Memory: a child walking along a seashore. You never can tell what small pebble it will pick up and store away among its treasured things.
~ Pierce Harris
Luau and I have just gotten back from a night out with cousins. Julie’s gone home for the night. I am exhausted.
I walk into Katie’s darkened room and search for her in a tangled pile of bedclothes. I chuckle as it becomes clear that she’s completely hidden beneath her comforter. I circle the amorphous blob of pink fairies, stars and magic wands, searching for her head.
I pull the comforter back just the tiniest bit to reveal her sleeping body. She scrunches her nose as if she’s smelled something displeasing, turns her head to the side and emits a string of words – only one of which I think I can decipher, but not with any certainty. Her arms flail momentarily as if to help her make a point, then settle on top of the covers. She is dead asleep.
I put my hand over hers. She is warm.
I wonder what she thinks about the day we’ve had. I wonder how its story will work its way into the hierarchy of her memory. Will she remember the fun we had at the pool? Will she think of her Mama scoring her dives off the diving board – being chided not to add in the ‘love quotient’ into the scores – REAL scores, Mama – like if you didn’t know me. NO love in the numbers!
Will she remember playing water torpedoes with Daddy or meeting a friend who was new to the pool and looking for some kids to hang out with? Will she remember playing ‘human surf board’ with Mama until we both laughed so hard we nearly drowned ourselves?
Or will she remember first that she – and only she – could reach her sister when all hell broke loose? Will she remember the helplessness in her Mama’s eyes when she simply could not calm her down? Will she remember that she was the only one who had the tools to comfort her?
Will she look back on that moment with a sense of pride? Or with something closer to my greatest fear – overwhelming exhaustion at the burden of being the only one with the secret formula? Will she remember her Mama’s relief and gratitude with pride or resentment?
I lay my cheek next to hers. I expect her to move away with the impulse of sleep but she doesn’t. I listen to her breathe.
I kiss her forehead and whisper, “I love you, sweet girl.”
I slowly open Brooke’s door, trying to contain its creak. Her face is calm with sleep, unfazed by the interruption. Her favorite ‘guys’ share her bed – an odd menagerie of characters from Jesus to Boots the Monkey to Prairie Dawn – inclusion at work.
I watch her sleep, wondering what she thinks about the day we’ve had. I wonder how its story will work its way into the hierarchy of her memory. Will she remember happily riding the ‘lower case slide’ over and over and over and over (and over!) again? Will she remember playing the ‘Godspell be careful game’? Will she remember the race to eat her fudgesicle before it melted its sticky sweetness all over her little body? Will she remember that she stole that fudgesicle from her Mama, who was then stuck with a tangerine pop? Will she remember Daddy and Katie teasing Mama about losing her fudge bar to our own little Swiper? Will she remember jumping off the diving board, shutting her eyes and smiling in mid-air?
Or will she remember the fear? The confusion? Will she remember the typical childhood experience of wanting to conquer something scary? Or the not remotely typical experience of navigating it without being able to communicate or understand the overwhelming feelings surrounding it? Will she remember declaring that she wanted to try the ‘capital slide’ or telling me over and over again that ‘it wouldn’t go too fast’? Will she remember climbing so bravely to the top, only to walk back down the stairs in tears? Will she remember her dogged determination to try again and her Mama so eager, so desperate to figure out how to help her through the fear without pushing her into something for which she simply wasn’t ready?
Will she remember the words that flew at her from all directions – the lifeguard, the well-meaning dad and his sons whose generous attempts at encouragement rained down on her in an overwhelming and confusing deluge of senseless sound? Will she remember her Mama trying to help her identify the emotions and telling her that it’s OK to feel scared? Will she remember her trying so hard to reason through the unreasonable? Will she remember that she ultimately couldn’t conquer the fear that day?
Will she remember losing control completely? Will she remember how her little body heaved with the sobs that she simply couldn’t contain? Will she remember her Mama telling her it was all right? That she could do it another time? That she’d try again when she felt ready? That Mama gets scared sometimes too? Will she remember me reminding her that she was scared of Winston such a short time ago, but now she loves his doggie kisses and belly rubs? Will she remember any of the words that she didn’t seem to hear? Will she remember the desperation in her Mama’s voice as she tried everything in her arsenal to calm her down and nothing – NOTHING – was working?
