This is a story about a train table.
Well, not really.
This is really a story about a man and his daughter and how sometimes the passage of time hurts more than we'd like it to, especially when we are too busy to notice its passing.
So there I was, sitting all alone, staring at the three foot high train table that is often the center of attention in our living room, the train table where we have created countless combinations of wooden railroad tracks over the years. My two year old son Luke had just abandoned me to see what his two brothers were up to downstairs, and I was sitting there wondering what to do next.
Suddenly, my nine year old daughter MaryKate fluttered into the room. I say "fluttered" because MaryKate doesn't so much walk as bob and weave through the air like a butterfly on a Spring afternoon. That is just her way.
"Hi Dad!" she said.
Then, something amazing happened. As she began to play with the train table, pushing Thomas The Really Useful Engine around the track just like she did when she was two, a switch went off in my head and it was as if for every moment that had passed between now and the day she was born a memory played in my head.
I remembered what it was like to be a Dad for the very first time, excited and terrified all at the same time, always wishing someone would tell me exactly what to do but always having to somehow figure it out.
I remembered searching furiously for things like juicy cups, teddy bears and pacifiers. How she used to carry her teddy bear with her everywhere, the very same teddy bear that now spends half of its time under her bed or stashed away in a corner, the teddy bear who recently gave up his nighttime spot on her pillow to a dog named Princess.
I remembered how sometimes she would fall asleep on my chest, how she used to burrow her head under my chin and how I would lie awake listening to all of eternity in the inhale and exhale of a baby's breath.
I remembered how she used to scream "SALSA!" at the top of her lungs because she knew it would make us all laugh, and inevitably it did.
I remembered the Christmas when she was given that train table, how excited she was as she ran to it for the first time, her curly blond hair bobbing up and down like Shirley Temple, how she used to laugh as we played for hours.
Strangely, too, I remembered those times when I myself didn't want to play with that train table anymore, when after what seemed like hours of pushing a locomotive around a wooden track I could imagine a million other things to do. What I wouldn't give now to be there then.
I remembered all of these things and it made me wish that I could stop time from its inevitable march forward, that I could hold THIS version of MaryKate in my heart for just a little while longer, and stave off the day when the train table will be nothing more than a silly piece of furniture and playing with Daddy will just be an annoyance.
"Oh why don't you play with your father one more time?" my wife will say one day in the not too distant future.
"But MOM, it's just a train table!" MaryKate will respond.
Just a train table?
JUST a train table?
True, maybe to some, this is just a lousy old train table.
But once upon a time, I met a two year old girl named MaryKate at this very same train table. She was the first child I ever held in my arms as a father. She was the one who taught me what it really meant to be a Dad, those hard learned lessons at 2 AM when all I wanted to do was go to sleep and all she wanted to do was scream at the top of her lungs because of a cold or acid reflux or because sometimes that is just what babies do.
And so, I hope she will forgive me for wanting to play with her just a little while longer, for wanting to sit at that train table and hold on to every last vestige of the child she was and the girl she is now. Forgive me for wishing that, at least for a little while longer, I can still be Daddy and she can still be my little MaryKate.