“There is some kind of a sweet innocence in being human – in not HAVING TO BE just happy or just sad – in the nature of being able to be BOTH broken and whole, at the same time.” C. Joybell C.
My six-year old daughter stood up in front of a microphone on a large stage by herself, in front of a packed auditorium singing “Maybe” from Annie. She was wearing a ballet-pink colored dress of cotton voile with extra layers of tulle under the skirt and matching pink Mary Janes. It was only her school talent show, but I realized, watching her from the second row, mouthing all the words even though she wasn’t looking at me, that it was one of the proudest moments of my life. As she stood there, poised, “Maybe far away, maybe real nearby…”, it was more than just the typical parental pride I felt. It was more than the culmination of a month or so of practicing a song. It was the culmination of years.
A little more than four years ago, her father, my husband had suddenly died. Instantly, I was not only a grieving widow, but a psychotherapist, trying to understand how a toddler could grieve a loss she could in no way comprehend. I watched her, at barely two-years old, feed his photograph pretend cake; I watched her sit in his desk chair when she missed him, and I listened to her as she pointed to our apartment building- asking if he still lived there. I read stacks of books about children and grief, saw a grief therapist, made her a photo album of pictures of the two of them, another album of all the beautiful things I could find in letters and emails that he’d said about her. I held her when she woke up in the middle of the night crying out for him to play with her, and I let her sprinkle rose petals at his grave on the anniversary of his death in a Cinderella dress. I researched famous people who had lost a parent. I told her stories of him and went over the few memories I knew she’d soon forget. I worried that she’d grow up feeling abandoned or searching for something to fill his absence. I read her stories, sat at countless mommy and me music classes, tickled her and potty-trained her, sent her off to her first day of preschool, and later kindergarten.
When she started preschool a year after he died, I met with the school psychologist, an older Freudian- looking man with a beard and glasses, to see if he had any advice and just inform him of our situation. I ex pressed to him how difficult it was for me to accept the fact that she would forget her own father, someone whom she had snuggled with, read with, and laughed with- someone whom she grieved, even at such a young age. “No. Who told you that? The body knows,” he replied slowly. “She won’t forget. It’s all there.” His words brought me some comfort, but still I felt a huge responsibility to somehow be the keeper, the archiver of her memories, of who she was, and who she would become.
A friend had come across the questions my husband had answered at my baby shower and sent them to me that first year after he was gone. What did he want to teach our baby, they had asked him. He wanted to teach her soccer and piano, and how to build with Legos. And so later in my grieving process, I not only worried about her immediate loss, but how his absence would change the very essence of who she would’ve become had he been alive. “I really admire you for being both mother and father to Audrey,” someone had commented on my Facebook page one Father’s Day. “Actually, I can only be her mother,” I replied back. Because I can only be that. But I try, I try to fill in the gaps because why should she have to miss out on anything else? We watch the World Cup and I print out a banner of all the flags of the teams that are playing and string it over our dining room. I sign her up for town soccer and buy her pink and black Adidas cleats. I buy a piano and ask around for piano teachers and she starts lessons. I let her spread her Lego sets all over the dining room table, and tell her how good he was at building with those.
Then little things started to happen that assured me she was still his- that even without him here, her essence would still have him in it, regardless of my efforts. She expressed, at around age 4- a distaste for sesame seeds just like he had. I thought my days of asking waitresses, “Does the bun have sesame?” were over when he died, but now here I am still making sure there are no sesame seeds on her California rolls or burger buns. And then there is piano and music- which she seems to be naturally gifted in as he was. I have tears in my eyes often at her piano lessons as the teacher gives me a secret shocked look after she shows Audrey something one time and she says, “Wait, I think I’ve got it,” and plays it back immediately by ear. There are the facial expressions she makes when she’s being silly, and the one she makes when she’s playing the piano- unfocused gaze, mouth slightly ajar. I stare at her in disbelief that she can look so much like he did when he played. The body knows, he had said.
