Elizabeth is in high school now, which means that I have failed as a father. If I had succeeded, she would have stayed 10 years old like I kept telling her, and she wouldn’t be taking physics classes beyond my comprehension, wouldn’t be driving my car on her permit license and sure as heck would never talk about boys. To be fair, she doesn’t talk about boys with me in the room even now because that would be the death of me. But I hear things.
Elizabeth is in high school now, which means when we do talk, we don’t talk about stuff like what’s the best fruit to dip in chocolate or the best Disney Princess or the importance of Dobby in the Harry Potter series. No, she wants to talk now about why women don’t get paid as much as men for doing the same work or why her writing is so personal she would never let anyone see it or why she's going far away for college. Grown-up stuff. It’s beautiful, of course. It’s heartbreaking too. It was so much simpler to discuss the feats of explorers like Magellan and Christopher Columbus and Dora.
Elizabeth is in high school now, which means our relationship grows and shrinks all at once. It grows because I see more and more of myself in her, and so there are those magical times when I know precisely what to say to her, exactly how to get her through a teenage crisis, exactly what songs she should listen to when she wants to feel like the world gangs up on her. And it shrinks for the same reason because I see more and more of myself in her, and I want to fix all those things that I could never quite fix in myself. Her tolerance for this is slightly below zero.
Elizabeth is in high school now, which means she loves things I don’t understand, YouTube stars that are entirely foreign to me, humor that leaves me cold, video games that move too fast for me to follow.
She talks a lot about leaving home for college.
College? Please. That’s years down the road … years down the road … years down the road … years down the road …
… it is not so many years down the road.
Every now and again, then, I pull out my phone and look for the photograph.
* * *
I took one photograph of Elizabeth on the night we saw Hamilton. One. I kept it to one on purpose; I didn't want to take any. Yes, of course, I'm like everyone else, I take way too many photographs of family stuff. I do this at the bidding of my wife, Margo, who believes it is important to chronicle every single event and non-event of our lives. We will be walking through a mall, for instance, and Margo will say, “OK, wait, we need a photograph in front of the Sbarro.”
Why do we need a photo in front of the …
“We just do, everybody stop complaining and stand in front of the pizza oven.”
As the official family photographer, I have all of these photographs on my phone. You know the story. I have enough photos of my girls at Disney World that I'm pretty sure I could turn them into a flip book and relive the entire vacation.
But I find, more and more, that as I scan through them the overwhelming feeling is not, “Oh, I remember that,” or “Oh, wow, look at how much the girls have changed.” It is: “Are you kidding me? When did I actually vacation? I’m not living life, I’m just recording it.”
So my rule: No photographs on Hamilton night.
My thought was that we would experience the night, not log it for posterity. My thought was that I didn’t want anything at all taking us out of the moment, taking us out of this reverie. I’ve written a little bit about this before, but for a year Elizabeth had not been right. She would not eat. She started to lose weight dramatically. She was sad all the time … and she had never really been sad before. It seemed like teenage angst at first, and frankly even after we began to suspect that it went deeper than that we kept going back to the teenage angst theory. We didn't want to believe anything else. We went to see doctors, dieticians, and counselors.
Early this year, we discovered that Elizabeth has Crohn’s Disease. It is a hard disease to sum up because it affects people in many different and startling ways. At its core, it is an immune system disease – a Crohn’s patient’s immune system attacks the harmless bacteria that aid digestion in the gastrointestinal tract. As Elizabeth once said it, “My immune system is stupid.” The attack leaves behind all sorts of Game of War wreckage in the colon, and this creates many problems, some of them obvious (stomach pains, exhaustion) and some less so (depression, obstruction of hunger).
Her road back was trying … but inspiring. She endured all the medical procedures, all the medication, and this is the daughter who is so scared of needles and doctors that she has had full-fledged breakdowns in doctor’s offices.*
*I am remembering now when Elizabeth was 4 years old and had her tonsils out. She was a mess of nerves after that. She was so hysterical with pain and confusion, that the only way I could calm her down (she would not go anywhere NEAR her mother) was to go over the names of the 12 princesses in “Barbie and the 12 Dancing Princesses.” The names are alphabetical, so I would have her on my lap, and I would have her take a little medicine, and we would go through them, like a mantra:
OK, A is for Ashlyn. Who is B?
