My daughter wakes up with a cry, never getting out of bed but always waiting for me to come in, ease her into the day. Some days she wakes up elated, already anticipating the excitement of the day, whether that’s a dress-down day at school or the start of a new session of ballet lessons. Today, she is flummoxed by the idea that tomorrow has arrived; her half-birthday, the day she turns five and a half, is supposed to be tomorrow, Mommy, today is the day we see Grandpa. She didn’t realize that both of those things were going to happen on the same day.
It is the end of the holiday season; we have just the weekend before school starts up again. It has been a month of gatherings with family, with friends. Magical on the one hand, for my daughter, and stressful on the other, for my husband, who struggles with anxiety. I feel like the fulcrum, trying to balance it all for everyone. I have had to gather my patience, my energy, my strength, to get through this season. Some days, it felt like a storm was brewing and I had to rely on my inner Mary Poppins to carry us up and over the storm clouds, sidestepping the potential landmines of family discord, hurtful memories, and too much sugar. I suppose I could be bitter, and there was a small moment when I almost gave into that.
I was walking the dog and I caught myself about to enumerate a list of all the things I’ve lost or had to give up, but it was a cold, clear night and Christmas lights were twinkling up and down the neighbourhood, along with those inflatable characters my daughter loves so much, and so instead I flipped the script and decided to list all of the things I have gained. Life is not always easy or even smooth sailing, but if you slow down and look around, one eye closed against the distractions and noise, you can find those little moments, those small things that make life so good.
I don’t know if it is because I have just one child, or if every parent feels this as keenly, no matter how many children they have, but I am acutely aware of the fleetingness of time. How short a period of time I have when she will hold my hand, when she will want me to read her bedtime stories. I don’t begrudge her the hours of playing together, even when I am tired or in the middle of a great book, because I know that the day will come when she won’t ask for me to enter into her world of pretend, when I am more likely to face a closed door, when I will be the one clamouring for her to come and play with me.
I remember when she was a baby, waking up in the night. She was about eight or nine months old and after feeding her, just before putting her back in the crib, I held on, letting her snuggle in. I was exhausted and could have just crawled back to bed but I had this sense that these middle-of-the-night bottles were going to end soon, and while it would be lovely to sleep through the night again, I wanted to hold on to this moment just awhile longer, feel her weight in my arms, and breathe in that milky, sleepy baby.
That memory is just one of many, of course, each one a brightly coloured bead on one of those homemade necklaces she makes with small, wooden beads on string, her little tongue sticking out to the side with concentration.
I write down the funny things she says, and take the time to recount those perfect moments, the ones that are ordinary but special in their own way, the days I want to remember when her small hand is in mine as we walk to the playground, when we play a particularly whimsical round of Would You Rather on the drive to school, when we invent a new litany of endearments to say at bedtime, the I love you deeper than the ocean, I love you wider than outer space, I love you stickier than bubble gum kind of sweet nothings, building on each other’s ideas until bedtime has gone on way longer than planned, but our hearts are so full it doesn’t really matter. I collect these moments and words all over the place; some are in the notes on my phone, others recorded in a journal, and others still in a long, rambling document on my computer that I add to whenever I need a break from my fiction.
Not too long ago, we decided to stop at one child. This was not what I imagined, or hoped for, but no matter the dreams I had for a bigger family, for my daughter to have a sibling, for one more little one to watch grow, it was not to be. Sometimes, being the grown up means letting go of what I want in favour of what our family needs, and even though this decision hurt deep in my heart, it was one that had to be made. I am working on being grateful for what I do have, even while the awareness of what I don’t have lingers in the background, and it is my fervent hope that with time and perhaps a great deal of effort, I will stop seeing the shadows or ghosts of what I don’t have, or what’s missing, and the things I do have will step further into the light, casting their own shadows.
Most days, I find I can take this all in stride, and see the positive aspects of having just one, for there are many. And on other days I struggle, and it can feel like a wave of sadness and grief is going to knock me over. It is on those days that I find myself gathering that list of small moments, like collecting stones for skipping, lining my pockets with them so when days come where the tidal wave of grief threatens to overwhelm me, I can hold onto those stones like ballast, holding fast to the present instead of getting pulled under to the past. For the present is very good.
In the here and now, I have an affectionate, imaginative, smart little girl who more than hangs the moon in the sky – she puts the stars and the sun up there, too. She is my early morning, read-me-a-story, secret chocolate, let’s pretend girl, the one who wants me to show her with my arms just how proud I am of her, or how much I love her. We are a family of three, a triangle family, and as my third grade students are learning right now, a triangle is the strongest shape.
Together, the three of us dance in the kitchen, “all around the kitchen, cock-a-doodle-doodle-doo.” We are regulars at the zoo, visiting the otters, the wombat and the tigers, ending each visit with a ride on the carousel. We have meandering mornings at the museum, checking in on the mummy, digging for dinosaur bones, and tricking each other into opening the drawer that holds the black snake. On half birthdays, we have half a cake and half a song, ending abruptly with “…happy birthday to you, happy birth– ” and staging re-enactments of her hilarious three and a half birthday photo, no matter if you’re four and a half or forty-two and a half. There are thousands of small moments worth remembering, writing down, holding onto, and it’s those moments that make this life so wonderful.
Perhaps one way through a period of heartache is by gathering those moments, using them not as stones for skipping, but rather as stepping stones across a creek. On their own, they are just a spot for one foot, but together, they can lead you home.
Stephanie Burke received a B.A. in English Literature from McMaster University, a B.Ed. from the University of Toronto, and later completed a post-graduate program in Creative Writing through Humber College. She lives in Toronto with her husband and five year old daughter, Nora, where she works as an elementary school teacher. She can be found writing early in the morning, playing pretend in the afternoon, and reading whenever she can find a chance.