Saturday, April 11, 2015

To My Daughter at Graduation


For Kelsey

There you are
Finally, yet all too soon
Stepping to the edge

Life has always been on your terms, even before you were born, even before you were a tiny ball of multiplying cells. You were not easy to conceive, daughter. I wanted you, prayed for you and tried for you to the point that your father once asked if he could watch television while we worked to create you (it was March Madness in Kentucky, so that is excused). Every month, when the irrefutable proof of your non-existence arrived, I wept at the unfairness and cried to my mother that my womb was a frozen tundra. I stood on my head for you. I saw doctors for you. I peed on sticks for you. The yearning for you became impossible to separate from the wiring of me. I was no longer me. I was me without you. Every errand became painful. The mothers in stores unsettled me, especially the ones who yelled at their children. I would be a better mother, so why was I denied you? One April, after a year of effort and unanswered prayers, I stopped by the drug store for yet another pregnancy test. The cashier grinned as she bagged the pink box and said, "Good luck, hon'!" I smiled awkwardly at her intrusion. At home, I dropped my pants dejectedly, anticipating the lack of you. But a few moments later, I held the test in my hands and watched -- amazed, shocked, elated, terrified, grateful -- as you emerged in the tiny plastic window. A plus sign. There you are.

Here I am
Proudly, reluctantly
Watching you perch on the cusp of your life

The December night you were born, you fought the body birthing you. A larger baby than anticipated, you took root in my narrow pelvis and would not budge. I pushed-pushed-pushed-pushed, again and again, pushed-pushed-pushed-pushed. You would not come forth, my diva, as if waiting to arrive at the party fashionably late. After hours of grunting, without benefit of the epidural that had been ordered off once you stalled, I understood the word "labor" on a visceral level. Lamaze breathing long abandoned, I was bearing down, panting, more animal than woman. I could feel the pressure of you, the mass of you, the whole life of you, pressing against me, resisting your entry into the world. The obstetrician, who had abandoned a Saturday of hanging Christmas lights to deliver you, asked if I had more pushes in me. Exhausted, I did not. I fell back against the bed, too drained to be ashamed, as a nurse and my sister pulled my knees back to my ears. The physician reached into me and affixed a suction cup to your head. I remember the rubbery feel of it, the baby blue cord attached to the cup, extending from you like a leash. He began to pull you forth, the muscles in his arms straining and pulsing, the insides of me, ripping and tearing. Still, you balked. As your head emerged, your shoulders lodged and locked against my bones. I never realized the danger you were in as the doctor reached inside me, adjusted your shoulders and turned you, corkscrewing you out of me. At last, you slipped from me in a gush of warmth. I was suddenly depleted, sore, empty. I felt hollow without you, my belly an unfamiliar mound of squishy flesh. They held you to me, and I tried to put you to my breast, but I was too tired for bonding, and you were too mad for suckling. You looked up at me, red and angry -- your face and head mottled with the battle scars of a birth so intense that it temporarily molded your fragile skull into a cone. My first words whispered to you were, "I'm sorry." How could I be a mother? Why was everyone oblivious to my fear, entrusting this squirming, stubborn life to me? Here I am.

There you are
Eagerly, excitedly
Scanning the horizon

When you were three, you yanked your foot away from me as I attempted to tie your shoe. With steely determination in your impossibly large brown eyes, you said, "I can do it." You slipped off your canvas sneakers, stomped to your room and slammed the door. Your dad and I winced, hearing your groans of frustration. I cautiously peeked into your room and told you that you didn't have to learn to tie your shoes that very day. What was the hurry? You were only three, and most toddlers weren't tying their own shoes. Glowering, you demanded I leave your room. Thirty minutes later, your door opened, and a single, untied shoe flew from your room, slamming into the wall. "Enough's enough," I said, "Honey, it's fine. Let me help you." A pint-sized pit bull, you paused in your doorway for only a second before pulling your shoulders back, marching out into the hall and retrieving your shoe. Your door slammed again. An hour later, you emerged and handed me a perfectly tied sneaker, the look on your plump, toddler face one of triumph, victory, defiance. There you are.