She would whisper: “B is for Blair.”
Right. B is Blair. C is Coconut?
“No,” she would say. “C is Courtney.”
Right, right, C is Courtney and D is Delicious.
Right, Delia and E …
Oh, I can still do them all – Ashlyn, Blair, Courtney, Delia, Edeline, Fallon, Genevieve (Barbie’s character), Hadley, Isla, Janessa (our favorite to say), Kathleen and Lacey.
Elizabeth gained weight back. She gained energy. And she began to show her old joy again, be her old self again, the silly puns (especially bee puns), the strong opinions she will not hold back (Godfather is better than Godfather Part II, but Robert De Niro is a better Godfather than Marlon Brando), the hunger for reading.
What she wanted more than anything was to see Hamilton on Broadway. That dream filled every moment, good times and bad.
That’s why I bought those tickets (for so much money that I still have never told Margo the amount), and that’s why we went up to New York, and that’s why I did not want to take any photographs on that night. I wanted it to be something more than real life. I wanted it to be like a dream.
* * *
The night before we went to the show, I saw Elizabeth on the hotel couch staring out the window. She was crying. Crohn’s had attacked her for trying to have a milkshake. She was sobbing. I sat down next to her, and held her close, and told her, “We are going to see Hamilton tomorrow! It will be OK!”
And she said, “Dad, I can’t feel happy. I don’t know why. I’m just … every time I try to feel happy it like disappears. I can’t be happy.” And she cried harder and I held her tighter.
This disease … it is a bastard.
The next morning, she felt a bit better. We walked around New York, and she felt better still.
And then it was time to go, and Elizabeth put on a dress she had gotten just for this occasion, and she spent a long time on her hair, and she put on high heels that made her almost as tall as her mother. And we walked out into the New York night. It was raining. The crowd had already formed; some had been waiting for hours. We stood under the marquee of the Marriott Marquis, right next to the Richard Rodgers theater. It was the happiest line of people I’d ever seen.
“What a lucky girl you are,” the woman in front of us said to Elizabeth.
“I know,” Elizabeth said. She could not stop smiling. She was wobbling on her shoes and jabbering about how she was going to sing along with every song and just smiling.
“I’m going to sing along too,” I said.
“Don’t you dare,” she said.
She was shaking as we entered the theater, trembling. We found our seats up in the balcony, and you could see Elizabeth trying to take all of it in, soak all of it in, the way a plant soaks in sunlight. The beautiful thing about it was that we were soon surrounded by people floating in the same dream, all of us were in a place beyond happiness, a place of ecstasy, because this was it, Hamilton, the biggest show in America, the biggest stage on earth, and this enormous thing, something bigger than a play, was about to begin.
“Dad,” Elizabeth finally said. “One picture.”
“Dad, please. One picture.”
And that’s when I snapped the photograph.
* * *
We talk about that night a lot, Elizabeth and I, We mostly talk about little things – the way Leslie Odom involuntarily giggled for a millisecond when the King of England danced, the glorious way Daveed Diggs/Thomas Jefferson swept onto the stage in all purple, the way Renee Elise Goldsberry’s gorgeous voice cut through the darkness.
I remember that dream like candlelight
Like a dream that you can't quite place
And, of course, we talk all the time about Lin Manuel-Miranda, my friend Lin, the genius, the role model, the hero and one of my Twitter followers.
“Dad, give me your phone,” Elizabeth will say.
“I want to see if Lin is still following you on Twitter.”
We talk a lot about that night. But we also don’t talk about it. There are parts of that night that we will never talk about, parts of that night that only the two of us will ever share. Elizabeth is in high school now, and she’s breaking away. She wants to break away … and she doesn’t. I want her to break away … and I don’t. It’s complicated, all this father-daughter stuff. We make our way.
That Hamilton night, well, that might be the last night that it wasn’t complicated.
* * *
It's not a very good photograph. Her hair is in covering her eyes and there’s nothing really behind her except an empty stage. I said I take a lot of photographs. I didn't say I was any good at it.
Still, it is my favorite photograph of 2016. And I think my favorite part of it is that it's just a little bit out of focus.