My husband and my son went skiing this weekend, and my 8-year-old daughter Grace and I stayed home because she is still in the no-sports eight-week window after a mononucleosis diagnosis. She seems fine, but she still gets tired easily. On Saturday morning, we went to Fresh Pond, where I ran and she biked the familiar circuit next to me. We usually go around twice, and she’s always biking ahead of me and having to loop back, slow down, wait for me. This time, after one circle of the reservoir, she asked me, a little nervously, if we could stop. She was panting a bit and said her legs were tired. I hugged her and said of course we could go home. As I loaded her bike back into the car, I admonished myself for going on the outing at all. Maybe it was a bad idea to remind her of her lingering illness.
When we got home, we climbed into my bed to finish Harry Potter 3. Each time we finish one of the Harry Potter books, we celebrate by watching the movie. Grace sat next to me as I read the last chapters, eyes shining, rapt, interrupting occasionally to ask questions that showed me she was truly following what was going on. The room was shadowy, lit by glass lamps on either side of our bed, and a fan whirred quietly, blowing toward us. This is my favorite way to spend an afternoon, in a dim room with a fan’s white noise, reading. It is one of my great joys that Grace loves this kind of day, too, and is happy to share it with me.
After we finished the book, I went into the closet and found the movie, stashed vertically between stacks of sweaters. I’d bought it as we neared the end of the thick book. Grace’s face lit up. “Can I watch that now, Mummy?” She caught herself, smile disintegrating into a grimace, “Oh. I mean, may I?” I’ve corrected that one too many times, I guess.
“Of course, Grace.” I loaded the DVD into an old laptop and started it. She leaned back against Matt’s pillows, her exhaustion visible in the slope of her narrow shoulders, her heavy exhale, her eyes, which while focused intently on the screen were also droopy. I thought of the first few days after she was diagnosed with mono, when she’d slept endlessly, everywhere. She’d fallen asleep in the car, at the kitchen table, in front of the TV, as though she were an infant again.
After the movie was over, we decided to go to one of our favorite restaurants, Christopher’s, for dinner. Since it is only two blocks away, we walked there. Grace held her American Girl doll, Julie, whom she had dressed up in her best outfit, with one hand and slipped the other hand instinctively into mine. I tried not to think about the fact that these days are numbered, the days when she will want to hold my hand just because, the days when it is an outright, enormous thrill to go out to dinner, just the two of us.
We sat in a booth in the dark wood-paneled restaurant and ordered our favorite things: an order of children’s nachos to start, sauvignon blanc and ginger ale, plain pasta with marinara sauce on the side and a Cobb salad. Lately Grace has been ordering for herself, looking the server straight in the eye and saying, “Please, may I have.” Watching her do this makes me inordinately proud. Our waitress brought our drinks and Grace leaned forward to sip her golden, bubbly ginger ale. She sat with her straw in her mouth, eyes darting around, looking at the other people in the restaurant, at the news on the television screen, checking on Julie, who was seated next to her in the booth. I watched her watching the room. She noticed and smiled at me before resuming her survey of the other people around us.
Grace is my past, holding in her chocolate brown eyes all of my memories of my first difficult months as a mother, and my future, pulling me forward with her as she grows so alarmingly quickly. Sometimes when I’m with her I feel like I’m tumbling down the years back to my own childhood, lost in a hall of mirrors that refract the light into a dazzling, confusing array of me and her and all the ways we are similar and different. In that somersaulting, interwoven identification lie both the source of my tight bond with my daughter and the root of many of my fears about parenting her well.
“Mummy?” Grace looked across the table at me and launched into a detailed question about Voldemort. Shaking my head slightly, I focused on her and tried to answer as best I could. And then our nachos came, and Grace giggled when she picked one up and the whole plate lifted. When our main courses came, Grace held her big glass of ginger ale in both hands and smiled at me, reaching to clink my glass. “Cheers!” she said. “It’s so much fun to have dinner just the two of us, Mum.” I blinked back my tears, touched my wine glass to her ginger ale, and smiled right back. Yes, I felt like saying, it is. But I was afraid that if I opened my mouth I would start crying, and I knew that would scare her. A single sentence roared in my ears: We won’t come back here.
And then after dinner we walked home, hand in hand.