Awake at 3 a.m., two weeks before she graduates from high school

Awake at 3 a.m., two weeks before she graduates from high school

From the day they were born, you held them close. Gathered them in, dried their tears, snuggled them to sleep, watched them breathe. Everything was new, and everything was teaching. This is broccoli, you said, as their delighted toothless mouths tried to chew for the first time. That is a bird. Here is pink. This is soft, as you brushed their cheek with a finger.

They wrapped their tiny fists around your index fingers and pulled themselves to standing in your lap.

They walked, and you held their hands. Or didn’t. I can do it by myself, their eyes said, when their words were still mostly just babbling. They ran, and you watched and laughed.

Everything was a game, an adventure. Letters and counting, getting dressed (how to put on tights by yourself: a hard thing to learn), making snow angels, finger painting, baking. 

Baking was math and messes and chocolate cheeks. An entire hot summer afternoon scalding peaches with tiny helpers chopping and measuring to make a cobbler that would be too bitter to eat because the confusion of several tiny helpers sometimes mis-measures the baking soda. (How to laugh off a dessert disaster, reach for more ice cream, say yes to a second popsicle in a row just because it’s fun: easy things to teach.)

Those days, so full of laughter, so full of exhaustion. Yours. Theirs. You would fall asleep mid-sentence lying on the floor helping them do a puzzle because paying careful attention to small people all day is hard work. They would fall asleep on the way home from kindergarten, a three-minute drive, because sitting more or less still, learning all day, is hard work.

One day you would say no, you couldn’t play a game with them right now because you had this thing you had to finish, and they would nod and find something else to do. And fifteen years later, you would still be asking yourself: did I play enough games with them? Did I say yes enough?

By then, somehow, they were doing their own laundry. (Remember all those tiny jammies you once folded every week? The socks, smaller than your palm?) They were cooking whole midnight meals and washing the pot. They were spending hours willingly helping with the heavy labor of a yard project because they knew you needed the help and they were, somehow, now stronger than you. (Remember when you had to choke back your laughter at their dramatic expression of what a burden it was to rake fall leaves? Even though there was always pile-jumping?) 

From the day they were born, you held them close and simultaneously taught them to become independent. What you forgot, didn’t know, couldn’t fathom, is that you were also supposed to be training yourself to become superfluous. 

That if you did it right, did everything right, signed the permission slips in time, figured out how to make football-shaped birthday cakes, turned them into Mary Poppins for Halloween, went to the baseball games, talked about the hard stuff, supervised the homework, planned the vacations, and taught them to sew so they could turn themselves into the Queen of Hearts for Halloween, the point of it all would be that one day, they could plan their own adventures without you. 

Of course, no matter what you did, you would never do everything right. And of course, no matter what you did, there would come a time when you would think: it was not enough. And of course, you could not have done more, only different. 

Full of pride at their accomplishments. Full of longing for the ritual bedtime exchange — What was the best part of your day? — which disappeared, you don’t know when. 

Full of joy at their joy. 

And that, you must teach yourself, may be enough. May, in fact, be everything. 

After the ballet recital. Fourteen years ago today.
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