One of the pleasures of parenting is watching your child develop into language which is to say, develop into relationship. A few days ago, E and I were walking hand in hand down the sidewalk and she looked up at me and said “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” She said it with a borrowed intonation, trying on a phrase that she had heard grown-ups say. She wanted to make conversation, which is a grown-up kind of impulse. Toddlers speak to express their needs, their wants, their questions, their frustrations, their observations, their fears, and — so charmingly — their nascent humor, but they don’t really talk in order to talk, in order to maintain a social interaction. It’s takes a certain amount of social awareness to say to someone “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”
The thing is, it wasn’t really a beautiful day. It was sunless and the sky was flat and gray. A fine, cold rain was falling intermittently — the kind of rain that can soak your clothes without you really being aware of it. At the very moment that she said: “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” I had just registered the sensation of tension caused by having left the house in one too few layers. I smiled to myself. It’s a gentle responsibility, to bear witness to a person experimenting their way into a self. If another adult in that moment had said “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”, I might have answered. “I don’t know, it’s colder than I expected.” But instead, I asked E, “What do you think is beautiful about the day?” “The sun is shining,” she said. “It’s fresh.” She was so glad, you could see it, to be her very own self in that moment, moving through the ritual of an adult conversation. “Please,” I thought to myself. “Please, world, let her be spared all of life’s little humiliations.” By a certain definition, I thought to myself, the sun WAS shining, somewhere above the dense clouds, the absence of night.
She said it again today, as we were walking up the ramp to the CVS, on our way to get some children’s Tylenol. I was post-call — tired, a little more grumpy than usual, a little more anxious than necessary. Last night, while I was on call, E had fallen out of bed onto the hardwood floor for the first time in a year. She had a nosebleed. At 5am my phone rang. I looked down and saw C’s number and was immediately sure that someone beloved had died. “Oh god, oh god,” I actually said as I hit “Accept.” But no one had died. There was just a nosebleed and a hysterical four year old, sobbing, inarticulate, totally freaked out. I haven’t breastfeed E in over three years, but hearing her sobs on the other end of the line, I felt like my body might make milk again. I burned to be comforting her. My skin literally felt warm with the desire to be there instead of where I was. I wanted to smell her hair and kiss her soft nose and wipe her tears and cuddle her. But instead I told her it was going to be ok and instructed C in all sorts of vicarious physical exam maneuvers. I had the sense that she was ok but then a part of my brain started up with the insidious differential: nasal septal hematoma, orbital fracture, CSF leak. And mostly I ached to be there.
I got home and spent a few hours staring at E’s swollen nose and wondering if she should be seen by a doctor other than me, a doctor with some shred of objectivity in relation to her swollen nose. I touched her nose again and again. Then, when it was clear that she was fine, and bored, I took her to school. But I worried. And so there we were in the CVS parking lot, going to get Tylenol, and my mind was still on the carousel of irrational worry and guilt.
“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” she said. “Look at the sun on that building.” And I looked up to see the afternoon sun reflecting off the glass and chrome windows of a building across the street, ringing it in golden flame. It was so, so beautiful. I squeezed E’s hand. “Thanks so much for showing me, E.” It’s one of the pleasures of parenting, being jolted out of yourself, back into beauty.