I am starled, as I've been blow drying my hair (I know, shush) and while I knew she was watching, with my eyes closed tight so that I may process this activity tactily and also because vertigo messes me up in more ways than I casually let on, I didn't hear or feel her move closer.
I stood back up, turning off the hair dryer and looking at her tiny face, so sweetly turned up to look at mine.
"Mommy?" she lilted. "You're beautiful."
The air caught in my throat. My inner voice immediately spat but I don't have mascara on and I'm not wearing a shirt and my skin is a wreck and and and but the look on her face, innocent and earnest, silenced it more swiftly than I've ever known. She had no need to tell me such a thing at that moment, out of the blue.
But it shakes me. Because until that moment I haven't realized how much I lack for being touched, for being complimented, and more so because I think she somehow has figured that out, my need for affection, and is taking that duty upon herself.
I leaned over, resting my hands on my knees because my back is crap these days (stress does that to me) to meet her at her eye level, to drink in this moment of unprovoked sweetness from this child that so consistently levels me with the human being she is, that she's always been since she was a not-so-tiny baby.
"Thank you, sweetheart. So are you."
She giggles and pretends to be shy, as she often does, seemingly unable to take a compliment just like her mother. She tells me she loves me and hugs my legs, and I do my best to wrap myself around her without sending us both toppling over as I tell her I love her so very much, too.
She scampers off to play on my bed while I continue getting ready for work, ever the little spitfire free spirit I hope no one ever breaks.
I was her age when my mother's mother committed suicide.
I remember walking into my mom's bedroom with a china doll that I had been allowed to play with, carefully, as it's clothes came off if you worked them right. However, inevitably as a three-almost-four-year old, I snapped the doll's arm right off. I had sat, frozen, for what felt like several minutes, trying to decide what to do. My brother watched me intently while pretending to play with something else, torn himself between not knowing if we were both in trouble, or if he should rat me out to save himself. At two and a half, he was a master tattle tale ... and to this day he's still not the best with mild secrets.
I decided I had to tell her. I knew she would be upset and angry with me, but I didn't know how to fix it and it was better she find out now than later, when my dad would also be around and therefore the one to administer ramifications.
So there I stood, at the edge of the bed she sat cross-legged upon, I think she may have been folding laundry, but I don't really remember. I could just barely see over the edge of the mattress.
And the phone rang.
She answered it and I could hear my uncle, her brother's, voice come through the speaker. She perked up at hearing him, as did I, and I asked if it were him.
She shushed me, as often happened. I never really stopped talking. I still mostly don't. It wasn't rude, or short, just a common occurrence because she couldn't hear over me.
And then her face screwed up in a way I'd never seen before. Her shoulders fell and hunched over into the space above her lap and I thought I could hear my uncle crying on the phone.
I set the doll on the end of the bed and stepped up onto the side rail, to see her face. I knew something very bad was happening, far worse than what had brought me into the room.
Her impossibly thin arm reached out and scooped me up in one strong motion and I was in her lap as she let out a wail into the hair on the crown of my head. She sobbed as I noticed my brother standing in the doorway of the bedroom, concern mixed with fear covering every inch of him. I made eye contact, begging him in my mind to come over to where our mother clung to me.
He came, climbing up on the bed as I had done, and she swept him up, too. the both of us too large to fit in her small lap and yet we were there anyway. My brother began to cry out of confusion and I began to wail as well, the only things I could cipher being an overwhelming sadness.
This is third in my top three earliest memories. The other two are of my grandmother, the only two memories I formed of her before the darkness stole her life, my mother's spirit, and the innocence of my childhood.
In the ways that I am taken aback when Kiedis shows progress or reveals a new skill or just shows me a way into his mind, I am equally as unprepared when my neurotypical child displays aspects of her understanding of the world, picks up on social cues, and is able to not only express her feelings but to process those of others.
It's parenting at two different ends of a continuum, with the constant hope for the moments where everyone can meet in the middle, somewhere.
I watch her carefree spirit develop and marvel at the kindness and generosity she exhibits in the face of nearly everything. I am grateful for her rose-tinted glasses, and the joy she finds in the most simple of things.
(Just now I was writing that last paragraph, she came and sat next to me and I noticed she had a leaf the size of a pencil eraser in her hair. I pulled it out and showed it to her. Her response was "Oooh, I love that little leaf," as she gently took it from my fingers and carefully laid it on the side table, next to her notebook and carrots and ranch. This, at least ten times a day.)
And maybe it is because I endured such life-shattering loss at her age that I am so painfully cognizant of the lasting effects of this dissolution of her core family unit, she the child that came from the belief that it was salvageable, if only we tried hard enough. She, whose name means good, as she was the only good thing to come from such a terrible situation.
She embodies her name so effortlessly. I never want her to lose that. So I fight fiercely to protect it, to protect her and her brother, from as much of the fall out as I can.
It is the very least I can do.
It is the very least I can do.
I think I've mentioned this before, but a friend likened this situation, this great undoing and silent warfare that is divorce to watching a rhinoceros charge towards your children and not being able to do a damn thing about it.
And today, from her backpack, the rhinoceros showed it's face.
She softly told me it was her, me, her brother, and a flower with the sun. In the uncharacteristic quietness of her voice, I could hear the tinge of the sadness, of noncomprehension and blind acceptance because what else can you do when you're four? Her face showed that she wasn't sure how I would take it, this glimpse into her understanding of her life, now; perhaps she thought she would get in trouble or she somehow did it wrong.
I told her it was beautiful, and thanked her. I asked her if I could take it to work with me, to hang up, and in that fake-shy way she tucked her chin to her shoulder with her two first fingers hooked upon her lower teeth and nodded.
She looks at me with her big, impossibly brown eyes, and in them I see glimpses of another chocolate-eyed four year old, one with slightly wild, long wavy chestnut hair who also wore her tiny heart on her sleeve, and I hug them both, the child I made and the child I once was, and I pray for the strength and the courage and the serenity to be strong enough and safe enough for the both of them.