Virtual Time Capsule (or, Letter to my mom, 3 years gone)

Three years ago today, on January 9, you died. You’d dealt with (what began as) breast cancer on and off for 14 years, but when the end came, it worked its destruction on your organs so quickly that we couldn’t get to you before you were gone.

On this particular anniversary, I’ll confess that I feel a strange lightness – an appreciation for the life and family I now have. And I have no regrets. Because you started making a point of saying “I love you” at the end of visits and phone calls once you were diagnosed (thank you for that), I’m not haunted by what wasn’t said; and since we’d visited you and Dad only weeks before, at Thanksgiving and at Christmas – despite the logistic difficulties of traveling by plane with a 7 month old baby – I’m wholly at peace that we got to spend some reasonably “normal” time with you before everything spiraled out of control, and that you got to spend as much time with Lily as was possible before you died.

Lily, sporting her distinctive fashion style in the summer of 2011

That having been said, I know you’d absolutely love to see her now, at age 3 1/2. She’s a mischievous little ringleader, with that trademark, thick, multi-hued honey blond hair that seems to run in our family.

Yes, she can be stubborn, of course (she was bound to get that trait no matter what, with me and Joe as parents), and she’s demonstrated already that she may well possess Joe’s temper and capacity for volume.

But there are nonetheless these moments when I nearly burst with love for her. For instance, when we were returning home from visiting Dad at Christmas, she sang and ran and skipped down the airport’s multiple moving sidewalks, wearing a sparkly red tutu over her purple pants, with her long, ragged braid bouncing off her back. I was the one chasing her with our bags, while Joe stayed with the baby in the stroller, so I got to see the faces of all the people we passed light up with smiles as they watched this sprite of a girl – this little being that Joe and I somehow created.

Moments like this are why Taylor Swift’s song “Never Grow Up” makes me weep nearly every time I hear it now.

And these times are some of the most enjoyable ones in parenting, of course. You can witness the same kind of excitement in this video of Lily (dressed as Cinderella this year) running between houses in our neighborhood on Halloween, yelling “Trick or Treat!” with her friend.

She’s now at this age where she can entertain herself for good, sometimes long stints of time, but you nonetheless have to discipline yourself to keep checking on her – or else you find out she’s done something like cut her bangs off, or colored her pajamas with green marker (on the same morning, no less).

Here’s her recent hair handiwork; and you should note that when I told her that she has a cousin who planned to study how to cut people’s hair, Lily said, “I already do that.” Touche, little one.

Missed a few, but really cut pretty straight on the diagonal, didn't she?

But she loves stories and books – one of my favorite times all day is when I get to read to her before bed – and she loves art. For quite a while now, we’ve been letting her paint on newspapers on the kitchen floor, and we often join her for this activity.

My artist-in-training.

For Hanukkah, though, we got Lily an easel, which is now in the basement toy room. She loves it; and when she’s painting, pr singing, dancing, pretending to write, or acting out entire stage plays with her dolls – well, these are the times when I feel like maybe we’re not doing such a bad job as parents.

Lily started taking dance lessons this past fall, and I loved seeing her dress in tights and a leotard and dance around our kitchen in her tap shoes. After a couple of months, though, she started telling me that she didn’t want to take the classes anymore, which made me a little sad, but I pulled her out and instead signed her up for an art class that we’re about to start. (On the up-side, Lily told me she wanted out of the dance class just as a crazy-high costume deposit was due, so if nothing else, I’m thankful she told me this news when she did.)

It’s been a year of a lot of changes for Lily. After moving out of her crib to a toddler bed earlier this year – and telling me the morning after her first night in the bed, “My baby brother or sister can have the crib” – she just recently, on the cusp of the new year, made the switch to a twin bed. (One you’d recognize, actually, since it had been mine as a girl.) To encourage her to make the transition, I made what I consider a very Mom move: I put Rapunzel sheets on her Christmas list. Susan got them for her, and I got her a Rapunzel comforter, and sure enough, Lily never looked back or thought twice about the switch.

Finally, Lily’s been an absolutely fantastic big sister. Though I was worried neurotically about this, and prepared myself for the worst, Lily is crazy in love with Neve, and she constantly wants to hold her, play with her, make her smile, etc.

And the love is reciprocated. You should see them together. Lily will flit about the room, and Neve’s gaze will follow her; or Lily will repeatedly say something silly-sounding – like “Google” or “chickie” – to Neve, and this alone will make the baby giggle (despite the fact that she’s otherwise a tough nut to crack, laugh-wise – like her mom).

Neve just turned 6 months this past weekend – the same time her first tooth broke through her bottom gums. (She’s been drooling like a crazy person since she was 3 months old, so we’re surprised it’s taken this long to spot something tangible.) She’s not super cranky about the teething, but because she’s not comfortable, we’re not getting much sleep of late.

Weirdly, though, I seem to have adapted so that most of the time, I can just push through the day anyway. Some days it’s harder than others – I have recently fallen asleep repeatedly in the middle of the day while making up stories for Lily, and while singing a song for Lily – but Joe and I generally do our best to rescue each other when one of us is flagging.

