Her cheeks are the kind that strange women in grocery stores want to reach out and squeeze, an unwelcome gesture that ranks just behind having dirt rubbed off your face with a saliva-soaked tissue your mother fished out of the depths of her purse. Long eyelashes fan the top of her sunburnt cheeks and her hair is a disheveled mass of honey-brown waves. She smells like peanut butter, strawberries, sunblock and dirty feet, her fingertips stained with marker and paint.
She is perfect.
From the very start my daughter made it clear that she would enter, enjoy and exist in this world on her terms and her terms only. Her fiery independence defines her as much as the sensitive soul it protects, a contrast that we loved as much as it exhausted us. She has his quick laughter and my tempestuous will, his passion for the unexpected and the new and my drive for perfection. She lives deeply in every moment, cascading waves of joy, anger, contentment, love and fear crashing into each other.
My son buried his pain beneath a mantle of responsibility that no child should feel compelled to bear, a silent grief I could not erase. But my daughter’s loss was an open wound, a devastation that bled onto us and consumed us with its anger and its sorrow.
Too exhausted to soothe her pain and blinded by my own I wrapped my arms around her in the dark until uneven sleep claimed us both, arms that gathered her close as she ran screaming into my room in the dead of night. When morning came her tiny hand rested on my cheek and I stared into his laughing eyes framed in my lashes.
She has learned that life can be cruel, and that cruelty can be overcome. In her words I hear my voice, and in her defiance I see mine. Still so small and yet wise beyond her years, in her I see a woman stronger than we dared dream she would be.
But watching her nestled deep in a cocoon of toys, blankets and stuffed animals, I simply dream that she doesn’t need to be so strong.