Dear Lily June,
Our third ever Mommy-Daughter PJ Day is brought to you by the quality of “fragility.”
All day, I’ve been forced to remember this commercial I used to watch again and again when I was pregnant with you, weeping because it is so precious or I was so hormonal.
In the PSA, a father pretends in his living room to be driving a chair, while his wife and daughter watch. Suddenly, as it becomes clear he’s going to pretend wreck that pretend car, the daughter runs in with tiny fairy wings and embraces her dad around the middle. The mother runs over and wraps her arms across his body diagonally from hip to shoulder.
As furniture flies across the room, spreading glitter and simulating impact, it’s clear the mother and daughter are the father’s seat belt, the reason he must be safe to stay alive when he’s away from them and driving. It’s a hell of an over-the-top visual metaphor. And it gets me every time.
Yesterday, you reached a new milestone. You started your first ever sickness. Your dad and I had been wrestling with “the crud” for about a week, so we knew exactly what it was. And yet, when you woke looking pallid and pale and peaked, I started to feel sick inside. After all, I’d never had to use any of those p-words before: not with you.
Your eyes were glazed as donuts, your pallor the pale shade of an over-powdered geisha. My metaphors were running as rampant as my panic. And sticking a thermometer into your armpit, I experienced the torturously slow creep of the numbers going up a tenth of a degree at a time, like being an acrophobic on a tense uphill roller coaster ascent, the chain pulling the car one link at a time with a sickening chink, chink, chink until you reached Fever. And then, the release: I had to go to work, and it was like being dropped from the highest point of the track and having to speed as fast as I could away from you. I hated every second of it.
So distracted was I at work that I did the worst thing I could do: I left my cell behind on my desk when I went to lunch, at the exact point you were at your sickest, fever peaking at 102 and your dad going into a wet chicken panic because of your quiet, disconcerting moaning. When he finally got me on the phone when I got back an hour later, he gave me a good scolding and then admitted, “I’m not really mad at you. I was just so scared. I feel like I’m mad at…fragility.”
Yes, Lily, that was it exactly, as I felt and knew it when we switched places and he left that afternoon for work while I came home to care for you. Holding your unhappy, hot, unhealthy little struggling body, I was mad at fragility, too, with you and for you. I repeated in my mind, though it didn’t slow my heart a bit, it is just a cold. This is just Lily’s first cold. She will get better.
This morning, you were already acting a million times healthier. After a night of saline mists and Tylenol doses and a humming humidifier, not to mention a three am feeding with your father for good measure, you were back to your pink cheeks and wide grins. We loaded you into the car to go on a small adventure: Driving out to the middle of nowhere where the food bank is to drop off our small donated treasure.
Then, to the post office to mail out your cousins’–Dave’s, So-So’s & Sully’s–Christmas gifts. If you think, reading this later, Lily, that I’m off my rocker for only getting out in February what had been due in December, the joke’s on you. They weren’t two months late; they were fourteen, as these were the gifts I’d purchased for my sister’s kids last winter.
Why the wait? The nature of my sister’s tenuous custody situation. The Christmas before your first, Lily, my sister’s kids were rushed away by police on Christmas Eve after her ex cooked up a story about my father, who she was living with at the time, being a molester. My father has been a lot of troubled things, but a sexual predator has never been one of these.
The lie, though, given a corrupt, small-town magistrate, was enough to secure an emergency court order to drag those babies, the eldest not even a Kindergartner at the time, across state lines and back to the abusive alcoholic liar that was their own father. You’re damn right, Lily, that I’m bitter: There is no reason three children should be ripped from the loving arms of their mother in the middle of the night before a holiday.
Sometimes, it’s as if the love that holds us all together is bound by strings as frail as a web’s holding onto a still beating butterfly’s wing. And we all must be cautious in our lives of who might be our spiders.
Luckily, my sister’s, your Aunt Loren’s, custody of her kids has finally been some semblance of restored, though she’s had to move back into the same state and county as her abuser, so she’s as vulnerable, and her situation as fragile, as it ever was. And my faith in the justice system has been ripped asunder.
Of course, even the benign little errands we ran today, giving out those gifts, led to a reminder of how vulnerable we all are to losing ourselves and each other. On the way out, we hit a rough patch of ice in our apartment parking lot after one of the first real snows this winter, sending the car into a hard spiral towards a large pond of water–large enough, under its ice, to swallow us all up, your dad and me and you, together.
I screamed out to your dad, as this was my first time in such a deadly spin, “What do I do?!” and he replied, almost laughingly, “Do nothing.” And he was right, you know. If I’d tried to slam the brakes or turn into the spin as so many do out of fear, we’d have spun right over the edge of the road and into the water.
Eventually the car righted itself, but not before my mind unconsciously had the time to recall a family myth I’d been told again and again about a time when I’d not been much older than you, maybe two years old. My family had gone up to the Blue Ridge Mountains and my dad, the driver, had possibly had a few. The night had been dark, the rain pouring, and the car hydroplaned into a skid that circled our car across the highway, over the median, and stopped us facing opposing traffic head on. According to my mother, my sister, six years my senior, had screamed and screamed as we spun, and I had calmly turned to her and tried to comfort her, saying over and over, “It’s okay, Wa-Ren. It’s okay.”
Which also now reminds me of the time my father and I had gone swimming too far out into Virginia’s waters, and we’d gotten caught in a rip tide. My father had screamed and screamed, “Help us! Help us!” while we tried and tried to swim parallel to the shore to get out of the circular current, pulling us further back in the waves and the water. And I had tried to comfort him, too, Lily, saying, “It’s okay, Dad. We’ll be okay.” To this day, he insists that, at ten years old, I was only calm because I didn’t grasp the depths of our danger. And I insist his panicked flailing could have drowned us if it had carried on any longer.
I am not a woman known, Lily, for grace under pressure. Despite the examples above, those outliers and flukes so out of character, I drove us home this morning with shaking hands feeling earnestly that I could have killed us if I hadn’t listened to your father and done nothing. That I could have missed being there for you yesterday if I’d selfishly, the sole parent with the car, not answered the phone in time or your condition had nosedived further.
Am I being melodramatic much about a cold and some winter weather? You bet your bottom dollar! That, my dear, is in my character. But all of these little nothings add up to remind me that life and love are fragile by their nature. That it is my job to hold you like I might not be able to tomorrow. And I only have to do that every day you are my daughter.
In the meantime, as is the tradition, your dad is on campus now conferencing with his students. You are asleep in your fishy seat next to me, rocking under a mobile of rainbow colored flounder. I am taking a vacation day from work to dress in our matching pajamas, a new pair your dad bought us for Valentine’s Day with another Mommy and Baby Bear, not caring what anyone might think of us. We can be badass feminists who are dressed as cute as matching buttons, dear. Fragile as we are, we’re stronger for now together.