explain to you exactly why your shiny new braces reminded me of brushing your hair. You start with the braces. They straighten your teeth. I brushed your hair to make it straight. But these are just metaphors for the constantly ongoing need to straighten things out with the people you love. I am ready when you are. Now turn that thing off and go to bed. I love you. —Daddy
Originally published in Brain, Child Magazine