Oh, Abigail Grace, you are THREE.
I say that not only in sheer wonder in where the time has gone but also because it is the most oft-uttered statement in this house.
“Abigail is awfully three today.”
“SOMEONE is three. Jesus. THREE.”
Here’s the truth of being three: it sucks. I don’t remember it, of course, but by all accounts, if I walk in your shoes, I’m going to say that it sucks.
Hundreds of opinions and thoughts speeding around in that tiny body of yours, yet not a single tool to orderly pry them free from where they’ve found themselves hopelessly gridlocked, all simultaneously trying to exit the same one-lane off ramp. Sometimes something makes its way onto the freeway – “I WANT A CHEESE SANDWICH!” – but no sooner has it gotten some velocity (and we’ve subsequently headed to the kitchen) does another thought aggressively merge into the lane – “I DON’T WANT A CHEESE SANDWICH!”
It’s all quite dizzying for those of us who make the cheese sandwiches. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. I mean, you’re just hungry and want to eat. Who knew how much responsibility you’d bear for everyone else’s sanity, simply because something finally unlocked inside of you and out would scatter all of these FEELINGS? Plus? Nine times out of 10, your desires carry little weight into the decisions we make. Even when I agree with you that yes, yes it would be better for us all to stay in our jammies all day, I suspect that my insistence on putting on a cotton dress skirt instead of flannel pajama pants really does seem like an injustice of the highest order.
Adults, right? Honest to God.
But this is to be expected. And, truth be told, I’ve suspected since you were a baby that each phase of your life was simply going to be a bigger manifestation of the last, all originating at the core of who you are: feisty, opinionated, intense and deeply self-assured. Other than your Aunt Kate, I have never met a human being who is so at home in what she believes and thinks as you seem to be. Even if that confidence is wildly absent of logic, the decisions you make seem to come from the marrow. What that must feel like, I can’t possibly know. I second guess walking down one hallway over another on my trips to the bathroom after lunch. But not you. For as much as you raise hell over the most mundane of things, you often without commotion make the most definitive pronouncements.
The other night at dinner, instead of simply eating your bowl of mac-and-cheese and drinking your water, you decided this was a great opportunity to put the two together. I’m not the sort of parent who micromanages how you eat, so I watched as you methodically spooned up heap after heap of cold mac-and-cheese into your cup of water.
And then you drank it. And not only did you drink this unholy concoction, you began to fish out the noodles and eat them. Noodles that now were not only soggy but also lacking in any appreciable taste since the cheese had long since merged with your water. So there you were, drinking cheese water, eating bland elbow macaroni that you’d scooped out with your hand.
After about five minutes of this, I broke. “Can you please stop that?” As soon as I thought to clarify for you what “that” was, you calmly looked at me as though I’d sprouted an extra nose, put your hand up and said, “No. I can’t,” and went on about your business.
For the record, you finished up that dinner. You’re pretty gross, kid.
But you’re also pretty magnificent. You really are. You’re funny and sharp in a way that seems to genuinely amaze people. And you are kind. You’re forever asking people if they are “OK” and then regardless of the answer you work toward finding something you can do for them – get them a blankie, share your Pooh Bear, give a cuddle. You’re incredibly engaged in the world around you and the things you absorb on a daily basis are astounding to us – you officially intersperse Spanish and English when you talk, you know all of the major superheroes in the DC Comic family, you speak in full, articulate, understandable sentences, such as “Mom, I don’t think I can do that right now. Can we wait just five minutes?”
You don’t really grasp five minutes, though. What a hootenanny THAT discussion ends up being…
You are officially starting to read. You’ve long known your letters, but now you officially point toward words and sound out the letters. When you couldn’t remember one of the “bad guys” in your Superman book, before I could prompt you to do anything, you pointed toward his name and sounded it out.
“B … ba ba ba … I … eh eh eh … Z …. za za za …” until finally “BIZZARO!”
I felt my stomach leap. You figured it out all on your own. You’re a big fan of word games and what different words mean, thanks to some of the apps your dad has bought for you. If I ask you what something means, the answer is very formal.
“The word ‘spinning’ means to go round and around in a circle until you get dizzy.”
“The word ‘scrumptious’ means when something is really yummy in your tummy.”
Or, my favorite, “I don’t know.” You say it with such a laugh, with such a confidence and peace. Never be afraid to say you don’t know something.
You can count to 20, 10 in Spanish. You grasp some basic addition and subtraction concepts – more apps! – and you love puzzles. To a frightening degree. There is not a puzzle we’ve put in front of you that you can’t master. It’s a little freaky. I struggle with patterns and logic in that regard, but you can look at a pile of 30 pieces of cardboard and assemble them the way they need to go.
