First Person / The father-daughter dance: I knew all the right moves when she was a little girl

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As father of a bride-to-be, I can empathize with Clarence the orangutan.

Clarence is the toy ape who accompanied my daughter through her childhood. When she slept, he lay in her arms. He was a guest at our family vacations and his furry presence reassured my daughter the world was as it should be.

I like to think that I too was pretty hot stuff in my little girl's life, though admittedly not so much anymore. At 25, she teaches first graders and wears an engagement ring.

About two months ago, she and I stood hand-in-hand, laughing and stepping on each other's feet, making a shambles of the father/daughter dance we'd unleash on the world at her upcoming wedding.

While we counted off steps, I remembered the evening, 22 years before, when she and I had sat together on the sofa watching a network presentation of Disney's "Dumbo." We rested like Russian nesting eggs -- she in my lap, Clarence in hers.

During the humorous segments, she laughed a throaty giggle, but when Dumbo's mother was shackled and separated from her son, my daughter began to sniffle. Soon, tears were running down her cheeks and she used the sleeve of her nightshirt to wipe her eyes. I held her closer and stroked her hair.

In the end, everything worked out fine for Dumbo. As the credits rolled, I gave her a gentle squeeze and cheerily said, "Well that was good." Instead of agreeing, she surprised me by bursting into tears.

I held her closely as she snuffled into my shoulder. Her face was warm and her little frame heaved. Eventually, I realized she was sad because her floppy-eared friend had disappeared. She occasionally turned back to the television in case it was all a mistake and Dumbo had indeed returned.

As her tears moistened my shirt, I experienced a flash forward. I imagined the day my daughter would no longer turn to me to bring Dumbo back, or to solve any of life's little problems. I pictured her grown, perhaps with children of her own to comfort. I saw myself a step removed from her life, no longer the first male she'd turn to when unhappy or scared.

I was sad for that day, but overwhelmed with gratitude that, God willing, our family -- she, her brother, my wife and I -- would grow up together. I swore to savor each experience and take lots of photographs.

The pictures eventually served a useful role in the wedding preparations. A few days after our dance rehearsal, my daughter, wife and I sat at the kitchen table selecting photos for a video chronology of the bride- and groom-to-be.

One of the pictures showed our daughter at a gymnastics class when she was five. In the picture, she stands on a balance beam with the help of a teenaged volunteer, smiling at the camera. What the photo doesn't show is that, moments later, she slipped from the instructor's grasp and toppled off, striking her mouth on the floor.

After a hurried medical assessment and lots of comforting, the consensus among instructors and father was that the damage was minor. As we walked hand-in-hand to the restroom for a clean-up, she looked at me with furrowed brow and asked, "Daddy, am I OK?"

I was struck by the power she was investing in me. She trusted me to make her well -- or not -- simply by how I answered. I assured her that she was fine and a very brave girl. After some gentle swabbing, she skipped back to once again challenge the gym equipment. Later that night, she showed Clarence her puffy lip and regaled him with the details. As usual, he listened quietly.

To be honest, it's not the impending wedding that's been making life bittersweet for me. For several years now, since my son and daughter went off to college, found jobs and moved out of the house, I've missed being needed. At the supermarket, when I hear a young voice call "Daddy," I envy the lucky man who's still the center of his child's universe.

When I enter my daughter's old bedroom, I see Clarence sprawled in a laundry basket, one matted arm hanging over the side of the bin. His mouth is ragged and he's missing a button eye. Shifting my weight to ease some sciatica, I commiserate. Here we are, two palookas who once had their day.

About three weeks ago, something happened that's forcing me to put things in perspective.

My wife and I had traveled to Johnstown for her uncle's funeral. At the cemetery, I was distracted by flashes of color from a nearby grave site. As the mourners trudged back to their cars, I lagged behind and approached that plot. Against the headstone leaned a laminated photograph of a smiling teenage girl. The dates of birth and death on the stone were separated by only 16 years.

In front of the tombstone, among a potpourri of mementoes, someone had jammed into the ground a stiff hanger-type wire, bent at the top. From it dangled a toy monkey, its faux fur faded by the weather.

I knelt and said a prayer for the girl, for her family and friends, and in a special way for her parents. I thought of the Daddy who no longer would have the opportunity to make things better for his child. And I resolved to remind myself that I'll be blessed to muddle through a box step with my newly married daughter.

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Dan Kaczmarski retired as a writer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and lives in Brookline. He wrote this before his daughter's wedding, in April, where he believes he acquitted himself pretty well in the father/daughter dance.


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