We have reached that strange, familiar-yet-unfamiliar place: neither separate nor together, too close or too far, always. She wants me to listen but not overhear, to offer advice but to allow her to figure it out on her own, to catch her and set her free, all at the same time.
Some days, she is exactly who she has been all these years. Our exchanges are easy and bright, familiar and relaxed. We both find our footing and walk forward together. Other days, it’s as though she is an entirely new and different person. Nick and I ask each other, “Wait… where did she go?” The ground beneath us is unsure, our steps tentative, maybe even backward.
And then suddenly, without warning or preamble, she bursts through again, radiating humor and happiness and contentment. Nick and I say to one another, “Oh look – she’s back!” Of course, she has always been there; just sometimes, there are a lot of clouds obscuring our view.
So it’s been for a while now, but recently everything feels intensified. The clouds, when they come, are thick and far away, offering cover that we cannot quite peek through. They blow over more quickly, however, and when she returns, she is more sparkling than ever before. Or perhaps I just appreciate her light a little more, somehow.
These past few months have brought a helluva lot of figurings-out and thinking-abouts and growings-up – I was going to say for her but now I realize it’s been for both of us. As she navigates her space, she has been pulling me close, both physically and otherwise. Sit by me, Mama. Can I read this to you? Would you come talk with me, Mama?
Still, she is working hard to be Independent and Strong, and I am constantly reminded that, despite her small stature, she is no longer a little girl.
But sometimes… When I go to tuck her in at night, I slip her hair behind her ear and just watch her breathe, the rise and fall as steady and peaceful as the tide. When she plays the piano, I am struck by her beauty, by the gracefulness of her fingers. When she asks if I can pick her up and hold her (yes, even now), I no longer even pretend that she is too big. She is, of course, but these moments are so rare, I’ll gratefully oblige.
“People say we look alike…”
Taken on the plane. Shared with her permission.
Spring break was last week; as before, we visited my dad and stepmom in Kiawah and it was wonderful. Our final flight home had us taking off well past bedtime. If we were lucky, we’d get home before midnight. The girls were troopers in the airport, but they were exhausted by the time we took our seats on the plane.
She wanted to sleep – desperately – but couldn’t find a comfortable position; snoozing while traveling is just not her thing, an unfortunate trait she inherited from me. She tosses and scrunches, stretches and curls up, but nothing feels right. I murmur sympathetic noises over my crossword puzzle, illuminated by the blazing personal light that I’ve clicked on above us.
When she shifts again, I notice the exhaustion on her face, her whole being drooping like a wilted flower. I tug my sweatshirt from behind me, where I’ve balled it up to get it out of the way, and drape it across my right side. I hold out my arm, reaching around her shoulders. “Here, sweetie. Come, pull in beside me.” Unexpectedly, she does, tucking herself in against my chest. Within minutes, I can hear and feel that her breathing has slowed. I reach up with my left hand and and turn off the light.
Unable to work on my crossword, I just sit, my arm around her, my chin resting on her head. I sniff her hair; it does not smell like shampoo or sweetness, as it did when she was a baby, but instead of chlorine and sunscreen and salt and sweat – a perfect encapsulation of a day well spent in the sun, by a pool, having fun. I inhale deeply, taking her in, as though I can see her dreams radiating around us.
After ten minutes or so, my eyes have fully adjusted to the lack of light and I take up the crossword again (with one hand), somewhat half-heartedly. As we begin our descent, there is some slight turbulence. She slides forward a bit, away from me, her head tilting. I tighten my grip on her shoulder and attempt to do 39-Across.
By now, she has slid even further down. Her head is lolling forward; I’m afraid that she’ll awaken. I move my hand from her shoulder to her head, pulling her back in to me. Once more, I put down my pen. It is awkward and a little uncomfortable sitting like this, my hand pressed to her forehead as though feeling for a fever, leaning into her with each bump and dip so that she doesn’t tip right over. But I don’t care. I don’t know when we’ll be sitting like this again. I can do so little to protect her these days; these moments feel like a gift. We stay just like that until the flight is over.
When we land and finally arrive at our gate, her eyes flutter open – although she is so tired, they can hardly remain so. She says she wants to come with me to get the car (rather than wait inside for the luggage with Nick), despite having to walk in a downpour to retrieve it. She is patient and quiet when the CD player consumes our parking ticket and I have to produce my driver’s license to exit the ramp. Once we get home and I am tucking her into bed, she insists that she wasn’t actually sleeping on the flight – she was merely resting.
But minutes later, when I check on her and find her fast asleep, I watch the rise and fall of her chest again, like it had been on the plane, like the tides, and I know she was mistaken. I sniff her hair one last time – still perfect – and leave her to her dreams.