Eleven. It is the ultimate cliche, and the most unavoidable truth: where did the time go? I swear it was minutes ago that I pulled you onto my chest, your squalling, red face as foreign to me as I’d been told it would be familiar.
Since your arrival we have had many years of sunlight, of startling beauty and stomach-hurting laughter and before-bed hugs so sweet my heart physically aches. It is impossible for me to convey how much I love you, my Gracie girl. I wish I could. What I can do is try to capture who you are right now, at this moment, as I’ve tried to do every year on your birthday. You are standing on a fulcrum, poised between two worlds, a liminal creature flitting back and forth across an invisible but indelible border, the little girl you were and the young woman you’re becoming both visible in your face.
You are in fifth grade. You love to read. Every night as I tuck you in I perch on your comforter covered with peace signs and wait as you finish your page (or, more often, your chapter). Your brown hair splays on the peace sign-printed pillow behind you and you finally, reluctantly, slide a bookmark between the pages.
You say prayers every night, and they are simple and always the same. You begin “Thank you for …” and list things that you are grateful for. I never taught you this, and I love that it is how you instinctively end the day. More often than not you say something about being thankful to live in this wonderful world and every single time it brings tears to my eyes. Every night that I stand in your door and say I love you and that I’ll see you in the morning, I’m aware of what an extraordinary, incandescent privilege it is to say those words.
This year you joined a club soccer team and the level of instruction and play went way up from the town team you’d been a part of for several years. I don’t think you have ever actually worked at a sport before, but you are now, and it’s extraordinary to watch the results. I was at your game, several weeks ago, when you scored your first goal. The smile on your face was unlike any I’ve ever seen. And then, just last weekend, your undefeated team suffered their first loss. You were playing goalie, and you let in the other team’s winning goal. You were absolutely devastated by feeling that you had let down your team. I didn’t like seeing you sad, but I was actually glad that you took responsibility for what happened and am certain you learned something from the experience. Just yesterday, you played the exact same team again. You had been anxious on and off all week about this game, aware of what you felt was a failing on your part and desperate to beat them. Your coach may call you “little Gracie,” but you were downright ferocious on the field. Determination radiated from you. With one minute left in the game, you made the game-winning goal. Sweet redemption.
It’s clearer and clearer to both of us that I’m a strict mother, and that you are going to be slower to have (phones, a late bedtime) and watch (TV shows, PG-13 movies) certain things than most of your classmates. Once in a while we talk about this, and you always tell me that you like being a kid still, and that you understand that there’s no reason to rush towards adulthood. Who knows how long this understanding will last, but for now I do get the sense that you’re grateful for boundaries.
You love top 40 radio and we sing along, together, when we’re driving. Right now we particularly like belting out Roar, Wrecking Ball, and Royals.
Friendships are still a complicated area for you. You are completely devoted to your best friend from camp, miss her every day, and are counting minutes until your annual trip to visit. You’re still finding your way through the murky swamp that is fifth grade friendship, and you are sometimes thrown off balance by the way that loyalties can shift.
You and Whit love each other but you also fight a lot. I call you The Bickersons, and many mornings you’re huffy and aggravated with each other by breakfast. But you also have your arm around him in every single picture I take and one of your favorite things is to tuck him in (including performing the Ghostie Dance) when I am not home to do so.
You worry so, so much about pleasing other people, Grace. Lately I have observed that when I ask your opinion about something, instead of offering it, you often say you’ll do want whatever I want. This is drawn straight from my playbook, my girl, and I can therefore tell you authoritatively it’s not a path to happiness. You have to learn to say what you want, what you think, and what you mean. The people who are worth having in your life will appreciate this. I promise. It’s something you and I are talking about, and I want fiercely to steer you away from road of pleasing others above all else that I walked for a long time.
You are tall and lean and your shiny brown hair has a marked wave in the back. You like it when I put it into two wet braids after a shower. Your cleft chin and deep mahogany eyes are so familiar to me that sometimes I fall into them. Your feet are huge and I can already tell you’re going to be taller than I am. You still have a little girl’s body but all around you your classmates are changing shape and I know what lies ahead.
The truth is that I am afraid of what comes along with this physical change, of the separation that I know has to happen between us as you move into your own young adult self. I know that the closeness between us had so stretch, and I want so much to trust that it will come back, a different amalgam, yes, but still there.
As much as I dread this looming transition, though, I’m even more devoutly sure that it has to happen. The ache in my heart doesn’t matter as much as does giving you the space you need to move into your own dance. It’s not that you haven’t been dancing already, but a different music is playing now, and the choreography is starting to change. I vow that I will never stop listening to your list of what you are thankful for, tipping my face up to look at the funny-shaped clouds you notice, baking you homemade birthday cakes, or holding your hand if you want. I’ll be here to braid your hair and listen to your disappointments and hear you read your book report on Umbrella Summer out loud. But I’ll take a deep breath and turn away from your closed door, too, and watch you walk down the jetway to an airplane by yourself and not ask you what you talked to someone about if you choose to keep it private.
You have taught me so very many things, but among the most important is that all we can do is look to what’s coming and greet it with eyes and arms open. It’s time for me to start living that lesson, Grace, my dear girl, my only daughter.