Letters Unsent: Letters to Lila

Friday 08 Nov 2013

My daughter, I have been wanting to write to you for a long time. How many letters have I written in my head as I go about my day? I seem forever rushing from one task to another. But it seems strange to sit down and write something wondering when you might read it.

You could have a crack now, you’ve been reading for six months but I need to write to my daughter who knows more than the words on the page. I say page but this letter will not be written or printed on paper or even sent. It will be lucky to be posted. But where will that be once you are old enough to read and recognize why I am compelled to write this letter to you.

This morning I walked you to school. It was still and humid. You were so excited you jumped in the air and said ‘yes’ when I answered your ‘walking or car?’ question at the door. At the bottom of the hill you let go my hand and ran ahead to by the overgrown creek (or ‘lake’ as you told your teacher when we got to class) to pick fennel.

On the way home I teared up more than once at the thought that this may be the last time I walked you to school. It is a Friday and you will go to your Mum’s tomorrow so I can tidy the place in readiness for my op next Wednesday. I will be 6 weeks in a cast, a useless dad, unable to walk or drive. I will have crutches, but I just won’t be able to walk you to school this year.

And next year is a big unknown. Your mother wants you to go to a school closer to where she lives. I understand her desire to commute less. But this is where you grew up, where your friends are. And you are just about to lose your greatest friend, the boy next door who came to see you the day you were born: if not a sibling certainly whanau.

How much loss can a child take?

You are both sad at the idea of the parting as he shifts away but at 5 and 6 you both only have a vague idea what it means.

Lila, last night I said something to you I shouldn’t have. I had just carried you from the shower, rolled up in my arms in the wee ritual we seem to have developed from the winter. You make yourself into a ball on the floor face down on the bath mat, having quickly dried your chest so you can cuddle Bucky to you, then I throw the big towel over you so you are covered, pat you dry just a bit then slowly drag you out into the hallway. Then by slipping my arms under your neck and feet I can roll you towards me and carry your 22 kilos to the fire without getting wet.

This was a warm-jammies-by the-fire routine from the dark of winter. The first time I picked you up like that was an experiment or a compromise: I can’t recall exactly how we devised it.

You like to be carried to the shower (or to bed) on my shoulders. You get up there by standing at the top of the 5 steps that split our house and falling to my arms. As I swing with you, avoiding an impact, you start to climb putting one foot in the hand-step I offer at hip level then hooking your other leg over my shoulder to pull up. You then sigh as you flatten yourself so you don’t bump your head on any doorways. When it was winter you would lean across to turn off the hallway light so we walked in darkness around the corner to the shower.

Lila, I am so dreading losing these special moments. I hate the thought of being useless on crutches: not being the dad you love.

I have told you what is happening and what will follow. You have drawn a picture of me on crutches while we stay with the boy next door during my recovery.

But last night, I became aware that our ritual was coming to an end. Yes, I will recover and be able to carry you in maybe 6 months (it is all so uncertain) but you be a big 6 year old and even now your head has started to hang over my elbow shifting your mass which is not so tight and easy to carry.

You were so sweet curled up on the floor by the unlit fire, with one eye peaking out of the towels; I felt I could say something I shouldn’t have.

I told you how much I was going to miss carrying you when I was on crutches.

The look in your eye was awful. The pain, anger: betrayal. You understood.

I felt like the worst kind of manipulator.

You cried with a sound that scared me, reminding me directly of the deep sobbing of my mother when we said goodbye for the last time.

You were there, two years ago, saying goodbye to Gran E. It was beautiful and awful. One day I will write about it.

You were a great strength to me then. You are such a grown-up 5 year old.

But I was wrong to make you experience that realization last night.

Yes, it only lasted a minute or two but I need to apologize to you.

So I wrote this letter.

Arohanui,

Dad XXX

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