For the past couple of days my daughter, Ella, has been on a covert mission. She's pulled her mother aside for numerous private conversations, whispered into her brother's ear countless times, and just been furtive in general. Finally, last night, she filled me in on the CIA-level spywork.
"Daddy, this year, I'm giving you a Valentine's Surprise."
My heart felt a little tug. My baby girl wants to give me a Valentine? Sweet.
"So I need a dollar from you tomorrow. Do you have a dollar, Daddy?"
So much for sweet.
"Uh, sure, Ella. I can give you a dollar. No problem."
She kissed me on the cheek. "Ok. Great, daddy! Thank you."
And with that, she skipped off to her room. I was left to marvel at what I've done right as a dad to inspire such a kind gesture from my daughter. Sure, we went to the Daddy-Daughter Date Night thing that Chick-fil-A put on (and she still badgers me about the unfinished Daddy-Daughter Conversation Book we received that night); and next week, we'll tip-toe across the gym floor at her school under the balloon-festooned banners of the Daddy-Daughter Dance (which we attended last year and I got dumped by my daughter less than 5 minutes in). But I'm thinking there has to be more.
Is it the fact that I hug her whenever I get a chance because I want her to know I love her? Is it because I constantly make up funny stories (usually involving flatulence) at her request? Is it because I find her fascinating, with her creativity and kind heartedness being a combination I've never seen before?
Maybe it's because I love her mother so desperately, and tell her all the time that she's a mini-Mommy. Or because I allow her and Jon (her brother, my son) to tackle and wrestle with me on the floor.
Or is it because I wake her up each day and get her ready for school?
Because I answer her non-stop questions?
Because I allow her to have dance parties where we just boogie down as a family?
What inspires such love in a little one? I could spend all day trying to justify why she loves me. But in the end, there's only one answer, and it's as mysterious as it is satisfying.
She loves me because she loves me.
There are a thousand different variables that go into that truth, but at the end of the day, my daughter chooses - out of the great well of love and compassion and kindness in her heart - to love me, flaws and all. I haven't earned it. I haven't deserved it. She just freely gives it.
And it's awesome.
This morning, she asked me about the dollar again. I thought I was off the hook because her Nonna (my mom) gave her a dollar last night to help fund her Valentine's Surprise. So when Ella came to me this morning and said, "Daddy? I need another dollar," I instinctively reached for my wallet.
She stopped me.
"No, Daddy," she said. "I need you to get a dollar from my piggy bank."
"But I can just give you a dollar, Ella. It'd be easier."
She crossed her arms over her chest. "No. I want to spend my money. Besides, I have lots of dollars in my piggy bank!"
I was floored. I sometimes wonder if I spoil my children too much; we sacrifice around our house, but we don't make huge deal out of it. Sometimes, I worry that by not drawing attention to the idea of giving, I make things to easy for them, make them feel entitled. But there she was, wanting to spend her own money to purchase a gift she didn't really have to buy, but wanted to as an expression of love. I thought about King David's line on sacrifices that cost nothing.
So I did the only honorable thing: I ripped the bottom off her piggy bank and fished out a dollar. She smiled and took it in her little hands and said, "Thanks, Daddy. I love you."
She was still holding her two dollars as we waited for her bus to come. I gently took the money and put it in a pouch on her backpack. She approved. ("Good idea, Daddy. I might drop it because I can be a bit spacey sometimes.") We sat there in my car and she reached over and patted my hand.
When the bus turned onto our street, we got out of the car and Ella said, "Daddy! Real quick: what's your favorite smell?"
"My favorite smell?"
"Yeah. Only it has to be something like a fruit: orange, cherry, banana. Quick! Pick one."
"Okay," I said as the pulled pulled to a stop and I handed her her backpack. "I pick orange."
She stopped and looked at me. "Seriously? Orange?"
"Yes. I choose orange."
She rolled her eyes and started up the bus steps. "Orange? Who wants an Orange Smencil?"
The bus doors closed and she was gone, but my Valentine's Surprise had been unintentionally revealed: sometime this afternoon, I will be the proud recipient of an Orange scented pencil, a pencil that she will inevitably claim as her own. But she will have bought it with her own money, of her own volition, as a way of telling me what her words and hugs and life tell me every day: she loves me.
And I love her right back. More than she'll ever know.