I stayed home with my daughter for the year after she was born. It was the best year of my life. With her attached to me in one of those Baby Bjorn carriers - without which I would have been completely unprepared for motherhood, as I had been informed by a cashier in a ‘Babies R Us’ store - I went about my daily business.
Business was slow that first year. Just the way I like it. Some days I made it out of my pajamas, but only if I felt like walking out to the mailbox, unlike Dolly Parton, who apparently checks her mail in full make-up and heels – fair play to her. Other days, I might even have showered. Mostly, I just wanted to play with my very own baby girl. How I loved feeding her, dressing her in miniature clothes with impossibly tiny buttons, brushing what little hair she had with an extra-soft toothbrush, and bathing her in the kitchen sink. I spent interminable hours just looking at her, examining every tiny feature and flicker across her face, searching for resemblances to me, her father, her grandparents; marveling that two imperfect people could make a perfect human being. She didn’t mind the attention. Or she did, but this was before she had words or discovered those beautiful hands that fly with expression today. I used to call it hand ballet.
For 12 idyllic months, with my husband off at work, our girl was all mine, and I positively inhaled her. Spectacularly high on new baby smell, which 16 years later has been replaced with ‘Teen Spirit,’ I danced around a house filled with sunshine and Van Morrison. And every day, my husband came home to news of some major milestone – her first real smile, the first time she rolled over or crawled, the day she sat up by herself, and then on his birthday, when she clapped her hands the first time. And, as is the way of things, even though she spent all those hours with me that first year, her first word was still “Dada”.
Mostly, our baby girl bounced with curiosity and glee. If she cried, it was for food or a diaper change or maybe just to let us know she was there. I couldn’t bear to hear her cry. I was one of those mothers who picked her up if she as much as whimpered at night. My mother had encouraged me to do so, pointing out that there would be times as an adult when my daughter would have to cry alone without me there to make it all better. Oh, wouldn’t it be great if we mothers could bank all those hours of holding and comforting for such times, like the time I lay in the ICU following a mastectomy and eight hours of surgery, while my teenage daughter cried herself to sleep. Or, when far away from home, she heard the news that her daddy was dead.
He has been dead for 59 days, and we both miss him. He missed her 16th birthday and the first time she got behind the wheel of a car, his car. And she missed him. It was this past Christmas Day – her first without him – that my daughter took me for a drive. My father, far from his rural Derry home, had been teaching her to drive on what he still considers the wrong side of the road, reminding her to keep her hands at ten-to-two on the steering wheel and to believe in herself.
Today, she is driving me to the bank and then to Safeway. Watching as she signals and turns right onto the highway, I am reminded of the day long ago when my husband took the training wheels off her bicycle, when he let her go for the first time. As poet Nikki Giovannini says of bicycles, “love requires trust and balance.”
Naturally, our girl lost her balance, and she fell – but only once. She cried, too. Still, she kept both nerve and balance when she climbed on again. Her dad ran alongside her, held on to the seat, and this time when he let go, she did it. She was riding a bike! Round and round the park she rode, sunbeams dancing on the silver spokes, blue and white streamers flashing from the handlebars, ducks and geese scrambling to get out of her path. Our beautiful girl – buoyant, unafraid, riding into a new chapter, two parents ready to catch her. Two parents. A safe place to fall.
The one remaining parent is struggling today. It would have been our “unofficial anniversary,” 24 years since the day he told me, "I’m crazy about you. I’ve been waiting for you my whole life, and I was beginning to think you weren’t going to show up." Well, I showed up, and I’m still here. Maybe it will be like the movies, and he will just show up one evening as a ghost, to tell me the one thing he wanted to make sure I knew. Maybe he’d tell me that I’ll have no problem doing the things I did alone a quarter of a century ago, before I was his wife and then the mother of his child, that it will be just like riding a bicycle.
But, as I said before, this last requires trust and balance. Without him, it is harder to believe in myself, in the promise of blue skies ahead and to disbelieve in the inevitable fall. Perhaps the training wheels don’t come off quite yet.
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