Aiesha is the first thing I think about when I wake up each morning. I haven't spoken to her in a month, but all her messages are still saved on my answering machine. A T-shirt lies in the exact spot where she left it during her last visit three months ago. I still tell her that she is my favorite person. Aiesha is eight, spoiling for nine. She is my daughter, once removed.
In my wide-eyed youth, I subscribed to such naive notions as "love makes you a parent," and "twenty-three chromosomes don't make you a daddy." Now I believe that fatherhood is created every morning at six, when you creak out of bed to crack eggs, rattle pans and let yourself be hustled into granting your kid ten more minutes of sleep. I still believe that genes don't make the parent, but now I ask, "What does a voided wedding vow make me?"
I know Aiesha because her mother, Shana, was my college girlfriend. She was wild and beautiful; her ways the complete opposite of my self-conscious, bookish ones. I broke up with her and then, years later, found myself wishing for her again. We were only together again for less than six months, but we did stay in touch after our breakup. Five years later, I moved to New York for graduate school. When we threw a surprise party for my mother's fiftieth birthday, I invited Shana. She showed up with a buoyant two-year-old who had impossibly round cheeks and whose favorite response was "No!" -- even to things like, "You are adorable."
Soon Shana and I were hanging out again, back to our old routines. At some point in those first months of being reunited, I realized that I loved Shana and that Aiesha had already chosen me as her father. Shana and I got married.
I think men secretly want to raise their daughters to be the kind of women who were out of their league when they were young. And so it was with Aiesha. But really, it was about the words, teaching her the words to old classics such as "Ain't No Sunshine" and giggling through the part where Bill Withers sings, "And I know, I know, I know, I know, I know...." Kids love repetition. She turned out volumes of poems, plays, songs and stories that were duly typed up and e-mailed to all my friends, co-workers and distant relatives as evidence of her burgeoning literary genius.
There were signs early on, now that I think of it, that the marriage was headed south. I saw in gradual degrees that my wife was less and less interested in our relationship and knew that I was at the point where many a man would have bailed. I chose to work harder. When the newspapers ranked Aiesha's public school at the bottom half of those in the city, I reduced my grad classes and worked part-time to send her to a private school. When Shana was stuck at work a few hours before her women's group meeting was to be held in our apartment, I came home early and surprised her by cleaning up and preparing the food. I was like an outfielder who knows that the ball is headed for the bleachers, but smashes face first into the wall trying to catch it anyway. In my world, there was no such thing as a warning track.
Here is a marital cliché: You're in the kitchen cooking dinner when your spouse returns home from a hard day at the office and announces it's over. Just like that. When she told Aiesha that I was leaving, Aiesha asked, "Does this mean I don't have a father anymore?"
Friends, mostly female, tell me, "Once a father, always a father." But experience tells me differently: I could just as easily be evicted again; Shana could remarry and leave me a parental second-string player. Experience has taught me that ex-stepfather does not exist as a census category; I no longer qualify for a Father's Day card.
I know that I deeply and profoundly love that little girl. I understand the weight of the bond between parent and child. I also know that I was trying to single-handedly undo the mythology of Black men, that I wanted a family that would laugh past the bleak statistics and indictments of Black male irresponsibility. When I married Shana, Aiesha had not seen her biological father in more than a year. As far as I know, she has not seen him since. I saw tragedy in her growing up as yet another fatherless Black girl, another child whose father abandoned her in favor of emptier pursuits. I wanted to be like my old man, quietly heroic in raising my brother and sister, and never once letting on that they were not his biological kin. I wanted to be a keeper.
These days, I know that my relationship with Aiesha is unwieldy, sagging beneath the weight of its own ambiguity. Fatherhood is all about watching the daily changes, whether it is hearing the new word she learned or noticing that now she doesn't have to stand on a stool to reach her toothbrush. But I know that in a year or two, my work may require that I move to Texas or California or Alaska, and it's possible that I'll fade from her memory.
Christmas is a hard, bright day, and I wake up alone with my head heavy. Aiesha has left me a message saying that she has a gift for me, and could I please come today so she can give it to me. Her mother and I have lived apart for six months, and I don't know Aiesha as well as I did in June. In another six months, she'll be a different child altogether.
When I see her outside, riding her bike in the parking lot of her building, I think about how she has grown tall and slender as a reed. I bought her a watch, yellow and red, but with no cartoon characters because Aiesha fancies herself a sophisticate. The note says:
My father once told me that keeping track of time is the first step to becoming an adult. I hope you think of me when you wear this.
She gives me a gift card. Written in her best 8-year-old scrawl, it says simply, "I love you." She's telling me the plot points to her latest story, the one she wants to publish when she's twelve. A moment later, she wants me to toss her into the air. "One more time!" she pleads, again and again, until my deltoids are burning.
She still remembers most of the words to "Ain't No Sunshine."
Today, she's my daughter. Today.
Cover image via Flashon Studio I Shutterstock
This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dads & Daughters: Stories about the Special Relationship between Fathers and Daughters © 2011 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.