It’s official: my daughter is the Queen of Devastation.

The fistful of people out there in the world who know me extremely well would all probably agree that I’m someone who, for the most part, doesn’t take personal criticism very seriously. The words of others just don’t bother me much, even if they’re really, really nasty words that are intended to be hurtful. I admit it: there is a little dollop of arrogance about me that insulates me from this sort of thing, and it’s a very simple system. Here’s how the system works: If someone who doesn’t know me decides to tee off on me (usually this happens in print, rather than in person), then my natural reaction is: Why on Earth would I care about the opinion of someone who doesn’t know me? I mean, thousands of strangers could be cursing my existence behind closed doors at any given moment, and what’s to be done about that? Just because I happen to hear or read the comments of one of those strangers is no reason to get myself in a twist.

But if it’s someone close to me letting me have it, then in most cases, they’re probably right about whatever I’ve done wrong, and I’m OK with hearing it. I mean, if I’m being a selfish jackass, I really don’t mind being let in on that fact, and the most efficient way to do that is to just come on out and call me a selfish jackass. My wife is very good at this.

But on rare occasions, I will get cut to the quick by a random comment, and that happened yesterday. Leave it to a 3-year-old. My daughter and son were in the car with me, and we’d just dropped Mom off at Safeway for a quick moment. We were circling the store, and Mia caught a glimpse of the ice cream store that we frequent. She wanted ice cream; I said no. She immediately started crying — real tears! — and demanding ice cream. Not unusual for a 3-year-old, although Mia isn’t particularly prone to such outbursts. I told her that crying and fit-throwing wouldn’t get her any closer to ice cream, and told her that crying was fine if you’re hurt or sad, etc., but not getting ice cream wasn’t cause to “cry like a baby.” Those were my exact, poorly chosen words.

Mia took exception immediately, and got mad that I called her a baby, but she calmed down soon enough. While we waited for Mom to come out of Safeway, she reminded me that she was certainly not a baby. I said I was sorry, that I knew she wasn’t a baby. And then I thought I was out of the woods, until I heard new tears bubbling up in the backseat — tears of sadness, not tears of anger. “Do you…” she sniffled, but choked herself up on tears and couldn’t finish the sentence. Second try: “Do you still love me when I cry?”

I don’t know exactly what sound the tip of an arrow makes as it rips through your chest and actually tears through the valves of your heart, but I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard at that moment. Good god, I thought — where did that come from? I literally got sick to my stomach for a moment when I realized that my daughter was unsure, even for a 3-year-old’s half-second — about whether I loved her unconditionally. I stammered a bit, told her “of course,” but realized that assurance via the rear-view mirror wasn’t going to cut it in this case. I pulled into the parking lot of the adjacent motel, and hopped into the backseat.

I wanted to grab her and tell her that she could push me off a cliff and I’d still love her all the way to the bottom. I wanted to tell her that rough men could rip my limbs apart, demanding I renounce my love for her, and I would just laugh and drift away. I wanted to tell her that loving her is as unchanging a part of the world for me as the daily sunrise or my April tax bill. But you can’t tell a 3-year-old that stuff, so I just held her face, kissed her between the eyes as hard as I could, and said, “I will alway, always, always love you. No matter what.”

And then she let me have it.

“YUCK!” she said, laughing and swatting the side of my face. “Your kisses are YUCKY! I’m gonna wipe ’em off!” Laughs, laughs, laughs, all around.

And boom, we were off to another subject, and none too soon for me. I don’t know how many seconds passed from the beginning of the Daddy devastation to the reprieve — 60? 90? — but here’s hoping it was the longest time you ever wonder whether Daddy loves you, Mia.