Thursday, April 21, 2011

Daughter Words

Picture your windshield after a rain storm, tiny drops of water dot the surface of the glass, slightly shaken by the wind. One drop slowly scoots across the window until it meets with another and they meld together to form a slightly bigger drop of water. Inevitably the growing drop will continue to move across the window, absorbing more drops of water until it finally gets too heavy and rolls off the car into the breeze.

Sometimes, sitting next to my daughter, she will lean into me and I swear, if she could figure out how, she would inch closer and closer to me until we meld together, one of us absorbed into the other. I’m not sure which one of us would remain. I’m fairly certain that if she could tuck me in her pocket and carry me around everywhere with her this would be a perfectly fine arrangement for her.

I love my daughter more than anything in the world. Sometimes when I look at her rosy, freckled cheeks it makes my heart stop for a second. I cannot believe I lived 34 years of my life without her and actually was okay with that since I had never met anyone like her before. But now she is here and I would do anything for her. Anything but allow her to tuck me into a pocket so she could haul me off to second grade with her, of course.

I know enough about child development to know that healthy attachment between a parent and child means that a child learns to feel safe and confident enough to go out into the world without her parents because she carries an internal picture of them, tucked inside a little pocket in her brain. This connection to the mental image of mom and dad is enough to reassure her in times of minor trouble. While Martha separates from me without incident every day as she boards bus #22 to ride off to school, I’m not certain it’s because she really senses that I am there with her in spirit. She is so literal-minded that the image of me in her head might underscore my absence rather than bring her comfort. Obviously, I can’t see inside her head so I can’t say for sure. I have exhausted more than my fair share of energy obsessing over the question of whether or not she and I share a healthy attachment to each other. I need not spend more time on that. We each have our personalities and they fit together in a unique way.

For a year or two now, Martha has been fixated on the idea of death and dying, trying to figure out exactly what that means. The worst part about it to her seems to be the fact that if either one of us dies, we must say goodbye to each other forever and just the thought of that is unbearable. It’s unbearable to me, too, as it would be for pretty much any parent, but because the thought causes such intense discomfort my brain instantly backs away from the thought. I know not to dwell on it and in fact, am almost incapable of following it through to the end. It is too painful. Martha, on the other hand, seems incapable of not following the thought through to its conclusion. As she imagines it, when we say goodbye, it is so distressing to her she can’t function. How do you reassure a child in this state? How do you tell her to push the thought away and do not, under any circumstance, let your mind think that thought? How do you teach repression?

A few nights ago she was thinking about heaven and what you can and can’t do in heaven. I’m not a particularly faithful person myself so the concept of heaven is my last resort. It is really my only “resort” for providing her comfort on this issue. When I said yes, you can walk and talk and live in our house and read books and see your friends in heaven, I felt a little like I was telling her, don’t worry, honey, you get a whole new life after death and it’s pretty much so great up there in heaven that it’s like you never died. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it, death doesn’t mean anything. I guess I did enough to bring her some solace, as she was able to finish the bath without continued weeping and eventually went to sleep. Later, in the wee hours of the morning, maybe around 3:00am, I heard her voice in the darkness, whispering, “Mama! I have some more questions!” Powerless to respond in any other way, I asked, “what?” It was three more questions about what you can do in heaven, to which I replied whatever seemed like the answer she would most want to hear. Then came one more question. And then my response. And one more question, and finally I had to tell her enough, please go back to sleep.

When I was Martha’s age I remember one day being completely obsessed with the knowledge that my own mother would die someday and I, too, would be broken-hearted knowing that I would never see her again. I tried to erase the thought but it just kept coming back and I did not know how to ask her about it, how to seek reassurance. Finally, that night as she tucked me in, I had a total break-down, sobbing and crying and when she asked what was wrong, all I could do was blurt out, “You’re going to die…” and continue my wailing. It is for this reason that when Martha asked me, “Can we die together?” I simply said yes, okay. I absolutely cannot live with the idea that she is carrying around such sorrow in her head over the possibility that she will someday have to leave me. I know too well what that feels like. So rather than trying to give her rational information about why she doesn’t need to worry about that now, I just accept responsibility for blatantly lying and promising things I’m not sure I can deliver, and I tell her yes, we will always be together, even after we’re dead. Mama will always be with you.

The truth is, it drives me crazy that she is so attached to me that she never wants to let me go. Occasionally she’ll have these moments where she is possessed by the need to touch me, to play with my hair, pat my head, hold my hand, kiss my cheek, my nose, my eyes, my arm. It gets to be too much for me and I have this image in my head of me trying to extract myself from the cloying tentacles of an octopus dragging me under water. As soon as she turns those big blue eyes my way and tells me it’s too sad to imagine saying goodbye forever, though, I would crumble and submit to all the pawing. Such is my chosen road, I guess.


  1. This is wonderful -- for many reasons. It's literal and symbolic. Personal and universal. Heart-wrenching and uncomfortable and bittersweet. And painfully and beautifully human. (Does this sound like a pathetic lit mag review? Sorry about that. Bottom line: I liked this very much. And I like your blog. Yer a good writer.)

    Nikki Tundel

  2. Christen I think this is your best post yet. It underscores feeling we can all relate to regarding our children and their feelings for us and our feelings for them and how we question if we are doing the right thing as a parent. We recently went through our first death of a family member here and brought up emotions about separation for all of us (except my 7 year old who told his 10 year old brother to man up and stop crying, but that is a whole different situation). We do our best, we love our children and we enjoy eachother for the realatively short time we are here.

  3. Katy, Nikki & Holly, Thank you for reading & commenting. I felt a little weird about posting this, like maybe it was too personal so I'm glad you got something out of it!

  4. This made my mom cry.

  5. Lovely daughter you have. Not to make light of something so personal and deep but Martha will one day become a teenager.

  6. Gorgeous writing, Christen.

  7. Christen, this is just gorgeous. Your Martha reminds me of my Stella (but Stella does get that close to me!) What a wonderful, sensitive girl. She'll find her way in the world and separate when she's ready. Thank you so much for sharing these beautiful words!!