Cold, damp air poured through our open kitchen window as I finished making her lunch for barnehage. Sandwich, cottage cheese, raisins, crackers. I could hear rain pattering on the leaves of the tree just outside. From the other room, I heard her say...
"Mom, can I tell you about a sad dream?"
I went to rinse my fingers in the sink and called back...
"Sure. Do you want to come in here and tell me?"
I had so much left to do. So much to finish packing up. So much on my mind to prepare for work. Only twenty minutes to run her down the street and drop her off before running for my own bus. I almost didn't go to check on her. But then that mama instinct kicked in.
In recent weeks, she's suddenly become so much louder. Taller, more confident, more assertive about what matters to her. But now, in the gray light of an autumn morning, as her last year of barnehage begins, she sounded small again.
I walked into the other room to find her at the table, surrounded by papers covered in colorful drawings. Trees, Santas, presents, Easter eggs, hearts, diamonds, unicorns, candy canes, disco balls, hot dogs. Everything small she can draw crammed onto each sheet. She had turned her little self toward the kitchen, but remained in her chair, head lowered. She sniffed. Her chin wobbled.
"Oh wow. It must have been a really sad dream," I said, and scooped her up into my arms. My five-year-old filly. All legs and arms, muscled from climbing, hiking, and running. Sometimes she confuses dreams with thoughts. In her world, dreams—good and bad—can happen anytime.
"It was," she said. Then she pushed her face into the soft pocket of my neck and let the tears come.
We'd had our usual, rambunctious morning. Laughing and dancing around the house. Eating seconds at breakfast and singing "Into the Unknown" in the bathroom. Me nagging her to take her PJs out of the hamper and put them under her pillow instead. Her wondering aloud why she can't be a "real princess." Too much to do and not enough time to do it in. But happy, plucky, silly. So, I didn't see this coming, whatever this was about to turn out to be.
(Mothers know. We are constantly surprised, but never show it. Don't flinch. Just let the wave come, the current pull. Figure it out along the way. Survive and protect at any cost.)
I walked her back into the kitchen, shut off the overhead light and held her tight. "Tell me about it."
She pulled back so I could see her face. "I had such a sad dream, Mommy. I dreamed that..." Her mouth opened and no sound followed. Her big blue eyes were brimming with tears, searching my face, as though what she had to say was so terrible she couldn't find the words. "I dreamed that-that-that... I grew up! And then-and then-I couldn't be your child anymore."
With that, she threw her arms back around my neck and sobbed harder. "I don't want to grow up, Mommy! I don't want you to get old! I don't want to leave you. I want to be with you forever."
I held her. Spread my fingers wide across her back so she could feel all the warmth I could send. Kissed the whipped-cream-smoothness behind her ear, the fragrant part of her dark-honey-colored hair. My heart splintered for the millionth time since she was born.
I've written about these cracks in the heart before. Ragged, unavoidable wounds of realization. The way they hurt and teach us something we have to learn. We breathe, we keep moving, we heal. Each milestone leaves a scar, so that we're a little smarter, stronger. That's just life. And it amplifies with motherhood.
Today I saw my daughter's heart do the same thing for the first time.
Oh, my love. My favorite person. My child. My child. Clinging to me like a vine, like a little koala. Unsure of the world.
"I'm here," I whispered. "I will always be right here. I am your home. And I feel this way too."
With lunch abandoned on the counter, with my bus hissing away from the distant stop into a veil of mist, I turned on Taylor Swift's "Never Grow Up," and we danced in the kitchen. Rocked back and forth, tightly wound together. Oh darlin' don't you ever grow up, just stay this little. It can stay this simple. Never grow up.
When it was over, we curled up on the couch and talked some more. She asked me questions through shuddery sighs. Had I wanted to grow up? Had I wanted to leave my mommy? Was it hard to be a big person? Did she really have to get big and go away from me?
I told her the truth. That growing up is inevitable. It doesn't care whether we want to do it or not. The only thing we can control is whether we appreciate what we have when we have it along the way. We can spend our fleeting time in ways that are good for us and the people we love, make the most of it. And there's no need to rush anything.
"You know, that's one of the craziest, hardest parts about being a mom," I said. "We make these sweet, beautiful, helpless, perfect little people. And then, almost immediately, we start wanting two things at once. Two things that can't possibly both happen. Every day, every moment, when I look at you, I am wishing two things. One, that you'll keep on growing and building yourself into that brilliant, brainy, badass person you will be one day. And two, that you'll stop growing, right now! And stay on my lap, pressed so close to me that I can feel your little heart beating against mine, forever."
Her head leaned on my shoulder, her cheeks flushed with the exertion of listening and grasping to understand. She watched me closely as I spoke.
"I'm proud of you."
"Because even though growing up just happens, not everyone takes the time to be sensitive to it. That's what you're doing today. You're letting yourself feel this deep feeling. You're taking time to look at it closely. It's just like the stones and shells we found in Iceland. We examined them with a magnifying glass, remember? Stopping to feel these things like this isn't always fun. It sometimes means heartache and confusion. But you will understand feelings like this better if you take the time. You will learn how to handle them, how to breathe and treat yourself kindly. The best thing to do when you feel like this is to come and tell me, so we can share it. Then it's not as hard to swallow and overcome. Because we'll do it together."
Still the rain pattered on the pane. A car whooshed by in the street below.
After a minute or two... "Can you read a book to me?"
I let everything else go. No clock. No work. No world full of diseases and politics and selfishness and distance from home and uncertainty. Of course I could read a book to my child. Why would I ever do anything else?
She brought me Det Gavmilde Treet. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. It's one of those books that has fascinated her for years. I read it to her in Norwegian at least once a week. Handing it to me now, crawling back into my lap, she said...
"Do you know why I picked this one? Because the little boy loves the tree. And he gets bigger and bigger. And then he goes away."
"And comes back to his tree in the end."
She nodded. Made herself as little as possible. And listened to me read.
"Det var en gang et tre..." Once there was a tree...
A tree like me. Doing her best not to hold her breath as the one she loves most grows and learns and leaves, taking with him her whole heart. Because that's the rhythm of this life, isn't it? I also walked away from the one who made me and loved me. The one who held me so close over and over. After a bee sting. After a basketball to the face on Christmas Day. After the open casket funeral of a dear friend who never even got to graduate high school. The day I moved into my college apartment. The day I got married. The day I moved to Norway.
I'm writing this at a cafe. About a block and a half away from the Hazelnut's barnehage, where I'm sure she's running and playing with all her little friends. Pigtails streaming behind her like flags. Eventually, I took her and dropped her off. It was tough, but she made it. Giving me a big, purposeful kiss and calling See you later! over her shoulder without looking back.
There will be so many more days like this, and yet, I'll never have this particular day again. Splinter and breathe and heal.