Every time I both celebrate and mourn my 8-year-old's passing from one stage and entry into another, I thank my lucky stars that I have another daughter, Cybele, almost seven years her junior. It gives me hope that I'll have another opportunity to enjoy the stage anew, and that this time, I'll have some clue that it is on the verge of coming to an end, so I won't be so caught off guard with my youngest.
Last week, after holding onto three dolls for dear life almost whenever we went on a family outing, and insisting on sitting at a separate table with them at a restaurant whenever a benevolent waiter or host would accommodate her, Cali parted company with them -- just like that, her 'doll stage' was at an end. Couldn't she have given me fair warning, so I could have had some sort of ceremony to bring this to closure -- not so much for Cali's sake but for my own?
Cali speaks Spanish fluently, thanks to her gorgeous Mexican mommy, and she called the trio of dolls her 'gentes,' or people (or better rendering might be her posse).
She had everyday names for her gentes that she freely said out loud for all the world to know, but also, years back, she had bequeathed them with secret names known only to her. The day she revealed the names to us, about three months ago, she was delirious with joy. To let us in on a secret of this magnitude was something else.
This inward-looking yet deeply caring and feeling child had held locked inside for so long these names. It gave her an evident sense of ecstatic release when she told them to us. As she bounded up and down in a cathartic gush of euphoria, Cali moved me and my wife nearly to tears. Cali told us that she shared the names with us because we were all part of the same family, and we needed to know their real, true, inner names.
I'd already become acclimated to their companionship since Cali had adopted at a yard sale long ago. At first, I'm not sure they meant that much to her, but over time, they took on more and more of a prominent role in her life, and she held many a whispered conversation with them. I welcomed my expanded family with open arms.
I was long used to doubling the time it took for us to get anywhere, what with Cali having to get the dolls all set for our outings -- dolls dressed, doll hair combed, dolls harnessed in the stroller and then hauled down the stairs of our house and the front porch steps. But now that I was privy to their genuine names, I experienced an extra dimension to our bond.
Yet just as I was getting used to this new phase within Cali's doll stage, she let go of them. I should, in retrospect, have seen it as a sign, when Cali told us their true names -- should have seen that this was a moment of truth of some sort, and marked the beginning of a transition for her.
The gentes were no longer part of her life, just like that. It was such a quantum event, I almost couldn't fathom at first what I was seeing. After a week, when I asked her to remind me what their secret names were, Cali said she'd already forgotten them, and I have no doubt she'd put them out of her mind.
But then she said matter of factly, "Daddy, the dolls were keeping me from being as close to you and Mommy and Cybele as I wanted to be. They're not really family. They're just dolls."
Since Cali gave her dolls the pink slip, I've noticed that she's much more social with her friends from school and in the neighborhood, and even more openly affectionate with her parents (the one person with whom she has been unfailingly gushy to the nth degree is her little sister). Perhaps the dolls put up a barrier of some sort.
My oldest little one is getting more independent by the day. The day may arrive when she no longer automatically takes my hand and holds onto it tightly as we walk to and from her school. While I hope that day hopefully, for my sake, lies far in the future, I know it can happen at any moment. And so I try to be ever mindful of my own deep well of joy at feeling Cali's hand snugly tucked into mine. I want to be able palpably to experience in my mind and heart how that precious hand felt inside my own, when and if the time comes that such times are gone for good, or almost for good.
As it is, I'm still in a bit of a state of shock that, when she was six, one day she no longer wanted to have any more pretend weddings with Daddy. Oh, those were the days. Cali would put on her best pretend wedding dress, I'd don a tie. We'd walk down the aisle, exchange prepared wedding vows, and then exit the house to go on a make-believe honeymoon at the nearby park, where we'd wave to smiling park patrons. We'd eventually sit on a bench or in the nook of a large oak and recall how we first met, and when we decided we wanted to spend our lives together.
But the day arrived, without the slightest advance notice, that there would be no more wedding bashes. Cali tried her level best to assure me it was nothing personal, that she loved me as much as ever. But, as she explained, it turns out I have a wife, so all things considered, it wasn't appropriate to have a wedding with an already-married man.
I tried, and failed, to fight the urge to ask her to have just one more, so I could appreciate that this was the last one ever. She made vague promises that this might happen, but it didn't. Her heart just wasn't in it any longer. It might be that the next time I walk down the aisle with her, it's on her actual wedding day.
But maybe, just maybe, if and when her sister Cybele decides she wants to exchange vows with her father, Cali will join in, at least as a maid of honor, or perhaps the person who presides over the ceremony.
My hope is not without merit. After all, Cali has already promised that when the time comes for Cybele to enter the princess stage, she'll play along. There was a time when Cali's life was all about princesses. While she has dispensed with the princes stage for the most part, when i least expect it, there is the occasional evening after school or weekend when I'll happen upon her dressed to the nines like a true princess, with her mother is reading to her from a voluminous book she has that treats with all things princess. You bet I take pictures and videos, knowing full well it might be the last time ever.
Even so, do we ever leave a stage forever? Is it always an indelible part of us, even as we move on to something else?
Should ever we feel like we have to exit any give stage, out of the belief that according to society's dictates we have to 'outgrow' a stage?
Some daughters hold hands with their fathers their whole lives long when in one another's company. Some outgrow it for a while, then return to it. Some outgrow the princess stage, only to return to it in later years, realizing that it wasn't just a stage at all, but an important part of their being. I love seeing older princesses at Disney World -- some well into their senior years. And why not? The joy they derive from it gives me joy in turn.
One thing's for sure -- if and when my youngest, Cybele, has it in mind to have a pretend wedding with her father, I'm going to treasure each ceremony as if it is the first, and last.
Meanwhile, just the other morning Cybele picked up one of Cali's discarded dolls, pressed it tightly to her chest, and whispered into her ear the doll's once-secret name. They have been inseparable ever since. The doll stage for Cybele has begun, thank goodness for me, in the nick of time. I wasn't at all ready to let it go.