Nothing made me feel more like a dad than carrying a sleeping child up to bed.
There was something about looking back as we pulled into the driveway and noticing one or both girls asleep in the back seat. Quietly and gently I'd unbuckle one of them and lift her up and wrap my arms around her gently. At the same time I'd feel as if I was protecting her from the world while really the protection went the other way around.
Her arms would flop on either side of my head and her head would gently lay on my shoulder. Whether covered in a heavy winter jacket or in a summer t-shirt, I would feel her presence deeply and intimately. The smell of milk drunk from a sippy cup. The feel of her favorite stuffed animal or blanket still clutched in her sleeping hand.
I'd pause at the door and move the screen out of the way, not letting it bounce on her sleeping body. Bracing her in one arm, I would unlock the door and carry her up to her bed. Standing next to her bed I would look down at her like I'd looked at her mom after a slow dance at the end of a long night. Not wanting the moment to end, I'd pause just a bit and we'd breathe in unison.
Time to disengage. I'd support her head with one hand and her body with my other arm and lay her down in her bed. In the winter I would gently unzip her coat and roll her one way to take one sleeve off and then the other to take off the other sleeve and pull the coat from under her sleeping body. I'd take off her shoes, pull the blankets up to her chin, and kiss her goodnight. Most times I'd stand there holding her coat and watch her sleep for a couple of minutes.
As Maggie grew up, she stopped falling asleep in the car. Sometimes she'd ask me to carry her to the house, but it wasn't the same. Her arms now gripped me as I carried her and we chatted about her day. Still a wonderful moment – just different.
As Elena grew up, she also stopped falling asleep in the car all the time. But as we would pull up our street her head would be rolling and her eyes would be closed.
"She's faking," Maggie would tell us.
Elena was smart enough not to say, "I am not." She would feign sleep so that I would carry her into the house and up to bed as I had when she was a little girl. The routine was the same except at the end. She would squint up at me as I finished taking off her shoes and her coat as if she had just woken up.
"Hi, Daddy," she'd smile.
"Hi, baby," I'd smile back. "Can you brush your teeth and put on your pajamas?"
I never knew if she let me carry her in for her benefit or for mine.