Here I am
Fearfully, nervously
Scanning your horizon

No matter the venue, you could never resist an empty stage: the bookstore platforms for storytelling, the mall stages, the amphitheatres for community festivals. If unoccupied, they were all yours for the taking. Walking to center stage, you would survey your audience. Perhaps you were taking stock of us, perhaps taking stock of yourself.  "Watch out," my mother said, laughing, as her two-year-old granddaughter danced for random admirers on an otherwise empty stage, "This one lives for the limelight." You always have. The spotlight calls to you, a beacon guiding you home. In first grade, you signed up for your school talent show. Would you sing? I asked. Dance? No. You said you were working on a stand-up comedy routine. I desperately tried to talk you out of it. The talent show was well-attended, drawing large numbers of proud parents, grandparents and siblings. What were the odds of a seven-year-old mastering comedic timing? What if you froze and couldn't remember your material? What if no one laughed at your jokes? What if you bombed? But you insisted. Trying to save you from embarrassment (or was it me, I was hoping to save?), I asked to hear your routine, expecting a tiring string of knock-knock jokes. I explained that good comedy must be drawn from real life,  an art form a child would struggle to master. You contemplated this for all of two minutes, then disappeared to write your act.  I was so nervous the night of the talent show that my hands shook violently, ruining the video I hoped to capture. Most of the little girls sang Carrie Underwood's popular "Jesus Take the Wheel" or songs from Bible school. I groaned. The last to perform, you took the microphone like a tiny Tina Fey and said, "I need everyone to look under there." The audience murmured, and you paused exactly the right amount of time before deadpanning, "I just made you say underwear." The crowd roared. You then segued with, "Speaking of underwear," and continued to tell slightly inappropriate jokes about your little brother, your football coach father, your dog Freddie. You also brought home a giant, shiny trophy, the first of several you would earn for your believability on stage in the years to come, as you starred in various school and community plays. I set that first trophy on your bookcase, ashamed at myself for doubting you. Since then, I have tried so hard not to be a stage mother,  or manage you. But do I sit too far back in the audience? Do you know I am always there, mouthing your lines from a distance, basking in your light, even if I'm in the last row? Oh, how you shine. Here I am.

There you are
Hesitantly, carefully
Testing your wings

Do you remember how we would take bike rides to your "special place", and you would collect rocks from the end of the cul-de-sac to put in your jean pocket? Or do you recall those bright pink sneakers, the ones you couldn't take your eyes off of when you walked, so I constantly feared you'd bump into something? Or what about the day you made the paper crown, carefully gluing straws around its perimeter? I have all of those things still: the jean shorts, the pink sneakers, the crown, the magical rocks from the special place. They are in a blue plastic box in the top of the closet, with trophies, ribbons and school awards. Recently, you cleaned out your winter clothes and set aside the cream and gray striped cardigan you wore so often throughout high school. Now stretched and faded, with torn pockets, the sweater was discarded in the Goodwill pile. I could not bear it, and I carried that sweater to the dining room table, littered with your academic and drama scholarship offers, your college acceptance letters. I held the sweater close to me for a while, and I allowed myself to cry. Some were tears of pride. I knew all along that your strong will, as aggravating as it could be for me, would serve you well. But I also cried because, like the night of your birth, my gut suddenly felt hollow and unfamiliar. Where have you gone? Then I dried my eyes and put your sweater in the blue plastic box, tucked among the other pieces of you. There you are.

Here I am
Painfully, achingly
Resisting the urge to pull you back

Have I prepared you enough? Taught you enough? Praised you enough? Humbled you enough? Disciplined you enough? Loved you enough? Liked you enough? Scared you enough? Reassured you enough? Asked you enough? Answered you enough? Nurtured you enough? Pushed you enough? Embraced you enough? Been enough? These questions wake me at 3 a.m. nightly. I lie in tangled sheets, rewinding my life, fast-forwarding yours. I peer in vain through the murky future, trying to catch a glimpse of grown-up, on-your-own you. Are you okay? Are you happy? How was the Play-Doh of you molded and shaped by my hands? God, I made so many mistakes along the way. I grimace as I recall the awful day when you were five, when your baby brother was crying, and I needed diapers, but you refused to go into the grocery, throwing a terrible tantrum because you were scared of the Halloween displays. I was exhausted. I needed to nurse your brother, and my breasts were full and sore. I just wanted to go home, but I couldn't do so without diapers, and it was the only grocery in our small town. The more you cried, and the baby cried, the angrier I became, finally turning to face squalling, scared you. I didn't care that you were scared of Halloween. I didn't care that you were crying. I didn't care that you were my flesh and blood, who I would die to save if needed. All I cared about in that moment was getting what I needed. "I don't like you!" I snapped. You froze. In that moment, we changed. I hang my head even to write these words. Hadn't I begged God for you? And promised Him that I would never be that kind of mother? Oh, child, I do like you. I like you so very much. I have always been afraid to ask if you remember that day, or what I said. Maybe that moment motivated you. Maybe that is why you are such an overachiever. Maybe that is why you strive for perfection, or why you still squirm away from those parting hugs I always insist on giving you. Perhaps this explains your fierce independence. It's possible you have forgotten that day, but I have not. I will always remember it, just as I will never forget the early spring day when your father and I told you and your little brother that we were getting a divorce. I won't share what you said, for that is your story, but I carry the weight of your words like an anchor every single day. It holds me to the earth until my soul takes root in deep, dark recesses, for that is the price of change. Dearest beautiful girl, I am sorry for the wrongs I could not make right. I am sorry for all the times I hurt you, when I chose roads that were harder for your young, tender feet to navigate. Another parent once said to me, "Children are like pancakes. You're probably not going to get parenting right with the first one, but you'll get better at it."I did the best I could, learning along the way. Your brother, as unfair as it is, benefits from the mistakes I made with you. I'm not a bad mother. You're a successful, confident young woman. But are you happy? Are you aware that your life is still precious, even if it is not perfect? I don't need a perfect daughter. Instead, I want a daughter who is pleased with her life, even if it is messy at times. A daughter who looks back and says, "Hey, that wasn't so bad, after all." I hope happiness follows every hurdle. But I'm not finished yet, daughter. Here I am.