Neve is now getting to the point where she can sit up while leaning forward on her hands. She started smiling in response to things at about 6 weeks, but I saw what her smile would look like on the day she was born; as she slept, all these expressions would cross over her face, and this big, Joe-like smile was one of them. I got the sense right then that she is a strangely self-possessed, “old soul” baby, and that impression has only deepened in the months since.

She looked almost exactly like Lily at first, but she’s now getting to be her own little person. (Joe’s worried, by the way, about Lily having his nose, and he fears she’ll have a miserable adolescence; but I think she’s a beautiful blend of us both, of course. Not that I’m objective.) Neve’s middle name is Rashana. Per Jewish tradition, we took the first letter of the name of a family member who’d died – namely, you – and although the name is Hindi (meaning “creation”), it sounds like it could be Jewish, doesn’t it? And I liked giving her an Irish name, too.

I’m taken aback by how much I love this baby. Truly. I know I hemmed and hawed for a good while about having a second child, but now I can’t imagine not having Neve. She is definitely our last child, by virtue of our age and other factors; but she’s so sweetly tolerant, and laid back in a roll-with-it way, that if I were younger, I just might be tempted to venture this way once more.

And I’m surprised as anyone to hear myself think that. When my friend Carol talked about “enjoying the baby stage” more with her third child, I thought she was nuts. The baby stage was primarily something to be endured, right? But I get it now. Neve’s given me the gift of drinking in this time while letting go of the self-doubt and judgment that plagues you the first time around. Then, every time the baby screams inconsolably, it feels like it’s because you, an insecure first-time parent, don’t know what you’re doing. But now that I have my bearings about me, there really is a simple beauty to the baby stage. It’s just pretty impossible to ever reach that zen place with your first child; so I’m thankful to get here now.

Early in December, for example, I was giving Neve a bath one morning and listening to the Indigo Girls’ “Holly Happy Days” album when the song “It Really Is (A Wonderful Life)” came on. I sang it to Neve as I rubbed soap onto her skin and ran a warm washcloth over her body, and as she stared up at me, I cried a couple of quick, happy tears and felt like I was experiencing one of those rare, perfect moments when you fully realize the blessings of your own life.

Here’s the Indigo Girls performing the song. It’s one of my new favorites.

Lily’s recent musical moment, meanwhile, involved her first preschool holiday concert, which you can see a clip of here:

All of her teachers, in the days leading up to the show, told me that Lily was “the loudest” (I know, shocking to hear this of Joe’s child), and that “she’ll either pass out or go hoarse before the concert comes.” She wasn’t as loud at the actual performance, but I can hardly blame her. It’s like a Hollywood premiere when the kids come in, with flashbulbs going off like crazy, and there are a LOT of people packed in a small room – so it can all be a little overwhelming to a 3 year old.

But you’d love her to death, I know, just as you would Neve.

This past summer, I took Lily out to see the moon one night before she went to bed. Out of nowhere, she said, “I’m so glad you’re here, Mommy,” and I hugged her more tightly to me. It’s like this tiny moment held an existential breakthrough for me. For what all of us want, what all of us need, is to feel like we’re here on this earth for a reason; and she – and Joe and Neve – give me that and so much more.

Now I know that in spite of your many strengths and good qualities, you also had your flaws and tough moments – I vividly remember hearing you cry through a closed door after you had to punish one of us – and this comforts me, too, on the toughest days of parenting. For I know that none of us always feel like we’re doing it right; most of what we do feels like a shot in the dark, doing the best we can under difficult circumstances.

Joe – who’s a fantastic father, you won’t be surprised to learn – was really tested by Lily last night, for example. But as we were both lying awake in bed hours later, unable to sleep, I told him: “If there’s one thing these past few years have taught me, it’s that when kids are this young, each day is a clean slate. No matter how much you or I might feel we’ve messed something up, or made a bad judgment call, Lily is going to wake up and be the same chirpy little girl she usually is, and all will be forgiven. We get chance after chance after chance to do better, and there’s grace in that.”

So while I pause on this anniversary to remember you, and provide a kind of ethereal update, I’ll end with a link to the song that you sang with Dad and Joe’s parents – the only time all four of Lily’s grandparents were gathered together – while having lunch in our dining room days after Lily was born. (“Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo.”) Joe and I had never heard the song, but from that point on, we learned it so that we could serenade Lily with it ourselves. Each time I sing it, I think of that moment, and it makes me so thankful that we all got to be together in that way at least once.

Thanks for this memory, and for the billion invisible things that I now know that mothers do every day. We miss you.


p.s. Lily asks about you often lately, and I’m clear-eyed and straightforward in answering her questions (which makes me think you’d approve). This line of inquiry began in earnest when I was pregnant, and Lily was doing figuring out precisely who had once been in whose tummy. I’ve shown her quilts you’ve made, photos of you, and pictures of you playing with her as a baby. “She got sick,” Lily tells me now when you come up in conversation. “That’s true,” I tell her. “But she sure loved you like crazy, kiddo.”

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