At my daughter’s 6-year-old birthday party last weekend, her favorite 500-pound pony stepped on her foot. She nearly knocked out her teeth on a bar swing. And she spent a solid half hour in tears from all the pain.
Happy birthday, kiddo. At least there’s … cake?
Emme was excited about this big day for weeks. She takes riding lessons with her mother at a gorgeous horse stable far outside of the city, learning every weekend to tack and saddle and ride. She couldn’t sleep for days before the party, knowing she’d finally get to show off her skills and four-legged friends to all her classmates.
She was giddy. Which only makes the next part so tough.
The day of the big party arrived. She led her favorite pony, Kisses, in front of the group and helped the trainers show everyone how to tack a horse. She was so proud of herself. And I kept looking at her, this tiny, gaseous creature I used to sing to at midnight and lull to sleep. Now here she is, just about six, shoving her shoulder into the pony so it will lift a foot for her. She’s getting so big, I think to myself. Of course everyone knows his baby will grow up, but so soon?
A split second later, Kisses puts his foot down and there’s my small child again, howling. I take a tip from Emme and lean my shoulder into the pony until it lifts his foot again, and I slip Emme’s crushed boot out and we sit on a wooden bench together. The toe is purple and ruined looking. Her friends mill around anxiously, wondering what to do, while Emme’s face becomes a wonderwall of tears and pain and embarrassment.
“I should have stood back,” she cries, “I should have stood back, I know this.”
Even her quality of pain is growing older.
I hold her until she calms and think about a trip to the ER and breathe easier when, a little while later, she is running around again and smiling and explaining to her friends how to make hot mash for the horses.
There is so much about childhood that inhabits two worlds: the traces of babyhood right under the surface, and yet, there’s this yearning, unstoppable desire to grow up. I spent 6 years teaching her to “do it herself,” willing her toward independence: from learning to eat on her own, to putting on clothes to getting ready for the school day. Minor crashes and falls that once required Band-Aids and hugs are now healed by a quick rub, a tiny grimace and an, “I’m ok, dad, let’s keep playing.” Unstoppable. I can imagine a day, probably just a few years from now, when all this hugging and cuddling seems like a distant dream, a fantasy of some safe harbor that is no longer required, at least not so much. So is it wrong to feel this guilty pleasure in still being so needed? Even if that means having her toe crushed by a 500-pound pony? What kind of selfish assclown even thinks this?
Later, I watch her skitter around the stables, feeding horses and holding hands with friends and romping on a makeshift, old-school wooden playground. She’s forgotten all about her toe and is laughing and giggling and learning to forge new relationships. She’s getting older. It’s an unstoppable march with one goal in mind: to get out, to be free, to learn to navigate the world on her own. I’m fine with that. That’s the job.
A split second later, she jumps off a platform and lands with her teeth on a metal swing bar. She rises from the ground, howling again, and tromps over, arms outstretched, in need of a good long hug.
It was a great party.
Mike Adamick writes at Cry It Out! Next year, he’s just getting a bounce house.