Hands Above, Feet Below
Sophie, my twenty-two-year-old daughter, moved to Florida yesterday. She graduated from college six months ago, and since then she has completed several graduate school applications (seeking an MFA in creative writing, go Sophie!), found an apartment, got herself a full-time writing job for a web development company, and otherwise managed a bunch of grown up tasks. I’m super damn proud of her and I’m going to miss her terribly. Not only is she the wittiest person I know, she’s also hell of a cleaner, for which I routinely fail to give her fair credit, and a highly reliable and karmically correct dog walker.
Sophie’s flight to Florida took off at 10:25 a.m. yesterday, and just a few hours later, I came across an old essay I wrote for her seventh birthday. It was originally published in Minnesota Parent in August 1997. It’s not Sophie’s birthday now, but still, the letter feels a little apropos to this current major milestone. So here it is again, some 15 and a half years after it was first published.
Now you are seven: you, with your great big teeth growing in and your legs almost as long as mine. But some days I swear you’re still a part of me. I’ve memorized you so well—your stubby little toes with the crinkly nails, your bruised-up shins, your wild, golden hair (remember when we took out your Caribbean braids?), your sweet little nose that you smashed last winter, and the two tiny scars above your right eye from when you fell out of bed at the Ritz Carleton in Florida. Even expensive furniture can injure, it seems.
You see, I remember the injuries, tally the damage as we slip through minutes and spin through days, barely touching down one year after the next. This is my nature, staking markers at the landmarks of pain as much as the epiphanies of joy. I can’t help it, Sophie. It’s the way I experience the world, and the way I experience the gift of your life.
The weekend before your birthday we went to the Renaissance Festival; I had my palm read amid the bawdy costumes and caricature artists and turkey legs and beer. The day was perfect: clear sun with just the slightest chilly breeze. “You have two children … or three. Do you have three children?” the palm reader asked. I told her I did. “You’re happy with them; you have a strong love,” she said. “And you’re pleased with each of their development.” Pause. She reconsidered. “There’s one you’ve worried about. Do you have one who’s more active?”
Had I ever worried about you? Were you “more active?” Did your Aunt Rachael rate you ten on the “spirited” scale, and did your Grandpa refer to you as a cyclone? Had we reminisced lately about your long-lived biting phase, or the little dollies you proudly named Hyper and Jealous?
“Yes,” I told the palm reader as I glanced toward the bales of hay where you sat with Max watching a puppet show full of adult jokes I would have to explain away later. “I do.”
“Well, everything will be okay with that one, too,” the reader said. I believed her. Over the last two years, I’ve watched your skills catch up with your intentions, giving you the calm confidence you need to walk through the world without knocking it down. And anyway, she was right about everything else.
The thing I can’t stop asking, though, is why me? Of all the mothers’ arms in all the world, you fell into mine. By now, you know all my faults. Oh, the times I’ve yelled at you, stood wrongly in your way, clipping your wings one moment—and pushing you off the cliff without a parachute the next. Then picking you up off the rocks after the fall, holding you like a baby and starting again.
I do my faulty best, loving you more each day and chalking up any disasters as par for the course. After all, you are the grand experiment. Remember the story of your third day of life? When you sucked up some spit-up milk back into your nose and then began to cry and gag at the same time? You thrust your tiny head back and arched your spine and screamed and sputtered shockingly. I thought you were choking, suffocating, dying… and I felt totally helpless to save you. I called out to your dad; he ran up the stairs, grabbed the blue nose plunger and set to work. You didn’t like that much either. But soon you quieted down in my arms—and then it was my turn to cry and cry and cry. How could I do this job I knew nothing about? Day by day, week by week, one plunger at a time.
I hope that even when you’re grown up you’ll remember your seventh birthday: our morning walk to the bakery for an orange roll with Max and Lillie; the cartwheels at the park and the way you pushed your brother and sister on the merry-go-round singing “The Wheels on the Bus,” the grand finale of the afternoon as we stuck our bare feet into bowling shoes and rolled those big, heavy balls toward the pins at the end of that shiny wooden lane. Remember how slowly Max’s ball rolled, how we’d cheer it away from the gutter, yelling, stay, stay, stay!
A few days later, on the evening of the full moon in the month of your birth, you led us in a long-overdue ceremony in the backyard, where we finally got around to planting a swamp white oak with Lillie’s frozen-for-two-years placenta under thickening clouds. “Hold your hands up,” you told us, and I could see you as a happy baby, a chubby stubborn toddler, a running little girl. “Now everybody say it together. And listen first, because I’m the only one who knows these words.” I could see you as a five-year-old, peeking your head into the hospital room, standing hand in hand with Max as Lillie was born, all three of you huddled on my lap even as I shook with the exhaustion and adrenaline of birth. “Hands above, feet below, grow I say, grow, grow, grow!” Now you are seven, and all together, we tossed the dirt and peat moss back into the hole where this little tree will grow. Lillie tossed the dirt out of the hole. Max tossed himself into the hole. This is the way it is. Happy birthday, I say; grow, grow, grow.