Happy birthday to you. I shuffled all groggy and froggy into the Boss's bedroom, the detritus of sleep sticking in the corners of my eyes and in my throat. Happy birthday to you. A smile pushed all her facial features upward as looked over at me from the book that was open in her lap. Happy birthday dear Boss, happy birthday to you. Tossing the pages aside, she slid off her bed and landed, in a few strides, at my side.
"Thank you, mom," she said, ever mannerful. She held my gaze with eyes that I still maintain are the only thing she got from me. The artful gradations of blue were framed by a blond bob. The changes weren't sudden, exactly--I had been aware of something creeping up on me--but she seemed striking in her growth. Her legs and arms dangled with a distinct lack of baby fat from her solid core. She leaned into me. "Even though it's my birthday, I have a present for you," she said. "Do you want it?"
"Of course I do!"
The gift was a hug. She enveloped me where I stood, wrapping her arms around hips that were much wider than they had been just over five years earlier. My hipbones fit into the bend of her elbows as she squeezed. I crosssed my arms over her back and tried to meet her strength with my own.
She tells the story, you know. I only write it down.
The thing that sticks with me is The Boss's breath when she was just-born. Holding on is no mean feat, considering the amount of Morphine coursing through my veins at the time. Forever and ever, the scent of rubbing alcohol will make me think of pure baby girl. I didn't expect her to smell like that when I put my face to hers the first time. I hurt everywhere. The pain, drugs and lost time conspired to take away all of the primal exhilaration that is (supposed to be) childbirth. But then I saw my husband's tears, and I smelled my daughter's breath like muted isoproponol on wet, red lips, and I knew that something monumental was happening. I knew it, and I almost felt it. But mostly I felt bad, my arm limp around the swaddled mass that exuded perfect newness. I couldn't stop shivering. I was glad when my husband took her away so I could lose consciousness again.
I fell into a sleep void of all senses except her breath on my face.
She toddles. Almost fifteen months from the day she first set foot on Earth, she began making her own treads. I know she's no trailblazer, but the implications in her own small sphere are enormous. My daughter is making her way in the world.
Her gait is precarious. Each step seems too light to hold her, but the halting weight of one foot against the ground, then the other, pushes her forward in a baby gust. I stop counting the movements; it seems as if she will go on forever. Then her confidence falls out from under her as she folds to a neat stop on her knees.
This is how she will get where she's going. It's literal now, but soon enough the baby steps will mean something different. It's careful exploration. It's tentativeness. It's the way one feels out a world where solidity, texture and layout is uncertain. Her first day of school. A part in a play. A sleepover. A test. This is how she will learn, by pushing herself on her own terms.
I am proud of her pacing. I thought early on that I wanted her to be the first at everything. I wanted her to be precocious. A fat, walking, talking bundle of joy. And don't get me wrong--she's joyful. But she's also small and comtemplative; calm and observant. I am so enamored of her unexpected personality that any desire I had for her to be something other than she is vanished in the gray fog of so many pre-parental ideals.
Now I know that her whims are her own. Her timing is impeccable. She is exactly right.
Roughly three hours before the first labor contraction of my second childbirth hit, The Boss had a precognitive existential crisis. She was sitting on our bed as The Partner and I nested our way through a much needed pick-up of the bedroom. Maybe it was witnessing this act of cleaning that shocked her system, so foreign was the idea of seeing her mother with a duster in one hand and vacuum in the other. Maybe it was the intuition of the imminent arrival of a sibling. Whatever the cause, it's safe to say that The Boss freaked out.
"It's not fun being bigger and older!" she shrieked suddenly. It came out of nowhere. She rose to her feet on the semi-firm mattress and threw herself prone. "It's not fun!" She was screaming again, and rising again. Then she threw herself back. She was crying.
"What's wrong, honey?" The Partner and I climbed onto the bed with her, patting and consoling and wondering. We had hazy notions of what troubled her, but we wanted her to articulate it. We wanted to say the right things back.
She probably wanted words, too. But all that came out was I don't know.
It might've been spilled milk, or the fact that that dinner got cold while we were waiting for The Partner to finish a conference call, or maybe that someone ganked the last of the banana bread. The cause doesn't matter as much as the admission.
"It's all my fault," The Partner said, throwing up his hands in martyrdom. "It's always my fault."
The Boss looked over at me. "It's his fault," she confirmed. "Not ours."
