Inside the warm car we sit and wait, parked in front of my son’s elementary school, for the first bell to ring.
Lily, my beautiful daughter, speaks from her seat in the back, describing her class science project, how they will try to design and build a house that the teacher can’t blow down with her hair dryer.
“You know that space camp I went to this summer, where we had to design earthquake ready homes?” she began a few minutes earlier as we’re driving to school.
“Yes,” I responded, as I wove through traffic, crosswalks, children walking, the fog in my brain.
“Well, my partner and I won. Our house was triangle-shaped. I think that’s why we won, and now I’m the design manager for our project today, and I drew a design where when the roof gets blown off it actually falls back and digs into the ground, so the house can’t get blown down because it becomes sort of a triangle.”
“That sounds so cool, honey,” I said, glancing quickly at her in the rearview as I parked. “You’re doing that today in science?” Sometimes I repeat a parcel of her words in a question to make it seem like I’m paying close attention, because I want to be, but there are always so many things happening around us. People, music, my son interrupting, my mental to-do list, the thought that I’d love a nap right about now, how dry and cracked the skin on my winter hands are. So dry it burns, like tiny open wounds being scratched with sandpaper.
“Yes. We get to use lasagna noodles, paper cups, straws and popsicle sticks and stuff.”
“What a super fun activity!” I glance at her animated face.
“There’s a project manager, structural manager, a project engineer—”
“Whuu-ut?” Jasper, age seven, interrupts in his typical super-confused country-twang-voice, before he unbuckles his seatbelt and launches himself into the front. “What are you doing in science?” He asks as if he’s been in outer space for the last five minutes, which knowing this kid, maybe he has. Or, rather, he needs to hear her words again and again to create that picture in his brain. So, his sister repeats herself as he tries to fit his entire body down into the passenger foot area, surprised that he can’t, surprised that it’s dark down there, not really paying attention to Lily at all, playing his body-bending games.
He becomes, as he often does, the center of attention.
Always there is this battle of Trying to Find the Balance, I think. My mom voice saying, “Don’t interrupt,” while interrupting someone. Me asking Lily extra questions while her brother extra interrupts. It goes both ways. Aware my daughter’s intelligence transcends to a place most of us cannot grasp, I make an extra effort to tell my son he’s smart too, so he doesn’t grow up thinking, “Oh, Lily’s the smart one.”
“Get up,” I say, “get out of there, goofball.”
Lily’s voice now a muffled jumble of noises as her brother’s antics thump loud and obnoxious like twenty kids in a bouncy house. Jasper whines to get out of the car and go into school but it’s not time yet, he’s not allowed. Which doesn’t matter to him at all, my anti-rule-follower, my why-do-we-even-need-rules child. He literally only has two minutes to wait, but two minutes of him waiting feels like hours for the rest of us.
I do what I often do to distract him, turn my phone camera on and say, “Let’s take silly pictures.” He hams it up, making zombie and goofy faces with his overly-large front teeth, and I snap away noticing the shimmering of his muted green-blue eyes, a color unlike any I’ve ever seen before.
I imagine I could look at their island sea-depths for years and never really know all that’s inside them.
In the distance I hear Lily’s voice trail off, and it’s the absence of it that startles me back. I turn my head to look at her over my shoulder. She’s quiet now, gazing out the window, her brown freckles and ice-blue eyes stand out against her creamy skin. Fragile and strong at once. I turn forward and gaze out my own window, but try to engage her again in conversation about her project.
Her answers are short; Jasper still explodes with energy to get out, get out, get out! And finally, I let him.
I breathe a sigh of relief as we drive off to Lily’s school, because that boy is just so much, so much energy, so much noise, so much mystery, so much questioning and confusion and amazingness, so much everything.
My girl and I chat the few blocks to her school, but I don’t remember anything we say. I’m lost in the landscape. The plump, gauzy white-gray sky, as if holding back the snow, the now-ugly, dried, brown leaves piled along the sides of the yards for the trucks to come sweep up, all the empty tree branches, dark and gangly against the blank white canvas. Everything still and waiting. Cold, bone-dry and barren, sort of like my mind feels. I follow other cars into the drop-off lane in front of her school, slowing down to creeping as the school speed limit appears.
I stop to let her out. She’s excited to see her friends. I unlock the doors and watch her silently as she grabs her backpack and peels away. “Love you!” we yell to each other, and then I study her again in my rearview mirror as she carefully walks to meet her friends, something I almost never do with Jasper. As soon as he’s out of the car and I see him run away, I too turn away and drive off, but never Lily. No, every day I watch her, as I hold onto my worry about her. I watch her walk away from me. I watch how she holds her limbs close to her body either because of winter’s cold, or anxiety, or some combination that is uniquely her. I watch until I can’t see her anymore. Even then I don’t look away.
