The Soldiers Marched to War

A few weeks ago, my five-year-old daughter stood for the first time on a stage, facing an audience, with a role in a play and her very own line to speak:

And the soldiers marched to war.”

It wasn’t a real play, just a narrated reenactment of Disney’s Mulan, produced by a county summer camp program. I had watched her perform before, lined up with her nursery school friends, wearing paper bag Indian costumes, singing songs about turkeys and pilgrims.

But something about the sight of my little girl craning her neck to reach the standing microphone and then belting out her line, boldly and proudly, caused a body slam of confused emotions – pride, nostalgia, anxiety, relief, and that strange feeling of loss that parents can feel even when holding their child in their arms.

It was the same moiling brew of emotions that I have found myself tampering down at random moments ever since the summer began with full time kindergarten waiting for us at its end. So I was familiar with those feelings, but rather surprised by their force.

I can’t say exactly why that one moment of my daughter’s performance was so emotionally powerful. Perhaps it was simply the sight of her, singled out in the spotlight, so small, yet so confident and capable, on that big stage.

Perhaps it was the line itself. I tend to think in hyperbole, and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to compare our school years to war. My own memories recall that time as a series of battles of who is in and who is out; who is good enough and who is somehow lacking. It’s a never-ending game of social King of the Hill, and my baby was about to march innocently into it.

***

Going into parenthood, we already know from our own experience that growing up is hard to do. What we don’t know is that it’s even harder when it is happening to our children.

They start out so small, so squishable, with curlicue bodies and necks that seem to be made of pipe cleaners. They don’t cry; they mewl. Everything they do – every yawn, every jerky kick, every sleepy half-smile – is miraculous. To feel their weight on your chest is to be branded forever with love and possessiveness for that person in that body. And forever means that even when you are ninety, and in a nursing home, and your sixty-year-old son is holding your hand, you are longing to hold the infant you bore decades before. I have that on my grandmother’s authority.

Yes, boys and girls, this is what your mother sees every time she looks at you.

Yes, boys and girls, this is what your mother sees every time she looks at you.

Which is why hugging your five-year-old goodbye, and sending her off into an educational system that can nurture and teach, but can’t ensure that she always has a friend to sit next to at lunch, is such an overwhelmingly emotional thing for a mother to do. Not just because that world can be scary, but because entering it represents yet another step your child is taking away from you. Their independence is at the same time thrilling (and freeing!) and heartbreaking.

***

These are the feelings that have followed me throughout the past few months. They are the feelings that I know will overtake me tomorrow, when I drop my kindergartener off for her very first day of elementary school.

But over the last few days, as I have found myself thinking almost non-stop about this looming change in our lives, I have come to understand one other thing. That with every step our children take toward their own independence, they are both walking away from us, their parents, and walking toward us.

I will never hold my newly born first child in my arms again. Even though there are moments when I ache do so, that time has passed. But as my daughter becomes more independent, and as I become less necessary to her, she will become completely herself. And as she grows into the person she was created to become, I have the good fortune not only to witness her transformation, but also to meet her, as equals, at the other side of it.

So tomorrow, as I stifle my tears at the loss of this part of my baby girl’s childhood, I will be reminding myself that the only gift greater than the birth of a child is seeing that child shine in the light of her own fulfilled potential.

We’re All Stories in the End

Last week, I had one of those experiences that all parents dread. I was sitting in the radiology room at an urgent care center holding my hacking, wheezing little girl in my arms, waiting for the technician to rig up the x-ray machine so my very petite child could reach it.

Our entrance to the clinic had been theatrical — I came in running, my daughter clinging to my neck and hips, as thunder boomed and shards of lightening sliced the horizon behind us. A massive storm was breaking.

When the x-rays were finally completed, they confirmed the doctor’s suspicion: my daughter had bronchitis and early stage pneumonia. It was our second day of vacation and things weren’t going quite as we had planned.

The following day, I was walking up and down the boardwalk leading to the beach with my two-year-old. She was naked but for a swim diaper because, for some reason, her swimsuit was oddly alluring to bees. In the span of just a few minutes, two bees had attached themselves to the fabric and settled in, almost as if drawn there by a force beyond their control. She panicked, so I yanked the suit to the ground and tossed it several feet away. The bees fled, but there was no way my baby was getting back in that suit without a fight. She revels in her nudity.

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Making the best of things

My five-year-old was wheezily building sandcastles because, despite her terrible cough, she was determined to fulfill all of her vacation plans. The little one — whom we had thought to be fearless — was terrified by the waves. So up and down the boardwalk we strolled, scuffing through the sand and noticing the little things, like bottle caps in sand dunes.I found myself thinking, with a laugh, “Well, in a few years, this will be ‘the vacation when Michele had pneumonia, and Norah was a Siren for bees, and I spent much of my time looking through the cracks of a boardwalk.'”

We did lots of other things — we saw dolphins swimming, we hiked in one of the most beautiful state parks on the East Coast, and, most importantly, we spent lots of time with my sister-in-law and her family, who live too far away for us to visit regularly. But those unexpected incidents were foremost in my mind.

Bees like balloon prints

Bees like balloon prints

It occurred to me then that the moments of our lives that we hold on to are most often those moments that came unplanned and were unwanted. Because those are the moments that we relive — and retell — over the years.

So much of life is in the telling — sharing our stories about the events that shape us. The good times are priceless in their own way; they bring us joy as they occur. But the challenging times, the unexpected incidents — the rainstorms, the lost luggage, the massively bad days — they make us reflect. They take us outside of ourselves and, in reliving those experiences, they open us up to a greater appreciation of the humor we can find in our own foibles and moments of distress.

We really are “all just stories in the end.*” It’s how we interpret those stories and how we share them with others that make them great.

 ***

“We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? Because it was, you know, it was the best.” Dr. Who

*I’m only a budding Whovian, since I have just now started to watch the show, but I’d like to thank my friend Amanda at Bluestocking Rambles whose Facebook posts got me interested. My dad, too, since I remember the show from my childhood because of him.