There you are
Courageously, boldly
On the verge of flight

There is something truly special about you. I suppose most parents feel that way, that their children are remarkable. But in case you don't know, I think you are ridiculously smart, strong, brave, talented, beautiful and funny (the only way I know for sure you aren't a robot is because your room is atrocious. Seriously. It's gross. God bless your future roommates). As a student, you are rarely challenged, equally accomplished in math, science, English and the arts. Adventurous, you take cross-country trips by yourself to pursue your dreams, with nary a glance back. Your wit matches any comedian's, and your work ethic is extraordinary. And on stage? You glow. As your Mimi said, "Let us pray she always uses her powers for good." Amen. When you started school, I asked you to be a leader, not a follower. I cautioned you to never take your gifts or education for granted, reminding you how fortunate you are to have such opportunities. Thankfully, you put my words in action. You are your own person, one who does not compromise who she is to please others, but who is enviably at home in her own skin. High school was easy for you academically, but I fear it was hard for you socially, the rare bird that you are -- the one who is not afraid to sing her own song, to stand up for what she believes, to express her opinions, popularity be damned. But I must tell you something before you leave me, something important. You are strong-willed, but weakness has a place in this world, too. It is okay to feel weak and afraid sometimes. It makes you human. Temper your strength and toughness with kindness and faith. Kindness can take many forms, large and small, but others need it desperately, in whatever form you can muster. Extend your hand and your heart to others, trusting that kindness rolls out, like rivers to the ocean. Lower your shields, and realize the chinks in your armor, miraculously, make you stronger. And don't be afraid, dear one, to have faith in a love and creator that is bigger than you. You are the smartest person I know, so it is difficult for you to compute faith, I think. You try to rationalize it, but faith is not cerebral. Organized religion is hard for you because your heart judges none, and I admire that about you. But faith is as beautiful and as simple as the sun on your face, darling. It is the translucent rope above your head, offering solace and peace, and an escape from the murky depths of our human failings. Faith will be there, even when you are sure it has forgotten you. It carries the nourishment you'll need when the journey seems endless, a crumpled knapsack that holds your dreams and all of our love. Look out there, child. See the sky waiting for you, so vast, so limitless? You lift your arms to it, while I reach out to you, knowing my arms are the ones that must push you when you need it, but hoping they also are the arms to catch you if you fall. Like most mothers, I raised you for this moment, knowing you will visit home but never really be home again. I remind myself of Kahlil Gibran's On Children: "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you." You were never mine. Not really. But when the world is inevitably unkind to you, as it is for all who walk upon it, I will reach for the blue plastic box and tell you of its treasures. I will remind you that you are the girl who rode her bike to her special place, who wore paper crowns, who ruled her elementary school talent shows, who starred in plays and who worked her ass off to be accepted to the best schools. Most importantly, you are the girl who threw her untied shoe into the hall but stomped back to retrieve it, to try again and again to get it right. The world? Oh, honey, it's just another untied shoe. March out and get it.

Here I am...


There you go.

By Jennifer Jenkins McAnulty 2015


  1. You have your Mother's gift for storytelling.

  2. wow, Jennifer. so beautifully written. I cried and laughed and then cried again. You are truly a gifted writer and a wonderful mother. Thanks for sharing this with the world.