Today’s HerStories Voices column is by Suzanne Perryman, who blogs at Special Needs Mom. It’s a lovely meditation on the relationship between Suzanne and her oldest daughter, as well as the triumphs and struggles of her entire family.
Sometimes our most precious moments with our children take place with them asleep, beside us.
My daughter Olivia is breathing gently in a rhythm I know well. For almost 14 years I have studied her stages of sleep. With her hand tucked in mine, I stay stretched out beside her. In the shadows I study the new curves on her body and the way she fills her childhood bed. The way her long curly hair falls in thick bundles off the ends of her pillow, the dark hiding its rich reddish brown. She called me here me tonight, overflowing with excitement and anxiety, unable to sleep.
“ Lie with me, Mama,” she used to say. When her curls were just a cap of copper penny red and still shooting in all directions. And I would resist then, empty and exhausted by the end of my day. Wanting the touch of my husband’s skin next to mine, wanting my own turn.
Her curls grew into a mop of deep red during the years she favored Strawberry Shortcake. The feather-light weight of her five year old body made her steps small and almost silent in her Strawberry Shortcake slippers, and I could barely hear her coming each early morning when she slowly shuffled down the hall .
She would find me at my desk most quiet mornings and climb into my lap, whispering in a sleepy sing song, “Whatya doing?”
“ Looking at pictures,” I replied one morning, as the softness of her body settled and snuggled into mine, she reached for the photo I held in my hand. “My favorite,” she sighed.
She studied that image of her four year old self, dressed in pink and red, raincoat and boots, standing in our backyard holding her umbrella.
“ I woke up from my nap ..” she began, “and Zoe was still sleeping and we snuck outside to the play in the rain. We ran all around my playhouse and splashed on the patio until we were wet! You remember, right, Mommy?” She questioned with her eyes wide. “I can’t see you in the picture but you were there.”
You were there.
She didn’t say it, but with her subtle reference, I know that she remembered those times when she woke up and I was gone. Beginning when her sister Zoe was born and I disappeared into the night, returning home a week later. My first night home, when I had finished singing and rocking her to sleep and after quietly tucking her in her crib, she awoke screaming and crying for me, and then finally flung her body out of her crib and across the room.
And times after that, when Zoe fell sick during the night and I had no choice but to take her to the hospital, and Olivia would wake up with her Mommy missing. Her mommy wasn’t there.
In Pre-k, the psychologist called it a slow-to-warm temperament, the way she would wrap her arms around my legs, and refuse to say goodbye. The way she would clutch and climb my nearly six foot length, from bottom to top, the way a child can scurry up a tree. While I stood solid with the weight of Zoe in my arms, the weight of the guilt in my heart made me weak.
Slow to warm, like the careful way I would warm her maple syrup for our pancake lunches. She would stand then, hugging the back of my legs as I poured the pancake batter and then start to giggle as I carried her plate to the table, over the silliness of our eating pancakes for lunch. Pancake lunches were special, for the days we missed our pancake breakfasts. For the days she woke up and I wasn’t there.
Kindergarten at an early age was a better choice for my smart and spirited happy child. A smarter alternative to spending her day visiting Zoe’s specialists and therapists or playing quietly while her sister napped.
And like a fragile flower, well-nurtured, she flourished within our simple family life. She grew strong until fall came along every year, and with new transitions and new teachers, she would falter and wilt a bit, until slowly opening wide again strongly rooted again by spring, and warmed by the season’s sun.
Until one spring, when she didn’t. And I grieved for her. I missed her smile, her charm, her affection, the way she shimmied across her bedroom floor as she sang her favorite songs. And that way she always started her day by sleepily climbing into my lap where I too found comfort in her body still warm from sleep. I missed her then and I tried everything. I went back to my mothering basics: more attention, more love, more sunshine, more backyard time.
And when nothing worked, I sat down at my computer and Googled “how +to+make+my+daughter+happy+
Olivia just kept growing, taller and smarter. The color of her hair began to turn an auburn brown. She took to reading big books, piling them in her room, and carrying three or four in her arms to school with her each day, admitting quietly the comfort they gave her, how they helped to ease her anxiety.
