How do you tell your daughter that a meteor is barreling toward Earth and that all she can do is wait, clinging to the hope it doesn't inflict catastrophic damage on the human race?
That's how it felt when I got home after covering the presidential election, an assignment that quickly became a nightmare that saw me emotionlessly scanning Facebook, Twitter, and the polling results themselves for even the slightest sign of hope early Wednesday morning.
By then, it was clear Hillary Clinton was going to lose, an outcome that all but ensured any semblance of the progress made over the last eight years would be scrubbed from our consciousness. So when, after a defeated stroll through the backyard, I got inside and made my way to the living room to find my twelve-year-old daughter sleeping on the couch, I couldn't bring myself to wake her.
She had been waiting anxiously to see the first female president accept victory—to affirm that a little girl can grow into an unstoppable force of progress—but didn't quite make it through the returns. And so I just sat there, watching her sleep. I wasn't ready to kill her dream.
My wife left for work several hours later, leaving me to deliver the news to a sleep-deprived preteen who had somehow managed to make it to her bedroom at some point before sunrise. "Be sensitive," she cautioned, just before walking out the door. "She's going to be devastated."
My heart was heavy as I ascended our twenty-four stairs. And when I came to my daughter's door, I took a few deep breaths to collect myself, thinking all the while that our nation had just delivered a message to my little girl that bullying, misogyny, racism, and (at best) sexual misconduct could be rewarded with a chair inside the Oval Office.
Parents can't panic in moments like these. Those of you with young ones know what I'm talking about. They can sense our unrest, and it breeds fear in their hearts. And from the moment you look at your son or daughter for the first time, shielding your child from the darkness in the world becomes your most paramount priority. So I knew I had to dig deep, to ignore the fact that the country, as we knew it, had been forever changed.
She didn't answer after the first few knocks, so I let myself in, expecting to find her still lost in dream. But she wasn't sleeping. A text message from a friend had alerted her to America's new normal.
"You don't even have to say it," she said, tears forming in her bloodshot eyes. "I know. I know, Dad. How could this happen?"
I had nothing. I mean, even if there were an explanation—racist whites or voter suppression or the FBI—how do you unpack all that for seventh-grade ears? How do you explain away hate and intolerance?
So I sat on the end of her bed, and, as I've done countless times, I told her a story.
I reminded her that, once upon a time, a little girl told herself that there was nothing wrong with her aunt falling in love with another woman, that the color of her biracial cousin's skin didn't make him a threat to people like her.
I recounted the day when she, at eight years old, refused to sit on Santa's lap at a mall because the Christmas train was being driven by a Chick-fil-A cow (she'd overheard a conversation between me and my wife about the chain's founder, Dan Cathy, making anti-LGBTQ comments) and how she encouraged her friends to boycott the circus because she was concerned about the welfare of animals.
I asked her to remember the immigrants she trained alongside and competed against in an eastern North Carolina martial arts studio located in a county Trump won handily, and to never, ever forget that much of her food, from Mount Olive pickles to the turkey we will share on Thanksgiving, only gets to her plate because of men and women who sought a better life in the United States.
And as I fought back tears, I implored her to remember this feeling in 2024 (the first presidential election in which she will be old enough to vote) and allow that pain to light a fire inside of her that will burn brighter than any Supreme Court appointee, border wall, or Muslim ban Donald Trump throws our way.
Big change, I told her, comes from big hearts—and I have found none bigger than the one that beats inside my little girl's chest. It comes from compassion, tolerance, and empathy.
Those qualities, she said, are the norm for her generation. And in that moment, I was reminded that this "once upon a time" could, indeed, still have a happy ending. Certainly not today or any time soon. But in victory, Trump might well have guaranteed that some day, a social rebellion led by the likes of my daughter will ensure that every American has the happily ever after our nation set ablaze last week.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A Story For My Little Girl."