She’s been holding my hand again, Mom, Maria has. Not just because I make her, the way I used to stand still in the parking lot and not let her walk until she had safely placed her little hand inside mine. No, this is different, it’s borne of her need and it’s raw and unpredictable.
We watch TV together, her and I, sharing a couch and maybe even a blanket and her hand will reach out suddenly when I’m not paying attention and grip me with a fierceness that never fails to surprise me. Or when I tuck her in at night, kiss her forehead and say I love you (because ever since you died I always say I love you) and she touches my hand when she says it back, I love you too Mom, a squeeze.
I love you too Mom. I hope you know that.
The other day even, walking her into school – the place where public displays of parental affection go to die – she held my hand the whole way in. That one made me a little fluttery, like I was being given a gift. I took it.
She’s amazing Mom, this girl. Remember how she used to go into herself when she was little and tired or overstimulated or just done? How she would hunch her shoulders and bow her wispy-haired head and dim the light in her eyes and you just knew she’d left? I think you called it “turtling,” if I remember correctly.
Well now she’s ten and almost as tall as me and plays on the boys baseball team with her shoulders thrown back and her head held high and what looks like yards of golden curls tucked up under her hat. She takes my breath away and I want to tell you everything about her except I know you already know, you must, where else would she get this strength from?
So instead I will tell you this.
I have your ring now, the one from Dad, and I wear it on my right hand. She was holding that hand the other night and if I looked at our hands together and squinted just enough to blur the edges it was us, me and you. And I saw it, the future of us, of me and you but also of me and her, the inevitability of the hand-holding leading into not-hand-holding and the separation that we all know is to come.
There’s so much advice out there on raising girls, advice both solicited and unsolicited thrown in heaps around my feet, but no one yet has been able to tell me how to stop seeing your face in hers. No one has told me how to stay open to the love of women in my life after losing the most important one. More importantly, no one has told me how to stay friends with a girl that I know is going to break my heart someday just by virtue of growing up.
Because I want to turtle too, or at least I did, after you died. It was hard watching them grow so fast before, but now there is the pulsing reminder of you – of how it could all change, of how all things eventually end – pounding like a heartbeat through everything that happens.
She will be a teenager soon enough, and a woman after that, and maybe a mother or a wife too. I think she’ll be a leader, she’s fearless like that, and the world will be better for having been touched by her just as I have been before it.
But my hand will ache when she sets it down, I know that too. I can already feel the warning of it if I think about it too long, so I don’t. I fight the desire to turtle into myself and hide from what I know is going to hurt. I’m going to leave my hand there, awkward and outstretched, fingers parted slightly in gentle waiting, and hope just enough in the depths of my soul that she will take it.
And when the day comes that she doesn’t, because it will, if I fall over on the sidewalk in a heartbroken heap in front of the entrance to her school, what I am asking of you is this, Mom: please take my hand and lift me up. Quickly too, before she sees me lying there. I need her to think I’m strong too. Just like I saw you be.