With growth came more truth. One day Olivia asked if her sister Zoe would ever get better, when Zoe might begin to walk, without using her walker and if she would ever someday not need her pink power wheelchair.
I looked at my oldest then, knowing she had outgrown her little girl eyes. I took our routine each day for granted and never realiized that Olivia believed the medicines, the therapies, and the doctors would someday make Zoe better, help her learn to walk and speak clearly.
I watched Olivia’s eyes fill with tears as I explained that although Zoe’s body would grow taller and maybe stronger, her condition would never change. I waited for her words of grief.
“Does Zoe know, Mom?” was all she said. Protective of her little sister, she was trying to imagine if Zoe knew this truth too, if Zoe, who was full of life and laughter, always smiling knew this to be her truth or if there was more hurt to come.
Through her middle school years there were times when Olivia hurt, feeling the pain of her anxiety and in those moments, I felt even worse. There were other times too, with friends and pool parties and school, her first concert. Through these years she found comfort in our family, and at her school.
My “fix-it” years of motherhood filled with research, identifying problems and then applying my best mothering skills, were soon coming to an end. We gave up the medicine and I worked on developing a specialized set of coping skills. I started thinking about the tools Olivia would need to take with her one day. What she would need to know about herself, how she would need to be the one to “fix” things in her future.
I never imagined lying beside my teenage daughter like this, thinking that someone else will lay next to her one day, someone else will love her this fiercely. Thinking about how her world will grow beyond this home, beyond her father and me, beyond her sister who will always stay here with us. That I will still be here, but the someday is coming when she will be gone.
She is in high school now and everything is new. The scratchy uniforms, her friends, the community, the higher expecations, the honor classes and study load. I am here for you, I tell her. I try to comfort, try to help her to pack and prepare the toolbox she will take with her when she someday goes. I watch her struggling for social approval when even her most familiar becomes uncomfortable, like when she straightens her hair, as if denying her true self, and can erase the memory of her corkscrew curls like they were never there.
She raises her voice in anger when she is worried, anxious. I raise my own voice in fear and frustration.Then I pull her into me saying, “I am here.”
She cries many different tears, raindrop tears that trickle, as she slowly tells me her story. Tears of a thunderstorm that come fast and furious lashing out that it is my fault she feels this way, and finally with no warning, the torrential downpour that falls hard and steady and seems to have no end. “ I am here,” I tell her as I try to be her shelter from the storm.
These moments of darkness, like weather, sometimes come with no warning, are unpredictable and follow no pattern. They interrupt the sunniest days of sweetness, and light and the calm of our family life.
No storm clouds follow. The outburst comes and passes, and with frustration I accept that she has outgrown my own ability to fix it. I can hug and hold, coax and plead. After, we talk about what worked, what helped to guide her through it and soothe her fears. And we pack that too into her toolbox, to take out and use again someday.
It is late when she calls me to her bed tonight. At first I sit, listening to her talk about her day. I hear hesitation in her voice and then it grows stronger and then smoother. High school is hard but she is finding her way.
“Lie with me, Mom,” she says and I hear that little girl voice again, I can see her little girl curls.
I don’t resist because I know my turn with her is coming to an end.
Her hand reaches for mine, and our fingers find their familiar places wrapping around each other. We lay connected.
I close my own eyes and now it is my little girl I see, the way her curls fly as she runs. The way she likes to hide behind me, her body aligned perfectly with mine. I see my husband, waiting for me time after time, his eyes full with care and understanding as he too chooses to put Olivia’s needs before his own.
We do all we can to prepare our kids, to pack their tool box full for someday. We push them out into the world — when really we want, for just a little while longer, to pull them back in.
Olivia’s fingers are still wound tightly through mine, and I know that years from now, she will be gone, finding her way in the world with her confidence in full bloom, and it will be this moment I will miss: the simple joy of being the one who holds her hand, late into the night.
I am here, I whisper in the dark.
Suzanne Perryman began blogging at specialneedsmom.com to celebrate the simple, inspiring every day, one story at a time. Her work has recently been featured on HuffPost Parents, Brain,Child, BlogHer, Mamalode, Project Underblog and QueenLatifah.com and was chosen as a BlogHer Voice Of The Year.
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