Which is quite a contradiction, I think as I bite back the sting of tears at my sudden clear thoughts. Sometimes knowledge sits like a hawk on your arm, silent, still, predatory, only suddenly piercing your skin with its talons as it takes off away from you. The needle-sharp, stinging pain is all you have left. The memory of that pain gouges a hole of its own in your lung, startling you with each new shortened breath.
All the way home I question myself. I often take pictures of my son and his gorgeous eyes, and peer deep into those sage-y green pools trying to learn his mind, his soul. But my daughter, I fear, as that pain-knowledge roots down inside of me, there are days I don’t look too closely too often into her blue depths.
I know I don’t.
And I wonder if it’s because I’m afraid. I wonder if I’m afraid I might see into her brain, past the seizures she has – past the one she had this week that left her so tired and loopy, a headache lingering for days – to something more horrible, to the damage it does to her body, or the struggles she can’t articulate, a wound she doesn’t understand.
Am I afraid to look too deeply? As if by doing so I will be faced with something worse than what we already know, that yes, she does in fact occasionally have seizures, and yes, they do indeed wipe out her energy as if she once were a ballerina on stage, dancing up her fury and then, instantly, her electricity snuffed out, and all that’s left are the empty remains of an old rag doll.
Although, wiped out, and groggy afterwards, she still functions and holds herself together; she doesn’t complain which might appear nice, but makes it difficult for me to tell how she’s really feeling. Does she hurt? Does her mind or soul or even just her body feel different? Do her seizures leave invisible scars in the pale lining of her skin?
Am I afraid to see how she really is?
These precious days I only sneak sideways glances when she’s not watching, when I can’t see deep into her eyes. Like my daughter, I walk carefully, holding my limbs close, holding myself together, just as I do when she has a seizure, holding myself together as a mother, as her parent, holding myself together, because what would it mean to fall apart?
Or am I just holding myself away? Separate? Is it fear of what lies beneath the depths of her eyes? Can she sense it, this unsettled desire in me not to look too closely? Are she and I just a mirror to each other, one holding the other up, in this façade pas de deux of unworry?
Contradiction, for me for now, seems like it should have a different name, perhaps My Familiar, or Spirit Animal, Old Pal, Buddy of Mine, because this smoky tendril ghost – once there, then gone, then present again – and I see so much of each other. We walk the same path, shoulder to shoulder every day. How can your truest companion be contradiction? Or Untruth? Isn’t that the cruelest oxymoron?
Because even while avoiding the clear blue depths of her soul, I do watch my daughter. Every morning I watch her walk away from me towards her playground until she’s out of sight. Every afternoon I watch for her across a field until I see her purple-jacketed body bounce towards me, I watch even before the doors to her school have opened, before one child has spilled out down the steps, before she is a possibility in my eyesight.
I watch her.
When I’m away from her, I watch her in my mind, wondering if she’s okay. I watch her read. I watch her play violin. I watch her laugh and cry and fight with her brother. I watch her in her silence as she cuddles our dog. I watch her joy over delicious meals, as it echoes my joy. I watch her lash out in snippy frustration whenever something doesn’t go her way. I watch her body change and grow. I. Watch. Her. Every. Day.
Sometimes in my memories it feels as though I have watched her before I even knew her.
But still, there is watching, and there is seeing; there is knowing. To watch her does not mean I know or understand one single thing about how her heart beats. And the fact that it occurs to me I avoid looking too deeply into her eyes, while watching her walk away is both confusing to me and stark in its clarity.
It isn’t that we aren’t close, or that we don’t know each other as much as a mother can know a child who’s both clinging to and pulling away, but sometimes our relationship feels as barren as a dead winter landscape before a magical snowfall sets it alight with grace and silent mystery. A stinging burning empty cold that if you’re not careful will freeze the tears in your eyes.
Or is this just the vulnerability of motherhood exposed, this paradox of being so cold, a cold that can burn with its intensity. This juxtaposition of the more they grow which allows us to know them better, arrives at the same time we realize the less we truly understand.
Like the dried skin of my hands, left to winter’s mercy as it strips away each layer leaving my skin cracked and aching and burning with pain. No matter how much lotion I use, no matter how often I attempt to soothe, for some things in life, like motherhood, there is no perfect balm, no true understanding, whether we peer deep into their eyes every single moment of every day, or watch them from a separate place, we will always be wondering.
Sara Ohlin lives and writes in Bangor, Maine. Her essays can be found at Mothers Always Write, The Good Mother Project, Feminine Collective, The Manifest Station and the anthologies, Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America, and Take Care: Tales, Tips and Love from Women Caregivers. She’s a contributor to Her View from Home & Project Hot Mess, and currently writes about life, food, and motherhood at www.lemonsandroses.com