Your Dad and I crept on silent feet into the quiet, dim cave of your room. I reached out to cup a warm hand on your shoulder. Waking you up is always a daunting prospect. You wake up a bit like I imagine a bear would, groggy and reluctant at first and then fiercely antagonistic at being roused. Your body was huddled beneath the comforter at the foot of your bed, surrounded by stuffed animals and piles of books. I find it amusing that you insist on sleeping this way, upside down in your bed, despite the fact that you often bang your head on the railing when you throw yourself there in a fury of bedtime defiance. You find a thousand little ways of rebelling against every expectation, each and every convention you encounter. This time you woke softly, rubbing your eyes and pushing masses of tangled hair from your face.
“It’s your birthday, little bug,” I murmured. “Happy Birthday. You’re 4!”
You stood unsteadily in the bed, swaying on your feet. I’d just raised the shades and the glow of morning sun was warming up the room. You stood there, staring down at your pale legs in the light.
“I’m taller, mama. Look. I’m taller now.”
You’d celebrated your birthday with a dog themed party the weekend previously. It took us weeks to whittle you down to a consistent choice. It began with rainbows and balloons, bridged into mermaids and art and then finally landed on dogs. You insisted on inviting only girls for your party and then relented when you realized that would mean a party without your brother or your best friend, Gavin. In honor of the occasion, I’d fashioned you a confetti cake in the shape of a husky dog. I really hope you appreciate that damn cake someday. It took me nearly two hours of cursing and a double recipe of buttercream frosting to hide all the sins I’d committed against that cake. We painted doggie faces on you and your guests, crafted doggie collars and played several rounds of Doggie, Doggie Where’s My Bone until I gave up and let you all wallow in sugar and presents until the adults came to rescue us.
This past year began with an epic battle. You, me, and a lot of poop. While I initially won the first skirmish and got you to consent to peeing on the potty, you held out resolutely on bowel movements. So resolutely that nearly a week later, I was up in the middle of the night with you while you sweated, near vomiting, desperately constipated. I now know which Walgreens is still open at 3 am on Sunday and exactly where they keep the children’s suppositories. It took months and a lot of Miralax to coax you past your fear but by springtime, when you’d managed to wring every last ounce of desperation and bribery from me, you decided to give in as gracefully as if you’d never considered any other alternative.
Late in the spring, plague descended upon our household. Your brother brought it home first and then kindly shared it with us all. Every last one. It was a serious bought of influenza with a raging fever and I ended up rushing you to Instacare, buckled in the front seat with a temperature of 104, flushed and wide eyed at the novelty. It took weeks for us all to be well again and by then the earth had warmed and summer was spreading out before us. In the wake of sickness, you developed chronic eczema that has continued to flare up occasionally, throwing patches of angry red skin across the backs of your knees and in the crooks of your little arms. I’ve had to battle your stubborn reluctance daily to encourage you to take care of your skin, biting back cliches about taking care of your body so it takes care of you. You’ve heard me say it a hundred times and it makes not one iota of difference in your little brain. Sitting still for two seconds and submitting to inspection and application is a torture you flatly refuse to succumb to without a fight.
We bought a play set for the background to satisfy your insatiably active body and you spent happy hours there, swinging high enough to pop off the seat and turning tricks on the bars. This past summer you took your first swim lessons, clinging to the edge hesitantly, big eyes engulfed in panic. It took a few weeks before you learned to trust the teachers, to accept their offered hands that held you afloat. Your legs finally grew long enough to push the wooden blocks that we rigged to Owen’s old Red Flyer tricycle and you struggled to learn to ride, throwing yourself in a furious huff off the seat at every initial difficulty. And yet you always went back, no matter how frustrated or upset you were.
I’m pretty sure you don’t have even a glimmer of my metabolism because you’ve stayed slim and tall, despite ingesting enormous amounts of food every hour of the day. You eat sporadically and never at meals, preferring to decide to have a sit down picnic of ten different finger foods half an hour before bedtime. It’s hard to complain when you choose to scarf down apples, carrots, pastrami and oatmeal. I never wage battle with you at the dinner table, preferring to let you eat dessert first if you request it because I know in half an hour I’ll find you in the pantry, climbing onto the first shelf so you can fill your fists with shelled pistachios or dried cherries.