Will she remember her sister? Will she remember Katie swimming over and saying, without a moment’s hesitation, ‘Hey, Brooke, what do you want me to say?”
Will she remember sucking in a jagged breath and saying, “Zeeeeeeeeee!”?
Will she remember Katie echoing it back to her – “Zeeeeeeeeee!”?
Will she remember that they played ‘the repeating game’ until the sobs finally subsided? Will she remember her Mama letting her go, nudging her to float out into the water and swim toward her sister – toward the comfort and peace she so desperately needed? Will she remember that Katie HATES the repeating game? Will she know how much love went into that moment? Will she understand the gift that her sister gave her?
I kiss her head and brush the hair out of her eyes. I say, “I love you, baby,” as softly as I can. She whispers back, perfectly clearly, “I love you.” Her eyes open for a fraction of a second. They close just as quickly.
I kiss her one last time and quietly close her door.
I cross the hallway to my room, exhausted. I draw back the covers and slide into the comfort of my bed. Luau and I chat for a minute. He’s wide awake. These are his hours; pre-dawn are mine.
I lie back and let my head finally relax against the pillows. I close my eyes and breathe.
What will I remember when I look back on this day? Will I remember the laughter or will it fade as I focus on the tears? Will I think of how far my girl had come in the space of a year? Or will I dwell on the distance yet to travel? Will I remember the angst? The desperation? The helplessness? Or will I remember a little girl who took the first steps toward conquering fear? Will I remember Katie’s quiet heroics or will the shards of memory begin to overlap, as they so often seem to these days, until the individual pieces are no longer distinguishable from one another?
I take a deep breath and fade into a fitful sleep. Tomorrow I will sit before a blinking cursor and do my best to sort the memories.
I follow the girls down to the slide pool. Katie will head off to the big slide while Brooke heads for the toddler slide. This is what we do.
I watch Brooke make her way into the scrum of two and three year-olds awaiting their turn at the little slide. Swim diapers peek out the bottom of their suits. Many have parents waiting in the water to catch them at the bottom. She’s small for her age, but at nine she can no longer blend in with the little ones.
When her turn comes up, she doesn’t notice. A dad standing on the line with his daughter tries to get her attention. He looks confused when she doesn’t seem to hear him. “Brooke,” I prompt from below, “it’s your turn, baby.” She steps into the slide and heads down.
Katie meets up with her in the water. She’s on her way back to the walkway for another run down the big slide. Brooke falls in next to her.
“Katie,” she says, “let’s go on the girly slide.”
Katie looks at me, then back at her sister.
Last year, when Brooke developed a penchant for all things girly, Katie had tried to convince her that going down the big slide was girly. Brooke hadn’t bought it. The summer had come and gone without so much as an attempt at it.
“Um, do you mean the capital slide, Brooke?” Katie asks.
“Yeah, let’s go on it,” says Brooke.
Katie turns to me, her face dripping with incredulity. “OK, Brooke,” she says, “let’s go.”
As they get closer, she asks her sister if she wants her to wait for her at the bottom. Brooke says she does, so Katie goes first.
I wade into the water, just far enough to be able to meet them at the bottom of the slide -and just close enough to the edge to get to the platform if she gets stuck.
Moments later, Katie screams. “Mama! Mama! She’s doing it!!”
I scramble into the water to meet Katie. We can hear Brooke in the tube. “It won’t go too fast,” she is saying, “It won’t go too fast.” Katie will tell me later that she had been telling everyone in ear shot that it wouldn’t go too fast. “I think she really was just reassuring herself, Mama,” she will say.
Brooke and Katie will ride the capital slide enough times that I will lose count.
Brooke reminds us again and again that she walks her own path – in her own time. That our expectations for her don’t matter a whit. That ‘can’t’ is never more than ‘not right now’. She consistently conquers fears that would leave most of us crying for mercy. And somehow, she knows precisely when she’s ready.
And in the midst of it all, she makes our memories new – every day.