Her tiny hand cups a delicate chin. “Uh, Mommy?”
When she realizes I’m looking at her, she suddenly becomes self-conscious, lowering her eyes and smiling to herself. I believe she has completely forgotten what it is that she wanted to ask. We realize this almost at the same time. And yet, she doesn’t want to lose my attention. She begins alternating “Mommy” and “um” to keep me focused on her until she can come up with something. Finally she blurts out, “The bird has a stinky, poopy butt!” and bursts into hysterical laughter.
I raise an eyebrow and dutifully remind her of the inappropriateness of her statement. She is no longer listening. She is walking away, unbalanced by laughter. She is, after all, three years old.
For those past three years, I have loved her so deeply. Actually, I didn’t believe in love at first sight until it happened to me. She was an infant, looking up into my eyes for the first time. We connected. We loved. She was mine and I would love her until the end of the end of the end.
She was so easy to commit to in that moment. I already had a young son, so I knew how many times she would challenge me, test my love, leaving me begging for the mercy of the God of Parental Knowledge. I’ve come to learn that that particular god doesn’t exist, because as much as you need to know, parenting is more about saying something with your heart: every touch, every movement, every look.
She was born with a broken heart. Her skin had a purplish hue, which caused the attending pediatrician to comment, “Don’t worry, she’ll darken up nicely.”
“Darken?” I asked.
“Well, her father is black, isn’t he?”
“Uh, no, he’s very white.”
Obstetrics, we have a problem.
She was so different from her older brother, who had been lively and strong at birth, with eyes wide open and ready to experience the world. After about 8 hours of life, she was moved to another hospital with a more comprehensive infant Intensive Care Unit. And I went home … now empty-bellied and empty-armed.
This was not the scenario I had planned for.
After a successful surgery on her fourth day, I spent the next few weeks between home with our 18-month-old son and the ICU, where she was kept sedated with Vaseline on her eyelids to keep them moist. The staff said, talk to her, encourage her. There wasn’t time to play my cards close to my chest. Fighting against a life-long self-defense mechanism of protecting my heart from loss, I had to let go of the inhibitions—and just love. Sometimes she would cry, but the breathing tube went past her vocal cords, muting the sound. I would go home and cry for her.
At three weeks, I could hold her again, for the first time since her birth. A nurse assisted her into my arms; she still had tubes connected to machines that constantly worked to sustain her life.
And that was the moment.
She looked up at me, and it was over. I was completely and utterly in love. I floated all the way home that day.
She is petite and powerful. I have never met a more determined, stronger little girl. She is inappropriate. She’s clever. She loves to be around me and always seems to need to know where I am at any given moment. She takes big risks that frighten me but exhilarate her. She is my reflection and my upgrade, an extension of my body and an entirely separate being. No matter what she goes through, she will have me beside her. Even when we’re butting heads. I am always on her side.