Today you are four.
Yesterday I spent a goodly portion of the afternoon down a rabbit hole of old pictures, mostly those we captured the first year of your life. I am not wistful for those days, though they did lend themselves a certain simplicity I obviously couldn’t understand at the time.
With a bullet, I’d tell New-Mom Me that the likelihood was low of anything catastrophic happening to a baby safely strapped to a bouncy chair on the floor, so she should go ahead and take that shower. Maybe even shave her legs if the spirit moved her.
Everything will be OK.
And so maybe that’s what I was thinking about yesterday, reminiscing on those early days in our relationship. Everything has been OK. I am bowled over by how OK everything has been. The bounty contained in that small sentence could feed the masses. A life that is OK is a good life. It is a blessed life. A rich one. It is a life where you have enough to eat, the opportunity to sleep soundly and to experience enough hardship where it bends you but doesn’t break you.
A life where everything is OK means you can still take so much from this world and have enough strength and grace to give much back.
I remember being four. It was the year I learned to tie my shoes, after all. I remember working so hard at it. No matter where we were, no matter what we were doing, I was practicing how to tie my shoes. I was desperate to show Papa that I was good enough to do it. The moment I got it, I kept practicing until I could do it as fast as possible. I’d undo my laces over and over. I’d undo Aunt Kate’s laces, and practice on her shoes. No one would be better at tying a shoelace than me.
Your Papa likes to say that much of who a person is is as evident at four as it is at 40. With some leeway given for polishing and fine-tuning, I’d generally agree with him. Everything you need to know about the core of who I am (and what I’m therefore always fighting against) is summed up in the above paragraph. I am a determined, people-pleasing, competitive, (recovering) perfectionist.
Recently I volunteered at your school. This meant I had the opportunity to spend the entire day with you and your preschool class, happily bending to the whim of your amazing teachers. Of course it meant I had the chance to watch you as well. Here is what I learned:
1) You are quiet. Even when the temptation is great, you’re largely keeping to yourself.
2) You are affectionate. At least twice I intervened as I watched you pucker up your lips and attempt to kiss a classmate. Oy. We keep our bodies to ourselves, kid, unless invited.
3) You are a rule-follower. The amount of times I noticed you shushing a fellow preschooler was mind-blowing. You are your dad’s kid.
4) You have none of the fucks to give. Zip. Zero. Nada.
At one point I made a comment to your teacher that I’d assumed you were one of the kids for whom she had to exhaust extra energy when it came to things such as letting someone else take a turn at a favorite play center or following a particular direction. She looked at me with surprise and said, “No. Not at all! Watch.”
Then she proceeded to tell you that you needed to give up your turn playing with the magnetic tiles, the only center, she explained to me, that you ever want to visit. Abigail Grace, you stopped what you were doing, jumped up and said, “OK!” and scampered off to find something else to do.
I was impressed, and proud, but I know how much you love authority figures.
After lunch, where I was serving as lunchroom monitor, you walked up to two of your classmates and asked them if you could play with them. They were working on a puzzle, and there is nothing you love more than a puzzle.
“No! You can’t! We don’t have enough room. No.”
Instead of remaining neutral, I leaned over, exerted all of my power and authority and told those girls that, no, there was room and you should and can all play together. Take that, preschooler!
They handed you the box.
I swear to God, girls are THE WORST.
I stayed out of it for the remainder of the time, even as you looked as bored as you knew how to be. After about a minute, you put down the box and walked over to another table and happily joined a new group of girls. Not long after, another girl took your place within the previous mix of girls. Two of the girls started spatting with each other. In an almost spilt second, the slapping began. I headed over to diffuse the situation. There were tears. So many tears.
Girls. Worst. Ever.
By then your teachers had arrived. Apparently this situation was commonplace, especially among the girls in question.
“Abigail has the right idea,” one said. “She just shrugs her shoulders, walks away from them and finds someone else to play with when they all get dramatic and mean to each other.”
I am encumbered by a need to belong. To be liked. To be valued. In the face of rejection, I lack the fortitude to continue without gobs of internal sturm und drang. To paraphrase Ani DiFranco, there were points in my life where I have made insecurity into an art form. And I typically want the most horrendous, ridiculous, least-worthy people to like me, too. It took me a long, long time to gravitate toward people who like me for who I am and then nurture those relationships. When I pause to consider the any number of endeavors that could have benefited from all the energy I spent on getting everyone to like me, I’m gobsmacked by opportunity lost.
