The other day, I had an epiphany in the bathroom. No, not that kind of epiphany. I was looking at a little plaque that my daughter made for my wife and me when she was about 4 years old. It says, "I love you, Mommy and Daddy."
Calling it a "plaque" is a bit of an overstatement. It's really just a 4-by-6-inch piece of wood, probably left over from the treehouse I built her and her brother around that time, on which she scrawled the words with a pen in her little-girl hand.
But we call it a plaque because she meant it as a plaque, an award, and it couldn't be more precious if it were made of polished redwood and embossed with gold. My wife and I keep it in our master bathroom because that's the only place in the house where just the two of us go. Well, I sometimes go in the downstairs bathroom, but not when we're expecting company.
Anyway, staring at that little piece of wood, I suddenly understood something that has been bothering me for a while.
Ever since my daughter went off to college seven years ago, I've felt an incredible sense of loss. At first I thought it was just that she was gone -- the first of our children to leave home -- and that I missed her. Which I do. I miss her a lot, still. I love spending time with her when I can (she lives on the other side of the country now with her husband), and I look forward to talking on the phone or Skyping every week.
But gradually I began to realize that, even when I get to spend long periods of time with her, like when she's home for the holidays, that terrible void still doesn't go away. I couldn't figure it out.
And then, looking at her little childish plaque the other day, it hit me: what I really miss is not the 25-year-old Jenny. I do miss her terribly, every day, but at least I get to see her and talk to her. What I really miss is the 4-year-old Jenny -- the one who is never coming back.
It struck me, as I contemplated that small wooden rectangle, that there's nothing on earth quite like the pure love of a child -- completely uncomplicated (unlike too many people's Facebook status), utterly unconditional, wholly without guile.
I know that my grown-up daughter loves me. I know that my grown and nearly-grown sons love me, that my wife loves me. I know that many of you love me. Yeah, OK, that's going a bit too far.
But none of that quite compares to the love I once felt from a little 4-year-old girl, proudly showing off the "plaque" she'd made for Mommy and Daddy. That love, captured on a 4-by-6 block of wood, still echoes in my heart.
Rob Jenkins is a local freelance writer and college professor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.