On Being Seen


“I’m so scared of dying without ever being really seen.”   – David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

I’ve spent so much time watching you.  And I don’t mean the kind of watching where my gaze is pointed downwards at my phone, and I’m glancing up every now and then.  I mean- really watching.  You know some of this because you are often saying, “Look, mom- look at this!”  But it’s the times that were unbeknownst to you that are the ones that I hold most sacred- the times when you imagined you were alone, unobserved, and fending for yourself.


You had no idea you were being observed when you were growing in my body.  But yet, numerous times we were there peeking in on your small, muted world.  There was the very first time- the time we observed the fluttered, magical movement of your beating heart.  You were there.  We saw you.  There was that other time- the time that I thought I was losing you at around 15 weeks.  I rode the subway in the snow from the tip of Brooklyn to the Dr. in Manhattan, and your dad ran from work to meet me there.  “I’m so sorry,” I cried to your dad in the waiting room surrounded by very pregnant women, because I had already had this happen once before with another baby and I felt responsible.  “We don’t know yet…” he replied.   A few minutes later we were in the exam room listening to the whirring of the ultrasound.  “Nope, there he or she is,” said the Dr. nonchalantly.  “Baby’s fine.”  Tears streamed down my face as I watched you then- you looked like you were standing upright, dancing and waving that day- almost as if you could see the frantic expression on my face and wanted to reassure me.  But you didn’t know we were watching.

sleepingOnce you were here, I often watched you sleeping.  You did not know.  It is a rare thing those first few months, but when it happens, a mother can’t help but stare in awe at the perfect closed lids and dark eyelashes, at the way the curved arm extends so vulnerable and trusting- and frames the head.  I watched to make sure you were breathing and even placed my fingers under your nose for years- in fact I still check that you’re breathing when I look in on you for the last time before I go to sleep.  I watched you later on the baby monitor- holding your feet, watching your mobile, talking to stuffed animals, and reading books.  I heard you also, shortly after he died, on that monitor trying to work things out in there by yourself, “Appa…died…Appa.”  You were not alone.  I was listening and watching from the room next door.  I saw you.  I cried then too.


On that first surreal Christmas without him, we were in Arizona, as if the desert or the palm trees would have dulled the sharpness of my pain.  We were at a Christmas Eve party and I went outside to the patio for some air and looked back through the windows to see you with your grandparents looking at the presents Santa had brought you.  Looking through the glass at the happy scene, I was utterly removed from my life for a moment, solely an observer.  I imagined your father also was watching in a similar way and always would.  You were excited and busy-only two years old in a little red knit dress.  You did not see me there then- staring through that surreal window.


At age three, you went to preschool.  The last part of your morning was spent playing outside on the little church playground.  I often arrived early to pick you up, and watched you there playing.  I’d see you walking on the balance beam, or hanging from the monkey bars with the teacher’s assistance. You were so determined to get across those bars one day.  Some of the parents stood around chatting, and often hiding a bit behind a tree or each other because children at that age still have separation anxiety and seeing us wouldn’t have helped any of you.  But it was still such a new thing that year- the idea that you’d be anywhere without me, and I was eager to see how you behaved, how you interacted with others- really, who my little girl was when I was not there.  You did not see me.  But I was there.

At age four, you had a tougher time in Pre-K.  None of the girls wanted to play what you wanted to play on the playground (princess), and you told me each day you just sat by yourself in the middle of the playground on this purple and red plastic slide surveying everyone else.  I thought it sounded like what I do- like a writerly personality.  But I also felt bad, so I came early to see if you really sat there the whole time.  I watched you through the small glass window from inside the wooden school door- and yes, there you were on that slide.  My mother’s heart ached watching you sit there alone.  You did not see me there.

When you started kindergarten, we had just moved to a new town.  We didn’t know anyone.  The public school felt so different than the warm co-op where you’d attended pre-school for two years.  Parents had been welcomed there any time to observe.  I got the feeling right away when I dropped you off for the summer “kindercamp” that parents were not welcomed here at all.  I was to drop you at the door and walk away.   The second week, there was a heat wave.  They were still taking you outside each day for at least 30 minutes to play in the shadeless playground.  One afternoon when I went to pick you up, your grumpy, older teacher motioned to me that she needed to speak with me.  She said you had tried to sit on the steps in the shade, but you weren’t allowed there- so you sat on the bench in the sun crying.  She seemed to suggest you were missing out on valuable social time, so I told her I’d talk to you about it.