Right now you want to be a doctor. And a soccer player. And an explorer. And me. If someone asks you who you want to be when you grow up, you say “Mama.”
Is it possible to ever feel worthy of such a thing, even when you know it’s likely fleeting?
The other day, in a fit of (if I’m honest) normalcy of the highest order, you unearthed a rogue pen and began to draw faces on our green microfiber glider. The day before, family members had marveled at how well you were able to draw – your eyes look like eyes, your mouths look like mouths, etc. Perhaps we should have been a bit more mindful of the Pavlovian behavior elicited from such encouragement. But, no, I had my hair to blow out in the bathroom just steps away and your dad had a shower to take and we’d gone weeks and weeks just like this: wrapping up our final morning stretch with you and twenty minutes of screen time in the playroom.
The look on your dad’s face was a mixture of horror and irritation. My reaction was to say, “Abigail! No! You don’t draw on the chair! No!”
I didn’t yell as much as I spoke sternly, and loudly, and so again putting myself in your shoes I’m not sure I would have any other reaction other than the one you did, which was to stand firm and yell back – cry, really – and then, sensing the currents in the room had amped to an unfamiliar and uncomfortably high wattage it happened:
Your tiny shape shifted and collapsed. Your eyes shone desperately with fear. Your mouth turned upside down so forcefully and purposefully it was as though you were willing your lips to bear the brunt of all of your confusion and sadness and separateness from your father and me.
My parents were yellers. As were their parents before them. In subsequent years my dad has apologized for not knowing any better back then, for not doing better, in the way that I think all parents do. Or at least should do. While I am sure I’ll apologize to you for any number of things, I do not want how I treat you in these moments of learning to be one of them. Like you, I was – and am – an incredibly sensitive person. I know what it’s like to exist in the world driven primarily to connect with people and make them happy. When you let those people down – known by less painfully empathetic people as “being human” – the loneliness can shatter you. It’s taken me years and years to develop the tools I need to learn from my mistakes and still maintain a strong sense of self. My inability to understand on a fundamental level that perfection is not the end game meant that the better part of my early adulthood was pockmarked with unhealthy relationships (with people, with food, with alcohol, with pot, though I’m sure there is a cooler name for it now) and poor choices. By 25 I was a shell of the person I thought I should have been by then and I went through each day numb and unengaged with the world around me.
I was so dishonest. About everything.
I’m not saying my parents are to blame for this, any more than I’m saying that your reaction to seeing how upset we were with you is indicative of you being just like me, but in that moment of heated tempers and last-minute morning scrambles, I knew we had a choice to make as a family. We as your parents could capitalize on your fear and shame you into “learning” a lesson or we could set a course to be better than fear and shame.
We asked if you knew what you did was wrong; of course you didn’t, though you knew something was amiss. We explained, firmly, that you weren’t allowed to draw on anything but paper, especially not walls and furniture, and had you sit in your room for a couple of minutes while we collected ourselves and remembered to be the grownups. We then brought you back to the chair and told you we knew and understood how much fun drawing is, and we love how much you love it, but the next time you want to draw something, you need to say “Mom! I need some paper!”
And then you had to clean up the mess with us.
By the end of the day, you were able to answer correctly when we asked you if you knew what you do when the spirit moved you to “be a great artist,” as you like to say. You sat with me and finished brushing out the good-as-new fabric of the chair, insisting that you weren’t done. “It has to be beautiful,” you said.
“It is, AG. But it doesn’t have to be perfect. And I just want you to know that no matter what happens, your dad and I will be here to help you get through anything,” I said, knowing it’s likely to be a year or two before you really know what I mean. I’m praying for the power of osmosis and repetition to do their magic.
I don’t know if we handled that correctly, but it feels like we did. And this is selfish, but one of the things I want most for you is to never regret in your adulthood saying in your childhood that you wanted to grow up to be like me. I want the Mama you seem to treasure now to not be a person who is ruled by shame and sadness and self-doubt, but rather a person who is vulnerable enough to trust those she loves to accept her because of those things and more. How I parent you through life is intimidating for myriad reasons and I never want my inability to be vulnerable be the thing that keeps you from your life’s joy.
And this is all about growing up. For the both of us. If this past year was about the basics, then this year seems to be about developing strategies. I promise we’ll carve out a training plan together.
Abigail, you are my joy. You are my heart. Happy birthday, sweet girl.