When your child's happiness matters most

November 28, 1999|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

THERE's a man in my back yard building a child's swing set. I watch it take shape, thinking how surprised my daughter will be when she gets home from school. Feeling guilty too. Hoping this doesn't come too late.

The old swing lies in the grass, a heap of disassembled metal awaiting a ride on the garbage truck. Seeing it always reminds me of the day the real estate man brought us here for the first time.

It was me, my wife, Marilyn, and Onjel, who had just turned 4. Still small enough to ride her daddy's hip. When we stepped out into the back yard that first time, she gave this squeal of delight and bounded right over to the swing, a shiny metal construct painted bright red.

"It's just what I always wanted!" she kept crying. "Just what I always wanted."

If we'd had any doubts before, that pretty much killed them. It would be a few days before we made it official, but for all intents and purposes, that was the moment this house became our home. The old swing fell into disrepair a few years ago, paint fading, rust eating through critical joints. I told Onjel it wasn't safe to play on anymore. Told her I'd replace it soon. But I didn't.

Two summers came and went, and there it sat, ugly and unusable. I meant to replace the thing. Swear I did.

But I meant it in the way you mean to paint the trim or clean the attic -- in the way of all those projects you keep putting off because other things place more pressing demands on your money or time.

Then one day I looked at my daughter and didn't recognize her. Still a little girl, only 9 years old. But you can see the clock ticking on childhood. Too big now to ride her father's hip. And I realized the day is coming soon when she'll also be too big for Barbie dolls or Curious George.

And swing sets.

So I got on the phone with a company that makes the things. Ordered one with all the bells and whistles. It's way too much but still not quite enough. The workman finishes his work and takes my money. I go to pick up my daughter from school. As we're pulling out of the parking lot, I tell her casually, "You're in trouble with Mom. You left some junk in the back yard, and she says when you get home you better go straight out there and pick it up."

I'm thinking what a clever fib this is and how Marilyn is waiting in the back yard with the camera at this very moment to capture the look of surprise and joy. Onjel replies emphatically, "Uh-uh. You got me a new swing set." Who me? Swing set? Sigh. It wasn't so long ago that she was a whole lot easier to fool.

So of course we go into the back yard and of course she gives a happy shout and rushes off to climb and explore. The new swing set is made of wood. It has a seesaw, a rope ladder and a little house that an adult must bend double to enter. This is, Onjel keeps saying, the "coolest" swing on the block.

Marilyn wants me to have the credit. This was Daddy's idea, she says. Daddy bought it. Tell Daddy thank you.

Onjel responds to all of this by giving me a fast hug and then is gone to explore some more.

I'm left standing there, wishing I had done this sooner, thinking how cruel it is that time rushes past a man before he can even get his bearings in life -- that change is such an unforgiving master. Bad enough it takes his hair. It also takes his little girl.

Which is when my little girl comes back. She wraps her arms around my waist, puts her cheek to my belly and says solemnly, "Thank you, Daddy." I'm confused. "Did Mommy tell you to do that?" I ask. She says no. This is from her. The clock is ticking. My daughter holds me tight.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a Miami Herald columnist.

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