Last night, I insisted you brush your teeth before bed. You acquiesced, albeit complainingly, to your mother’s lofty demands – stomped off toward the bathroom as I followed, a few paces behind, with the robe I intended to use to keep you warm after your bath. I rounded the corner just in time to catch you: brows furrowed, nose scrunched up, lips pursed around the tongue you’d stuck out at me but didn’t intend I should see. Too late.
We stared at one another with the same wide-eyed disbelief. (You: Oh, no! Me: Oh, noooo!) Then? Giggles. You laughed because you knew you were going to get away with it. I laughed because, in spite of myself, I was going to let you. That face (three-going-on-thirteen) was less a reflection of my failure to command respect as your parent, more a reflection of my success in raising a child who is strong, self-assured, opinionated and unafraid to challenge the leadership.
I’d see that face again – lots of times – and it wouldn’t always be so amusing. But for now? Now it was new. Now it signaled the end of that blissful chapter when I had a toddler I could boss around without protest, the beginning of the chapter in which I have a kid who prefers to be the boss when along comes her mother. (It’s the lead up to eventual adolescence when you’ll avoid me lest I tell you for the tenth time that week to wear your seatbelt.) In that moment of defiance (and because it involved no risk of bodily harm or death), I was oddly proud of you.
You’re such a big girl, Elbee. You’ve grown so much since first we met. “Grown” like the feet that are 3/4 the size of mine, “grown” like the way you stand to past my belly button, “grown” like you’re starting to understand that shit happens. And, this year? Shit happened.
Last January, your dad was diagnosed with skin cancer. He underwent a series of miserable surgeries that set him on the path to well. With a little luck, you’ll never remember the time your father had a “boo boo” on the middle finger of his left hand. (The irony! Seriously, fuck cancer.) But somewhere in the far recesses of your subconscious, you learned that even your parents are vulnerable.
The following month, your great-grandfather died, and we decided to bring you along to the wake: An open-casket affair in the Syrian Orthodox tradition. Great-Pop introduced you to death, the concept that all living beings have shelf-lives. You asked me whether Great-Pop was sleeping, and I told you it was something like that. It was sleep for people who’ve finished living. When it came to be your turn to approach the casket, you bent your head low and whispered to him to sleep tight. “I’ll miss you.” He wouldn’t be the last someone you’d miss.
Last winter was long. It was cold. It was among the snowiest on record in New England. And it was rife with challenges. You witnessed your parents scrambling to protect the home we made from the ice dams that threatened it: your dad frantically phoning contractors, your mom shoveling a path to the barn so we could access the snow blower. You wondered whether the green house would collapse under the weight of the snow. I wondered the same thing. You learned nice things very often don’t just happen; very often, you have to work for them, work to maintain them. And, sometimes, even when you’re doing your best, you still get water in the mud room. “That’s not fair,” you said. Nope. But it’s life.
Sometimes it’s mean and messy and tough like that turned up nose. Sometimes, it’s simple and sweet like the way your face looks when you’re getting that hug you really wanted, the hug your mother gives you because she loves you no matter what – despite, in spite and because of that sassy face.
Yes, you’re a big girl, Elbee…a growin’ up girl. But you’re also still a small one, who knows not the menace that is the cavity. For my part, I promise to look out for you as best I can, except for the times when I can’t. Then? Then I hope you’ll call on what you’ve learned and what we’ve taught you, your dad and I, and look out for yourself.
The clock turns on yet another year. It’s another year I’ve been blessed to be that thorn in your side, your biggest fan, your mama. I’m still the most grateful for you.
I love you,