I laughed. I had to. But the chuckle lost depth as I thought of growing up in a house where my mother would drop a glass in the kitchen and immediately blame the wreckage on someone else, even if the nearest person was minding her own business upstairs in my bedroom, reading Judy Blume through spectacles as thick as magnifying glasses.
"It's nobody's fault." I spoke more for The Boss's benefit than to validate The Partner's histrionics. "We don't need to blame anyone."
The Boss's eyes were wide with knowledge that belied her three uneventful years. She looked from me to her father before settling back on me. Her voice was a blend of confidence and whisper. It was as if she didn't want to burden me too heavily with the truth. "But sometimes people have fault."
So I conceded. How could I not? I marveled at our daughter with a headshake and a shrug, then I dismissed the issue from the table. "You're right. Sometimes people do have fault. You're absolutely right." I was sure it was something we'd be able to discuss in more detail for the rest of our lives.
From the moment she was ripped from my gaping abdomen while I laid there unconscious, The Boss has been the one in charge. Three years of experience only rendered her more effective.
At three, The Boss is benevolent. She drops lispy words of encouragement like candy: "I really love you, Mommy" or "You're beautiful." She says "please" and "thank you" and "may I use that when you're done?"
She only breaks down occasionally, though you don't want to be the one called into her office to witness that harangue.
She is a people person, too. She chats with strangers in the supermarket about subjects ranging from her weekend plans to bodily functions to her upcoming pre-school matriculation. These strangers are usually charmed by her voice and passion. I am always proud. Okay, well, sometimes--in the case of the exclamations on functional anatomy--I admit to being a tad bit embarrassed.
Her thoughts and emotions are vivid. They're right there. She's a magnifying glass that uses sunlight to ignite everything in the line of sight. Without her, I wouldn't notice half of what's around me, and there'd be no fire.
I told The Boss that her birthday was also my anniversary. "You made me a mom," I said. "Before that, I was just Binky."
She laughed, like that was so silly. "You're not Binky. You're Mommy Binky." She threw everything into the giggle that followed, the sound coming from her diaphragm and emerging deeper and louder than one would expect from a just-turned-three-year-old. She always laughs like that. "You're not Binky. Nope."
"That's right," I agreed, matching her laugh. "That's exactly what I'm trying to tell you."
The Partner was home all day with no big plans to fix all that was failing around him. We ate breakfast first, which he cleared as I nursed Number Two. Then the baby napped. The Partner and The Boss played a board game. I shut the door on them all and ran a bath.
Later we watched home movies of The Boss when she was the age Number Two is now. I had no recollection. Was she really ever so tiny? I looked down to where she sat, nestled in my arm on the love seat, and I found it hard to see her as anything other than what she was at that very moment. The past, though vivid on the screen, was faded; the future, a blur. I patted the solid bend of her leg next to mine.
The Boss's bath came before dinner. I lined up foam letters in short word formation on the wall of the tub. I held my breath as The Boss sounded out the first one."Puh-ah-duh. P-a-d. Pad!"
I screamed and clapped. I ran to get the Partner, who wore mechanics' overalls as he worked under my car in the garage. He followed me up the stairs to the bathroom."You've got to see this," I said.
I arranged three more letters in front of The Boss, who was splashing slap-happy as the center of attention. "She can read! She can really read!"
She studied the word. "Buh..."
The Partner and I stared down, nodding her on. My eyebrows were high in my forehead. I still wasn't breathing. "Yes?" I sucked in air, prodding.
"Buh...ah...guh. B-a-g. Bag!" The Boss fell forward like a seal, splashing water over the side of the tub, sending the letters sailing away. We were all spastic.
At the end of the night, after the dishwasher had been loaded and the kids' beds filled, The Partner and I sat down to a movie. I don't like to be sad on purpose, but I suggested The Bucket List anyway, thinking that an uplift would prevail. And it did. We've never been immune to schmaltz.
Toward the end I cried so hard that my face hurt where the tears clogged my sinuses.
"It was the little girl that got me," The Partner said. She was the new found granddaughter Jack Nicholson kissed on the cheek; she was the most beautiful girl in the world. "I can't see a little blond and not think of our own adorable kid." His eyes were puffy. He sighed beneath the weight of pride. That breath propelled him into the star-struck addendum that follows almost any mention of The Boss: "She's the best." It takes a little more air away each time. "The best."
Even though it's my birthday, I have a present for you. Do you want it?