My first really good memory of Madyson is one of my favorites.
We were at her T-ball softball game. She was 4 years old. The bat was a telephone pole in her tiny hands and the helmet with its football-style facemask swallowed her little head. When she walked up for her turn at bat she turned toward the stands and gave her mother and me a thumbs up sign.
A cuter, more heart-melting sight could not exist, I thought. But somehow she kept outdoing herself.
Like the first time she called me Daddy. It was an accident, of course. She was so little, and we'd gone outside to play in the yard. She was showing off, getting ready to do some sort of trick for me and she said, "Watch this, Daddy."
She just got confused in the moment, I think, and never realized she said it.
But I did. And I liked it.
Except for that slip of the tongue, she didn't called me by that name though. No, she was more creative.
The first was Chicken Nugget. Why she decided to call me that is still a mystery, but that was my handle for the first year or so that her mother and I dated.
After I'd been Chicken Nugget for awhile I became Big Buddy. She was Little Buddy and insisted I call her that. I found that a little girl calling you Big Buddy in that happy, little-girl voice can make you forget all your problems in a New York minute.
But I still wasn't Daddy. Daddy was somewhere else, already on the path that eventually led him to lose the title.
She was on a separate road, though, and I went with her. She taught me things I don't think I could've learned otherwise and loved me unconditionally in the process.
And she always found a way to melt my heart.
She got to me when we got our picture made at the mall, leaning in real close to my face and smiling a big, happy smile.
The first time she came up to me and kissed me on the cheek when she was going to bed - that got me, too. Falling asleep on my stomach. The first time she reached up and took my hand to walk across a parking lot. The time she bought me a ring out of a bubble gum machine. All of it got me.
Along the way her mother and I got engaged. Last fall, in a whirlwind couple of months we bought a house and moved into it and got married. And I became Madyson's stepfather, which was as close as I figured I would ever get.
But also during that time I got a phone call. He was signing his rights away, he said, and in the process he gave her the chance to melt my heart again.
It took a while, but finally all the t's were crossed and the i's were dotted. Then we got a letter from the lawyer. May 21 at 9 a.m., it said.
And so Wednesday, my wife, my stepdaughter, our lawyer and I went into the judge's chambers at the Barrow County Courthouse. I was sworn in and asked a lot of questions about whether I understood what I was doing and was I able to do it and so on and so forth.
When I finished the judge turned to Madyson and asked, "And what do you think about all of this?"
Without hesitation and with the complete conviction of someone who has no doubt, she said, "I think it would be a great idea if Nate was my father."
Up til then I had managed not to tear up.
The judge nodded and said, "Well, I think it would be, too."
And with that, in his best legalese, the judge so ordered and decreed, etc., etc., and he signed the order, and when he put his pen down I wasn't her stepfather anymore, I was just her father and she had my last name.
I looked over at my daughter, and just like that time in the beginning at the softball field, she was smiling and giving a thumbs up, a double one this time, and my heart melted all over again.
I got up and gave her a hug and we all waited while the judge and the lawyer talked for a minute. And then we were on our way to the clerk's office to get our copies of all the paperwork.
She danced all the way to the elevator.
After the clerk's office we headed to the parking lot. It was Field Day at school and she didn't want to miss out on the fun. (Neither did I.)
As we were getting in the truck I gave her another hug, and just like when I promised her mother I'd always stick by her, I told Madyson I loved her and that I would always take care of her. And in that matter-of-fact little-girl voice she said, "I know," and she jumped in the truck, and I didn't know if my heart could take much more.
Father's Day this year may be June 15, but for me it was and will always be May 21.
The day I became one.
E-mail Nate McCullough at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Fridays.