When we got home, I asked if you were having a hard time making friends and you literally got a piece of paper (again, like me- like a writer, I thought) and wrote, “I was just hot!” with phonetic spelling because you were only 4.  I believed you; it was a heat wave in the high 90’s, low 100’s.   You also told me that your teacher had not comforted you at all- but let you sit alone crying.  This made me upset.  So, the next morning, I went inside with you and told the teacher you were just really hot.  She was unsympathetic and insisted that you should be up playing.  I decided then, since I  knew you went outside right after I dropped you off, that I’d hang around nonchalantly on the side of the school and try to see if you were OK.  Sure enough, there you were sitting on that bench by yourself.  I kept watching- crouching down in the parking lot behind a car.  I was fully aware that I was acting like a madwoman, but doesn’t love often make one do crazy things?  Unfortunately, one of the “tougher” teachers spotted me, and over she came.  I pretended to be talking on my cell phone.  She asked me what I was doing, and I explained that I was worried about you.  “That…is…weird,” was her reply. (obviously a woman without children)  I guess for security reasons, the next thing I knew the Director of the summer program was headed towards me.  This led to another meeting with the superintendent and principal and vice principal.  This was my introduction to your current school.  But you did not know this.  You did not see me crouching behind SUV’s in the parking lot.  I saw you though.


When the first day of kindergarten came, we were allowed in your classroom just long enough to see you seated.  From outside the door, I watched you just a moment longer with a few other parents before heading down to the PTA breakfast.  I wanted to take this photo.  I realized by then that I’d accumulated quite a collection of these “watching” photos over the years.  It seemed important.

Now, I know helicopter parenting as it’s called, is frowned upon today.  I should be ashamed.  “You can’t prepare the path for the child, but you can prepare the child for the path.”  And I’m a firm believer in this.  But they do say on those same parenting sites that it’s good to say to them, “I love to watch you…” do whatever activity.  And I do love watching you.  And after losing my husband while he was out of sight, I’ve wanted to keep my eyes on you.  That makes sense right?


In nonfiction writing there is always the situation- and then the story.  This I learned in my MFA program from writer Vivian Gornick.  I’ve meditated on this “situation,” these moments of unknown observation for at least four years, struggling to come up with the story part. What is it that makes it so poignant?  What made my heart ache when I stood behind that wooden preschool door watching you on the purple and red slide, unable to let you know that I was there- that I saw?

We all need to know that we are seen.  To be seen is to be loved.   In our darkest hour, what we really want to believe is that someone sees us even if we don’t see them.  When he first died, I had to believe that he could see us.   It seemed cruel to him and might not stand up theologically.  I asked many pastors and friends -do you think he can see us?   It was important to me.  And when I stood peering over your crib, or staring out at the preschool playground, I felt the sanctity of loving while unseen.  My love for you seemed barely containable when you didn’t know it was there.  I imagined this was possible for him as well.

I will not be able to watch you all the time- it is less and less these days.  You don’t like saying goodnight and going to sleep in the dark by yourself.  I tell you I’m just a few feet away in my own room.  You tell me that feels like a million miles away to you.   I remind you that God never sleeps and His presence is there, even if I’m not.  He sees you, even if you don’t see Him.  In fact, it is one of the names given to the God of the Bible- in the Old Testament by Hagar, Sarai’s servant.  When she was alone and afraid- God Himself saw her and spoke to her.  “You are the God who sees me,” she said.

You believe that your father watches you “through a window in heaven” sometimes.  I have felt it too- usually at night when I’m sitting at your bed tucking you in.  In early grief I read about this word to describe that feeling or phenomenon when you sense your lost loved one there- but it’s actually a shadow or a piece of furniture in a different place.   I wrote about it on my old blog here.  “It’s called the “flicker phenomenon.”  Dr. Catherine M. Sanders writes that it is “a perception seen at the outside edges of our visual field as a flickering shadow.  Immediately, thoughts of the deceased come to mind, but when we look directly at that area, nothing is there.”  I have experienced this phenomenon, this flickering, ever since.  It’s still enough to make me turn and look every time.

I am wishing my beautiful daughter a very happy birthday…

11 thoughts on “On Being Seen”

  1. Being seen, and being seen with a heart full of love, is so important. Your experiences at your daughter’s school break my heart. My daughter had a hard time in preschool at age 3, and instead of empathy, I felt judged by her teacher. Strange to feel like as a parent you shouldn’t see or observe your children. I’m kind of a helicopter mom and one day maybe I’ll write an article in defense of it (in moderation!) but I feel your need to watch over, and I don’t think it’s at all a bad thing. Happy birthday to your dear girl. She is so loved.

  2. What a lovely post! Happy birthday to your daughter!
    I love that you see her with such attention and that you look at (and after) her when you feel it’s needed. I would find it hard to deal with the kindergarten ‘rules’ and the differences in your own way of parenting.

  3. What a lovely post! Happy birthday to your daughter!
    I love that you see her with such attention and that you look at (and after) her when you feel it’s needed. I would find it hard to deal with the kindergarten ‘rules’ and the differences in your own way of parenting.

  4. Julia, have you seen or read this book about writing memoir? I’m reading it now and it’s pretty great.
    Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss by Jessica Handler.

    1. Thanks! Will add it to the seemingly endless list. The list has been getting longer, but I haven’t been reading as much for some reason!

      1. It’s hard to read too much on such heavy topics. But this one is worth a look if you’re in the midst of writing a memoir, or about to embark on one and in need of some direction or clarification.

  5. Julia, have you seen or read this book about writing memoir? I’m reading it now and it’s pretty great.
    Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss by Jessica Handler.

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