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Fireflies and cardinals, then Santa goes away

Anna Quindlen once wrote that lightning bugs were the reason she had children: "…sometime in my life I wanted to stand at a window with a child and show him the lightning bugs and have him say, 'Mommy, it's magic.'"

I didn't really know what she meant until the cardinal.

The Little Girl and I were sitting on my girlfriend's balcony not long ago. A cardinal was chirping in a nearby tree, and my girlfriend whistled back, sounding a lot like the bird. The cardinal seemed to respond, as though tweeting a reply.

"What did he say?" the Little Girl anxiously asked my girlfriend. Her eyes were wide with a seriousness and an unvarnished sense of wonder that stood me still, lit me up, and broke my heart all at the same time.

She was puzzled when I exulted, a noise that was half laugh, half jubilation. I loved that she blurted the question, then I immediately became wistful with the realization that she soon won't be asking things like that.

Fifty years ago, my mother grabbed my baby brother's cheeks and said, "God, don't grow up." The very thing that a parent is charged to do systematically breaks down the baby within the child. An adult is built like a shopping center: Something wild, uneven and open is flattened to produce a useful but predictable entity.

The tooth fairy goes, Santa goes, the red bird flies away, never comprehended.

If we had the kids because of the magic, what happens to us – parent and child – when the magic goes?

Maybe dads and moms don't get to ask that question. Their job description is simple, after all: Feed them, teach them, plane them into right angles and love the result.

Who knows, though? When it's all said and done and our children become grown-up versions of their baby selves, there might be some magic in them still.