If only I had known. I would have looked at her longer that last time. I would have drunk in every detail of her blue eyes and peachy skin. I would have paid attention to how she smelled. I would have felt her downy cheek one more time, or held her hand in mine. But I didn’t know. And now she is gone. Lost. Disappeared. And I will never lay eyes on my baby girl again. As this realization hits me I run into the other room, desperately seeking photos, a note, anything to keep her present and with me. I sink to the kitchen floor and the most unfamiliar scream is ripped from me and the sobs overtake my soul.
Suddenly, I wake up. Sweaty and panting. In the fog between dreaming and wakefulness, I crawl out of my bed and stumble across the hall to the room where my 15-year old daughter, Savannah, lay sleeping. I love to watch her sleeping—now almost as much as I did when she was a baby. Sleep is where the child part of her still reigns supreme. Flailed out across her bed, eyes closed, mouth hanging open or pursed in a pout, she is still a little girl. All the adult mannerisms and attitudes, all the knowledge she is gaining that looks out from her eyes—these don’t exist in sleep. In sleep she could still be a chubby toddler, tow-headed, tired from the day’s adventures, not a worry in her world.
Yesterday, as I drank a glass of wine and watched my best friend Terri paint baseboards for her newly-remodeled kitchen, we discussed the changes entering my life via my growing daughter. She just started her first job, working in the gift shop at the zoo. She loves it. She has always wanted to be part of the working world. As a little girl, she would play that she was a career woman. She asked for clothes that were small imitations of the professional costume I wore to work everyday. She once got a box of office supplies for Christmas and it was her favorite gift that year. Because she is at the bottom of the totem pole at her new job, Savannah is required to work pretty much every weekend and every holiday. That means that this coming Easter Sunday she will be at the zoo’s gift shop from 11am until closing, instead of celebrating the day with family and friends. We were going to go to Idaho for the weekend to visit grandparents, but I didn’t want to go without her or leave her alone on a holiday to toil away while we enjoy ham and candy and Easter egg hunts without her. And Easter is just the beginning.
The summers have typically been a time of bountiful travel for Savannah and her younger sister, Gabi. They usually spend the summer visiting dads, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins while I work. This arrangement has offered them the chance to make great memories with their extended family and has saved me who knows how much money in childcare. However, this summer, we don’t even know if Savannah will be able to make it to our family vacation on the Oregon Coast. Not to mention the visit to my dad’s in northern Idaho. I don’t like this new reality where Savannah may or may not be present where she has always been present before.
“That’s just life,” Terri offers, “and it’s only going to get worse.”
Terri is the queen of saying just the thing to really make you freak out. I shared my dream with her and it was easy for both of us to make the connection to our previous conversation. I am surprised at the reaction of raw, naked grief I felt in my dream. And as Terri and I continue to talk, it occurs to me that Savannah has been the one consistent thing in my entire adult life. Terri says that she has thought about how it will be when her two young boys are grown up and out of the house. What it will be like to be alone with her husband again—able to go to the movies or have sex on the spur of the moment without worrying about the kids. But she had Jeff before she had her kids, and she will have him after. I had Savannah when I was 20, and she has been my constant since then. When she is gone, it will be me and Gabi for three years, and then it will just be me. I have always joked about how I will live my 20’s in my 40’s because I was being a parent in those years, but as I stand on the precipice of that reality, my chest tightens and I feel like I may suffocate.
Today I find myself looking at my daughter a little more closely, lingering over her features, her facial expressions, the way she fixed her hair. I notice the color and texture of her skin and the sound of her voice. I reach out and touch her cheek, her hand. And then she breaks the spell, crashing me back into the reality of life with a teenager, “Mom, you don’t have to touch me. Stop staring at me. You’re creepy.”