I love that when I go to the apartment complex where the refugees live, everyone is outside talking on their porch to their neighbors. I took my oldest daughter, Noelle, to the apartments where many of our artisans live to recruit kids for a special project my college English class is doing this Saturday. We had permission slips in hand and we went from place to place asking kids if they could come. Some of them are old friends; some are new. It’s been a few months since I walked around these buildings and I love watching my daughter in action.
Five is a remarkable age, when she’s just independent enough to want to make new friends and stand away from me, but still wants me to be in sight at all times. She’s so comfortable here–while I talked to the moms, she played with Mary and ran around with Paw. She hit it off with a 9-year-old Kachin boy named Tom, who was not too boyish to be embarrassed hanging out with a little girl. They’re not far from the same height and they walked chummily together, swapping stories and laughing over jokes that are only funny if you want to giggle.
When Noelle fell and gashed her knee, I told her to cry a little bit, then try to be tough. We looked at it together and it seemed at first like it might be fine, but a small, determined trickle of blood ran down her shin and the sight convinced Noelle it was really, really painful. Finally we asked a friend for a band-aid and we went into their house to doctor it up.
The women we’d been talking to in one apartment had moved to another and without batting an eye, they made room for us, their children commiserating with my crying child. In a circle of refugee children and adults, we cleaned it with alcohol and band-aids. The children kept talking to her while I cleaned her knee. The scrape was deeper than it looks (it turns out the knee is pretty bad–not bad enough for a doctor, but a fairly deep scrape) and it hurt while I was cleaning it up. While her friends were watching, she tried to be brave, but when it became too much, Noelle buried her head in my neck in a futile effort to hide her tears and just wailed.
Every mother knows the difference between the dramatic cry and the real cry and it broke my heart to hear the depth of that pain for her little knee. We hobbled over to one more house and she was brave for a moment, but the knee started bleeding again and it all became too much. Almost in tears myself, I picked her up and carried her the last of the way to the car.
I can’t fix every boo-boo. I can’t cure every hurt. Today was the day we took her to register for kindergarten and the reality of that move hit me like a ton of bricks tonight in the car ride home. I’m so sorry to all of the mothers who have gone before me whose pain I didn’t quite get (c’mon, it’s kindergarten, not college! I would think). But it’s not that your child is leaving for school or that you need to control every moment of your life, it’s that this is the first separation, the first step in a life of leaving. And, while I’m so grateful for the independence and the grace that my daughter is developing, it’s mind-numbing how fast these days are slipping through my fingers.
On the way home, she started crying in earnest. We sang songs to cheer her up. She wanted me to sing the “Fruit of the Spirit” song over and over again; it’s one they’re performing in her preschool program this week. She kept coming up with silly things for me to substitute (“the fruit of the spirit’s not a ___”). Fourteen renditions later, we had established that the fruit of the spirit was not a variety of real fruits, nor a longhorn, a light, a big truck, a fence or a toothbrush. She was ranging wider and wider, eager to be distracted from the knee.
I looked back at her in her car seat and the look on her face was so familiar. Half the time I can fast forward in her life and imagine her at sixteen rolling her eyes in the same impeccable arc. This look, however, was pure six-month-old baby, staring earnestly at me with eyes that were piercingly blue because they were red-rimmed from crying. Her lashes were wet, but her smile was delighted. Despite the fact that, when we marched into kindergarten this afternoon she had turned down holding my hand so she didn’t look like a baby, now she was my baby, clinging to my every word, glued to my expression, watching me to see how to respond to this pain.
If I could, I would scoop her up forever. But those days are already fleeting.
I took her hand and held it while I drove and began the song again for the fifteenth time.