It’s tempting to magnify the parts of her that remind me of him, and to glorify those more than others. But I don’t want her to live in his shadow, and so I’ve always told her, “You’re 50% mom and 50% appa, but you’re 100% Audrey.” And she likes that. She’s especially proud of her interest in fashion and design because it’s not either of our interests. When she was five years old, she cried until I relented because she wanted to sew with a real needle so badly. When I heard about the talent show the school has every other year, I was sure she’d want to perform, but I imagined her playing the piano. Instead, after we tossed around a few piano piece ideas, she firmly chose to sing. She chose the song, a difficult one, and stuck with it. I wanted to pick out a beautiful dress for her, and I chose two online that looked perfect. When I showed her the choices- she chose a different one so I ordered all three to see which one would work best before returning the others. The one she chose- a simple cotton voile sleeveless dress with a small bow- worked best. I told her I’d take her to the local hair salon to get her hair done for the occassion. But as the days went by, we never got a chance to go and do a trial, and when the night arrived, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. But she was. “I want a side ponytail. I think that’ll look perfect.” I was relieved to have an idea, and it did.
Still, the accompaniment was missing, and I can’t try to gloss over how painful it was to realize that. A couple of months before the show, I’d looked at the application to audition- “The song must be no more than 2 minutes long. You will need two CD copies labelled with the song title and your child’s name.” There were also instructions about how to edit down a karaoke track. I felt the pang of my own inadequacy, and the incredible loss she didn’t even realize was present. This child whose father could play or compose anything and make it sound beautiful would have to sing to a karaoke track. But I was determined to find something decent, and I ended up paying one dollar for an “audition” piano track. It was better than most of the karaoke tracks, and simple enough to follow- but it was lacking. As the audition got closer, I rallied again and sent out a request on FB tagging his musician friends and asking if any of them could play the accompaniment for her. One friend did and sent a video of it right away. While I was touched, her playing was a bit too hard for Audrey to hear the melody of her singing part. So- we were back to the audition track I’d purchased and it would have to be good enough for now. We are forced to feel his absence, and this is not the last time. And this…is as it should be.
A friend’s father had once told her, and she had shared with me- that at least with raising children, unlike some other work you do, you start to see the fruit of your labor. I didn’t believe it at that time. Audrey was still only around one years old: the days were still made up of trying to get her to eat, sleep, changing her diaper. Those days- the ones of which they say, “The days are long, but the years are short.” But C.S. Lewis said, “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different,” and it turns out my friend’s father was right. There was my girl- the only six year old singing by herself. She looks like a doll; she’s got real talent, and even more importantly, she’s got guts.
As parents we try desperately to prepare and mold our children. We feel the weight of that responsibility, and I carried the extra weight of trying to fill her father’s absence. I archived, told stories, taught her what I could about soccer, Legos, and piano. And I worked with her on her song for the audition, teaching her the difference between head and chest voice and how to take breaths in between phrases. But here’s the thing- in the end, they stand on the stage alone. In the end, I wasn’t even in the classroom where she would get ready, or backstage to give her a final thumbs up before she went on. “I was a little nervous right before I came out,” she told me later. From my seat, I had seen her pink shoes waiting through the inch showing between the bottom of the curtain and the stage. “I see her feet,” I’d said nervously to a friend. I twirled my wedding ring on my left ring finger- the one I don’t wear anymore, except for on occasions like this one- where I want to manifest his presence in at least some small way.
But it was not during her performance itself, but during the curtain call that I understood that my daughter was going to be OK- despite a tremendous loss suffered at such a young age, trailing her through each stage of development. Not because of what I do or what her father doesn’t get to do- but because of who she is now becoming herself. You see, she had another act in the talent show, dancing to “It’s a Hard Knock Life” with her Girl Scout Daisy troop a few acts after her singing solo. So after she sang, she had to change in a classroom from the pink dress to the poor orphan ensemble we’d put together for the dance act. I’d told her at home that she could just change that one time to keep things simple, and come out for the curtain call in the orphan outfit. But when it came time for that curtain call, I found myself really regretting that I’d told her that. After all, this was her big moment. She should be back in the pink dress. That was her act. The teacher MC called the first graders out for the curtain call as the audience continued clapping. There was a delay. I waited for what felt like a very long time…please be wearing the pink dress…please be wearing the pink dress.
And she was. She knew to do this despite what I had told her. There was the fruit. 100% herself. She told me later she had decided at the last minute as they were lining up and hurried into a nearby closet to change as quickly as she could, barely making it out in time to join the others. There she was in the pink dress and Mary Janes exactly as she was meant to be, holding a single pink carnation someone had given her, smiling at the audience, and waving with sheer delight.