But not you.
You have a purpose and a center that I in equal parts envy and do not understand. When I think about it, this has always been your way. The difference today, I suppose, is I now watch this self-assuredness and calm engage with the world at-large. How did you know how to put in to practice the art of “So what? Who cares? What’s next?”
Who taught you that? Where can I get some of it?
This year you started preschool. It took a couple of weeks for you not to erupt into Chernobyl-like meltdowns. I may have said a few extra rosaries during that time, though I always got the impression that Jesus was way easier on the Blessed Mother than you are with me during times of transition, so what does she know anyway?
Those weeks were so ugly, so exhausting.
Once you hit your groove, though, and understood school wasn’t optional, you calmly explained to us that it wasn’t school you minded so much, but rather all of the machinations that go into getting there.
“I don’t like getting up and getting dressed,” you said, finally, exasperatedly, after about a month. “But I really like school.”
This has been a hard year. We have watched people we love get sick, some of them died. It has made us as grateful we know how to be to have someone like you to punctuate the sadness that is the inescapable part of living. In the moments where we’re inclined to curl up and wallow, you announce that you need to dance.
“Do you want to watch me jump on my trampoline,” you ask.
“Would you like to make some art with me,” you ask.
“Would like to share some of your chocolate treat with me and then have some cuddles,” you ask.
Lately you pepper your many stories – and I use “many” quite purposefully – with these time-bending sojourns that are equal parts distracting and entertaining. You insistently recall the times when we were babies and you were taking care of us.
“When you was a baby, I would hold you and cuddle you and take care of you!”
You’re never convinced that this didn’t happen. And though I logically know this is the tumble-track your brain is bouncing on in order to eventually make sense of things, I like to believe that God sent us someone like you to remind us that we’re here to care for each other.
Abigail, your empathy, kindness and compassion are the bravest things about you. To be present and mindful to the needs of others, and then to extend yourself to them, is a superpower. Most of us have it, not many of us are bold enough to use it.
One of your classmates was having a hard morning. She was crying to her dad, and was so upset. You talked about it, worrying about her, all day and night long. The next morning, you walked up to her and said, “[Friend’s name]? Are you feeling better today?” When she said that she was, your response?
“Oh good. Can I give you a hug?”
Our only job here on earth is to affirm one another. Each of us has our own special gifts in order to accomplish that, but they all lead back to one thing: be the hand lifting up, not the one pushing down. I’m so proud that already you are one of God’s helpers.
Interesting list of things you’ve been up to:
1) You have announced a career shift or five this year: astronaut, architect and ballerina are all contenders. You love to talk about space and name the planets (where did you learn that?), build things (all you do at school in your free time is build, and the same goes for home) and dance.
2) You can write your full name and, if you have a list in front of you, just about any word. You like to pretend to write books (!!!) and letters to me and your dad.
3) Your favorite color is still yellow. You want a bigger big-girl bed. You love black beans, broccoli, bell peppers, pomegranates, chili mac, applesauce and kefir. Your favorite weekend foods are pizza and french fries at “The Restaurant.” You can count by tens up to 100. Your favorite books are the Elephant and Piggie series. You told me yesterday that you don’t like princesses. You won’t watch any feature-length Disney movies.
4) You love to sing and draw.
5) Your best friend is Aunt Kate. You named your doll after her.
Abigail, the chances are great that I’m screwing this up wildly. Despite signs to the contrary, I’m girding myself for the day where you look me square in the face and insist I’m to blame for it all, whatever it may be.
And I’ll take it, I will, because that’s my job, but I’m never going to let you get away with it.
In this most recent spin, I’ve come to understand that while it’s my job to steer and shepherd you, you’ve already got what it takes to do whatever it is you want. You are who you are, the same way I am who I am. I hope I’m being kind in the moments you need it most. I hope I’m being fair in the face of your injustices. I hope I’m being firm when all you want is a pass. I hope I’m showing you how to be vulnerable when the easier choice would be to pretend that I have any of the answers. I hope I’m demonstrating great faith when all signs point to despair.
I hope I am these things for you, as I don’t want to obstruct what I believe is a person who is destined for so many great things.
But you know what? If you fuck it all up spectacularly? (And you might. I swear to God, you might.)
Everything will be OK. That “OK” will be the abundance upon which you build a gloriously OK life.
Take it from me. “OK” has been my salvation, kid.
Happy birthday, sweet girl.