“When do friends stop holding hands?”
My second-grader’s teacher—or maybe it was the librarian or a classroom aide, someone—had innocently admonished several girls, walking along holding hands, to enjoy it while they could. “The time’s coming,” she reportedly told them, “when you’ll be too big for sweet stuff like holding hands!” It was a normal enough reaction, a sort of sentimental opine to the woman’s own, bygone girlhood.
I tried to tuck my girl’s worry away by relieving the notion that this separation was imminent—you’ll all still be holding hands tomorrow, and next week, and the week after that. I reminded her that I hold hands with people all the time.
—No you don’t.
Well, I do sometimes.
—I’ve never seen you.
I hold hands with you and Daddy.
—That’s exactly what I’m talking about. When will friends not walk and run and hold hands anymore? And I’ll have to be related to somebody just to hold their hand. I still like it. I’ll always still like it.
I find it just as sweet as you do.
—Then why don’t you do it?
Maybe it’s because I spend most of my time with you.
She seemed satisfied or distracted or tired by this. I made myself feel better reckoning that she called to mind an image of us walking along hand and hand; she is my constant side-kick, my dancing satellite—or maybe it’s the other way around. She’s always with me, in the crook of my arm, hanging onto a hand, jumping just ahead of me all gangly legged over shadows on the sidewalk, pocks in the cross walk, sprinkler puddles in the park trail.
Maybe she thought of that. Or maybe she figured I was empty of an answer and just let it go.
But even as she began to settle down and rattle off other news of the day—apparently a boy named Jonah was spending a lot of time pushing his luck with the teacher’s patience—the question caught me in an unexpected way. How long? How long until I am not the same as I am now? And, having put that question to a task, I wonder how it is that the mind goes on quantifying without direct intent.
1,000 days, my love, more or less.
I remember the day that my dolls stopped talking, the exact moment I stopped being able to speak through them. They who had been my most kindred mates suddenly failed to live, sat plastic and blank. This sudden shift in my inner world left me unexpectedly self-contained, bottled up, isolated though I did not know the words for the feeling.
There was suddenly no life in anything that wasn’t riding on the surface of the visible world.
I looked at my sister and couldn’t hear her thinking. I forgot the elaborate spookiness of riding my bicycle down the street in the dark, for the sole and dedicated purpose of feeling scared—spooky thrills just stopped mattering.
I looked at myself and realized I had hair on my legs. It may have been there for ages, but I’d never seen it before, never cared and yet there it was, a horrifying downiness.
One night, I came inside to use the loo during a game of hide and seek, only to discover I’d started my first period. I thought I was dying, screamed for my life, then when it was all made clear as it could be made, I went back outside, but I didn’t dare play, had no idea what to expect. I needed to think, to search this unanticipated change. I was eleven.
My daughter is nearly eight. She has about 1,000 days of childhood left before the next part of life takes her up in its chemistry, its emotional swirl.
As I drove toward home and she talked about hand-holding and Jonah and time out chairs, my brain seized that number and worked on it, worked on training its associative sequence.
From here, should I be working out a formula, an equation for the perfect end of childhood?
I continued to figure—if a bit of frustration and mild disappointments are, in the scheme of a life, good for growing the patience and perseverance an adult will need to handle normal stressors, then how many more minor disappointments should she have over the course of the rest of her childhood? 300? 500? Major jolts of gritty reality? Two? Three? What will they be?
How many times should she get precisely what she wants? Somewhere in the neighborhood of 200? Fewer?
If she asks me a gaggle of silly to important questions almost every day, how many of my answers will shape the way she looks at the world, will influence the flow of her thoughts, her perceptions? How many more will I answer until she decides she should ask somebody else who isn’t so old, so out of touch? 10,000? Fewer.
How many paradigms will I and her father unwittingly ingrain? How many subtle lessons should I art into our talks? How many days do I have to change my own habits, personal glitches that are imprinting her by example?
When she was barely four, she wrote a song called, “Twinkle, Sparkle, Baby”:
Twinkle, sparkle, baby
Let the night shine in your eyes
While I sing you lullabies
And you fall asleep so tight and sleep through the night
Twinkle, sparkle, baby
Let the moon glow in your heart
You and I will never part
So baby go to sleep so tight and sleep through the night
Twinkle, sparkle, ba—by
If she still loves for me to sing her special song to her just as she’s falling off to sleep at night, if, as she says, it makes her feel “like you move my day breath to dream breath” how many more times will I sing that song before my voice loses its connection to her heartbeat, to her blood? I refuse to answer. I think of the last time she nursed. I didn’t realize it was the last time, it just was.
As I drove us toward home, I began to repeat to myself Dylan Thomas’s most perfect poem, “Fern Hill”:
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turnings so few and such morning songs
Before the children, green and golden
Follow him out of grace
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand, Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Time held me, green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea
Her voice, chatting aimlessly now from the back seat, sounded like the cry of little gulls. I tried to stop torturing myself. I tried to find the realization that something amazing and beautiful would bloom just over the horizon, just past the small part of her childhood. I realized I needed a cup of tea, possibly dosed with something stronger.
I have about 1,000 days. To do so much. To help her feel like she does not have to be only a cute face, like there is more to her than what boys she attracts, than how many of her friends think she’s pretty, how many compliments she’s paid for her outfits.
I have about 1,000 days to make sure that my tiny little girl has in her possession the very last drop of sweet infancy. And every inroad I can open for her that will lead her to her voice, her creative force, and her love for herself, her whole self.
I hope she does not have to wake up, like Dorothy Gale in reverse, to the color and wonder of life forever fled. For artists, our job is to play with that tickle of fancy that registers as color against grey and tease it out into the fullness of our work. I feel as open to the rain of starlight as I ever have. Maybe in my case it’s regression, but I tend to think of it as reclamation. I cannot see why she would ever have to lose hers, but I am comforted to think she might find it again in any event.
In 1,000 days my daughter is not going to break away from her blithe and flitting spirit. Though I have no doubt that we will weather a change, I want it to be an opening change.
I have a lot to do. In that time, I have let her see me in the act of creation every day. If I’m her model, there is no time left for me to loll. I want her to know that I am comfortable with who I am, that how I look is not the focus of my life (I think she knows that). That I enjoy myself and imagine and play and see the invisible. And love without fear or self-consciousness.
1,000 days. The first thing I have to do is start holding hands with my friends. And then we all have to sing in those goddamn chains.
There are two stories you know well, one where I couldn’t wait to be taken outside the next time so I could play with that wonderful, cool, white stuff I got every time I went outside…and when I finally was taken outside and put on my blanket, it was gone. All I could find was my leg. And on 10th Street, after a winter of sickness, waiting so eagerly for warm weather so I could go outside (always wanting to get OUT, right) and sit in the tall, tall grass and smell its special smell. This time I went in crying to mom, ‘our grass is dead.’ It wasn’t; it was green and lush. It just wasn’t my old grass, almost as tall as the trees. Like your memories of change, these are bittersweet as I think of the experiences. But other, not better but different experiences took their place. Like getting you. And then getting her. I am at the point where I sometimes think, and you hate this, how many days? Probably more than 1000. But 3000? Or 6000? Maybe. Or not. We have our work cut out for us, huh?
I am not suggesting that making an equation for life events (or thinking about Dylan Thomas while driving) is healthy. Stop that.