This summer we took an insanely long camping trip in rural Idaho. Ten days of pit toilets, copious amounts of hand sanitizer and a great deal of dirt. Whoever came up with this idea ought to be committed. But you and your brother loved it, reveling in sticky marshmallows by the campfire and whispered stories and giggles until long after bedtime. We visited Arco, toured a nuclear plant and watched fireworks from the window of our tent. At Redfish Lake we took out a motor boat on the cool dappled waves and let you and Owen drive it briefly. Owen was terrified as the hull slapped the water noisily and threw us against the sides, but you squealed in delight. When Dad, who was driving, slowed down, you screamed “Fast! Faster!” That driving fire of your intensity still blazes through everything that you do. So much passion and stubborn strength shooting through every fiber of your little being.
Owen remains your closest companion and your fiercest enemy. I’ve spent most of the last year playing referee and trying not to lose my shit. It’s obvious you are a born manipulator and sometimes, it’s hard not to appreciate the kind of talent you wield as you attempt to cajole and threaten him in an effort to exert control. I turn my head away often, smiling into my shoulder as I scold and coach you towards compromise and kindness. But I’m aware that you often get your way just because you exhaust us all into compliance. Owen, formerly so patient and benevolent with you, has become taciturn and weary. I’m guessing you’ve got maybe two more years before he just starts locking his bedroom door and hiding out until college.
Earlier this year, you decided to finally cut your hair. You sport bangs now that frame your face and auburn lengths that skim your shoulders and glisten gold in the light. And you’ve become obsessed with your clothing. Whether or not it matches or meets your standard of “pretty,” which when asked you are unable to define. It appears that you think pretty has something to do with pink, masses of glitter, and bright flowers or ornate lace and bows. Can I tell you how very frustrating this is? I’m a feminist for Christ’s sake. And I’ve made every effort to encourage you to make different choices and to thumb your nose at gender conformity. And yet, here we are. You told me the other day you wished I looked more like Snow White. Snow White?! God damn it. I guess I could understand if it was Ariel or Belle. But Snow White? The princess who sings in that gross falsetto voice to birds? I have utterly failed this parenting thing.
This fall you began attending preschool in the morning at a local Montessori school just around the corner from our house. It’d like to say it’s going smoothly but that would be less an exaggeration than an outright lie. You remind me every morning, with your firm voice and kicking feet that strike out against the front seat, that you hate school. I’m not sure exactly why this is. You seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding about how to make friends. You are convinced you can have only one at a time. And so each day you slip into the car with the news that so and so is no longer a “friend”. Your teachers report that at school you are sweet and affectionate, hard working and compliant. I am not sure who this girl is they are describing. But I can tell how hard it is for you to hold it together during those hours. When you get into the car at lunchtime, you are a ball of frazzled emotions, ready to unfurl and lash out at any provocation.
For the last year you’ve been recognizing alphabet letters and identifying them rather easily as sounds. When you started school, I knew it was time to begin the work of building phonics into reading. And for the past few weeks, you’ve begun to do just that. Reading first one, then two and now three little readers. I’ve been struck though to observe your behavior when you struggle, to watch you dissolve into tears and run away at the first unrecognizable word. When you began to write your name and you inevitably turned the “S” in your name backwards, you railed against anyone who praised your efforts. If you are hard and difficult to please with others, you are certainly more so with yourself. You have an innate sense of perfectionism that refuses to allow mistakes and despises failure. I’m afraid that somehow, I may have given this piece of myself to you. That inner voice so relentless with criticism that it will never let you rest. I hope you grow to see your strength and your abilities as the wondrous talents they are, but also that you learn to appreciate the gifts your failures can bring you. It took me so many years to learn that lesson. We’ll have to keep working on it together, sounding out the meaning of it one kind, forgiving word at a time.