On a Sunday afternoon in June, Stella looked at me and asked if I’d follow her around the block. She was sitting on her new bike, the one that didn’t have training wheels. She had on her matching helmet.
“You can go on your own,” I said. “Just watch out for cars around driveways.”
“Peace out,” she said, putting foot to pedal on what must have felt like the fastest block of her life. It was the longest of mine — until she came back around into view. She took a few more laps and then we walked to dinner together to talk about … us. This thing between father and daughter, parent and kid. This constantly evolving relationship.
I’d spent the past three years writing about us in this space. Three years during which I got laid off, wrote a couple of books, worked freelance, picked her up from school almost every day and watched her sprout to a smart, energetic and unimaginable 7 years old.
After all of that, and with this being my last column, I wanted to give her a chance to talk about all this — from her point of view. What’s it like to be the kid?
Stella: You have to do stuff I really, really, really don’t want you to do.
Ryan: Like what? Work?
Stella: It makes you lazy.
Ryan: Work makes me lazy?
Stella: You need more sleep.
Ryan: That’s true, actually, but you mean I’m tired, right?
Ryan: That’s true, too.
Stella: You can’t exactly come home early anymore, or pick me up. Missing some school events. But you’ve been to most of them.
[My heart breaks a little. And so I do what I’m good at. I change the subject.]
Ryan: What don’t I get? When I’m saying, “do this,” or “don’t do that,” what don’t I remember about being a kid?
Stella: How we always have to have fun all the time. And I always have to be doing something that’s fun or goofing off.
[She plays with her straw in her drink, making that grating plastic-on-plastic squeak.]
Ryan: Or making noise?
Stella: Yes. Especially that.
Ryan: What’s wrong with quiet?
Stella: It’s quiet. There always has to be at least a little bit of noise.
[She begins to sing a song about noise. The only lyric is the word “noise.”]
Ryan: Don’t you ever just want some quiet?
Stella: Noooooooooo. The answer is noooooooo.
[She looks at my notebook.]
Stella: Why are you writing a bunch of O’s.
Ryan: Because that’s what you said. So what do you wish I’d do?
Stella: Play with your daughter every single day and take her to Baskin-Robbins for ice cream.
Ryan: You’re not getting Baskin-Robbins on the way home.
Stella: Well this is the stuff you should do.
We both laughed. I did manage to extract from her the recognition that while she hated how much work it took to write my last book, she also saw how happy I was doing the work. “Because you were doing something you loved,” she said.
“Remember that,” I said.
This column’s guiding light has always been my incompetence — my well-intentioned bumbling and fumbling as a parent. Which is cool. There isn’t a parent I know who doesn’t feel overmatched at times. And so I’ve tried to work through these mysteries and misadventures and write my way to a personal epiphany or two. Selfishly, the column was also a way to document these foundational moments between us, the beginning of a conversation that’ll last as long as I do.
But she’s 7 now and her joys, her tears, her victories and her defeats — they’re hers. She still needs Dad, but she doesn’t need Dad and his pen. I’m just glad she has picked up a truism or two about hard work, along the way to writing her own story, all by herself.