go get the mermaid tail

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We see it at the same time: the 8-year-old girl getting into her mermaid tail. We look at each other. We look at our daughter. Our daughter is looking at the mermaid girl, too.

“Did we bring it?” he says, under his breath.

“I don’t think so.” I‘m searching the pool bag.

“Hey, can I have my mermaid tail?” our daughter pipes up, assuming it’s in the bag.

“I’ll go back.” He’s already getting the keys, headed back on a 20-minute round-trip just after we’ve arrived, gotten all the stuff settled, and done our extended sunscreen routine.

“Thanks, Daddy.”

My mother-in-law is smiling and shaking her head a little bit.

We’re on vacation at her house, and her son is off to save the day for a would-be mermaid.

I think of the time my own dad drove three and a half hours each way to drop me off on a youth beach trip one Saturday—so that I could finish driver’s ed on the Friday that bus took everyone else to the Outer Banks. I don’t remember asking him to do that. Just like our daughter didn’t have to ask her dad to get that mermaid tail.

On this trip, I’ve been reading Essentialism by Greg McKeown. He tells this story about a woman named Cynthia who, at 12 years old, has a very special day in San Francisco all planned out with her dad. They’ve been talking about it, planning it, for weeks. Detailed plans that include things like Chinese food, a movie, and hot fudge sundaes. He’s got to give a presentation first, and they set it up so that she sits in the back, ready to dash out the door and jump into their special plans as soon he’s done. McKeown tells more:

This was all going according to plan until, as her father was leaving the convention center, he ran into an old college friend and business associate. It had been years since they had seen each other, and Cynthia watched as they embraced enthusiastically. His friend said, to effect: ‘I am so glad you are doing some work with our company now. When Lois and I heard about it we thought it would be perfect. We want to invite you, and of course Cynthia, to get a spectacular seafood dinner down at the Wharf!’ Cynthia’s father responded: ‘Bob, it’s so great to see you. Dinner at the wharf sounds great.’

Cynthia was crestfallen. Her daydreams of trolley rides and ice cream sundaes evaporated in an instant. Plus, she hated seafood and she could just imagine how bored she would be listening to the adults talk all night. But then her father continued: ‘But not tonight. Cynthia and I have a special date planned, don’t we?’ He winked at Cynthia and grabbed her hand and they ran out of the door and continued with [their] night in San Francisco.

Thirty years later, Cynthia remembers that moment.

Thirty years later, I remember my dad’s seven hours in the truck to drop me off at the beach.

Sure, Cynthia had a great time in San Francisco. I think my beach trip was fun, too. And our kiddo had quite the swim with her fellow mermaid when her tail was delivered poolside.

But she’ll forget the specifics of that in a year or two.

What she won’t forget—the feeling that she gets to carry thirty years into the future—is the sure knowledge that she is the most important thing to her dad.

Father’s Day was last Sunday, and maybe that’s why this is on my mind, but I’m not writing all this to make you feel good or bad or inspired or disappointed about your own father or the father of your child or your parenting now or in the past. I’m writing about this because it’s decision-making.

My husband decided a long time ago that our daughter is his priority, and that makes his daily decision-making a lot more straightforward. Not always easy. But easier. I’ve seen it in action 100,000 times over the past seven years.

We can do this in other areas of our lives, too. We can make a decision about our priority that takes the stress out of so many small decisions we encounter.

Do you want sleep to be the priority in your life? Well, that makes the decision about whether you can say yes to a spontaneous lunch date today pretty clear. If you go to that lunch, you won’t finish the work you’ve got to finish for the deadline, so you’ll need to stay up until midnight, which will mean just six hours of sleep for you. No lunch date today.

Do you want travel to be the priority in your life? Then your decision about whether to buy that Alexa gizmo might be made, since you want as much money as possible to go to your travel fund. Get by without Alexa, and get your plane ticket instead.

Do you want your daughter to be the priority in your life? Smile at her. Know that a greasy sunscreen-y drive right back to where you just left is a trade-off you’ll take. And go get that mermaid tail.