Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Traveling Light

“From the first opening of our eyes, it is the light that attracts us. We clutch aimlessly with our baby fingers at the gossamer-motes in the sunbeam, and we die reaching out after an ineffable blending of earthly and heavenly beauty which we shall never fully comprehend.” ~ Lucy Larcom

Sometimes a photograph captures in my daughter Geneva's face the way in which she straddles two worlds. Here I see a beautiful, young woman—almost 16!—who surprises me almost every day with her maturity and sophistication. These days her resonant voice cheerily announces her arrival home from high school and sleepovers. We share the same clothes and shoe size, and soon she and I will stand eye to eye.

I can also still see the little girl who couldn't say her R's or tie her shoes. I remember her delight at receiving a doll stroller for her fourth birthday; she promptly filled it with Legos and took them for long walks around the neighborhood. I still see her big, blue preschooler eyes filled with fear over the songs sung at circle time: "Mommy, why do the baby ducks always swim AWAY from the mother duck?" I think about her first day of kindergarten and what she proudly declared with a huge smile and all the confidence in the world: "Now I am a real Fairfield student!" She hardly looked back that morning, even as I left hiding my tears. How proud I felt of my big girl who didn't need me as she transitioned to school. How I wanted to hold onto her forever.

Looking back, I feel like we sailed through her childhood together. With the exception of her first three months (of newborn screaming), Geneva has been a dream to raise. Her English professor daddy and I delighted in her voracious and early reading. Present while our girl earned a 2nd degree black belt in tae kwon do, I loved watching her graceful and powerful kicks, seeing the look of empowerment on her face as she broke boards in class, and knowing that my girl was fierce! Geneva thrived in early childhood. While she has handled more than her fair share of challenges, along the way, she has learned invaluable lessons that taught her empathy and offered her the gift of perspective.

And so I na├»vely imagined that my girl and I would enter her adolescence together with the same comfort and close communication that we had enjoyed throughout her early childhood. She had a strong relationship with her supportive momma, and she was such a kind and wonderful kid – what could possibly go wrong? Then she turned 14, and everything changed. She grew an inch a month until she caught up with or passed her friends. Her beautiful face exploded with acne. Her tone changed to one of perpetual irritation with her parents. She became sad. Frighteningly sad. And I felt terrified. Until then, I had always known how to help her. Suddenly, I didn't know what to do. At the height of Geneva's struggles, a friend who has known her since she was in my belly said, "Geneva has always been the most sensitive girl in her peer group. It's really no surprise that adolescence is kicking her ass."

Somehow this insight gave me solace, and I recalled her words whenever I looked for the necessary strength to survive a given day. No one sails through adolescence: neither Geneva nor I should have expected that my intense, deep-thinking, deep-feeling girl would enjoy a smooth ride. Distressed by the conflicts of each passing week, I recalled Geneva's infancy: my girl was not a happy newborn. Neither of us enjoyed that life-stage. I had to remember that each of us endures such developmental struggles, and that we persevere. As Winston Churchill once said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

In the interest of protecting my daughter's privacy, I won't elaborate on the horror that gripped her 8th and 9th grade years (yes, "horror" seems the right word). Our strong relationship carried us through, as did finding the right guidance and support. And through it all, we never lost our connection. Even as we struggled to communicate, disagreeing on just about anything, Geneva still wanted Mommy to tuck her in bed each night.

A few months ago, I began seeing signs of Geneva's reemergence from the darkness. Her smiles returned, and then grew bigger, and her eyes sparkled again. As politeness replaced her sullen impatience, I remembered the way she had suddenly stopped screaming at three months of age, thus allowing both of us to relax and enjoy our time together. As her clear skin returned, I thought of her newborn acne clearing, and how pleased I was once again to see her beautiful face. As with her difficult months in infancy, the awful early teen years were only a phase. While I knew intellectually that she would eventually emerge from the other side, I hadn't truly believed it. My faith shaken, I had entered that dark period with her, when neither she nor I could see any light. Now, we both have emerged, and in this photo, I see the light. It's in her eyes.