My Daughter, My Self

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Closer Than You Know

"Don't ever do that," I snap, much too quickly, when Lila berates herself for getting "only a B" in math. I was a far worse perfectionist in school, despite my supportive, non-pushy parents. And Lila's self-flagellation in sixth grade gives me the willies. Often, after my ill-advised outbursts, I count the reassuring ways Lila is not me. I was no competitor; she's on the swim team and runs cross-country. I hated anything scary; she rides the tallest, most looping, most upside-down roller coasters -- arms raised, in the front seat. I tootled on the clarinet, briefly and indifferently; Lila declared a passion for the cello, a handsome if unwieldy tub that needs its own humidifier and a chauffeur (me).

I realized one recent afternoon that Lila's cello, and its lovely voice, is her first mature, reasoned declaration of self. Arriving early to pick her up from a lesson, I peered through the small window in the classroom door and saw a stranger in my daughter's clothing. This girl was buoyant, confident, gesturing with the bow, balancing the cello on her strong swimmer's thighs, reading music I cannot parse. She and her teacher were laughing hard at some shared joke. Then they began a duet: slow, dignified, sad and sweet. I can't imagine my face was ever that beautifully absorbed. There I was in a hallway again, crying over my girl. The teacher -- a wry, wise woman -- underscored my little "aha!" moment when she told Mark: "She's not like the rest of the kids. Lila sees things . . . differently. She always will."

This is exactly what I was afraid of for her -- until I saw how whole and fulfilled it made her in that room. I was the odd-duck child in my family, too -- the questioner, the wanderer who loved them all yet couldn't wait to get away. As my father lay dying, he asked me in a gentle, wondering way, "Where did you come from?" These were the very same words that formed in my head as I watched Lila in the music room that day. It's the true miracle of parenthood when you realize you've hatched a human with your eyes and the shadow of your smile -- all secondary to her stubborn, singular, tamper-resistant self.

At bottom, Lila and I recognize our shared outsiders' stance too well. At the worst of our battles, we eye one another like two she-wolves circling on the tundra. Growing up as a suburban loner was hard for me; I suppose, in cuffing my obstreperous cub, I'm trying to make her stronger for the journey. And when she nips back -- as I did with my patient mother -- it's because she's rightfully scared.

Oddly, some of my most tranquil moments come from fending off the wild things that sometimes visit Lila in nightmares. I've always been the first to hear her cry in the night. Climbing into bed next to her, inhaling the scent of shampoo and pool chlorine, I feel her tension ease at once. I whisper the ancient balm: "Mommy's here." I'll confess, I'm greedy for these moments when she still needs me and no one else will do. Holding a trembling little girl affords you one of those portholes when you see part present, part past. From Lila's bed, I see my 11-year-old self awakened, terrified, by a thunderstorm. I hear my mother shutting windows in the house, her footsteps headed to my bed, constant as a ship guided by the North Star. Mommy's here.

From those moments of perfect comfort, I know there is just one way I hope my daughter becomes me, someday. I hope she gets to drape herself around a little son or daughter on a howling night. I hope she knows a love so fierce it's painful, so eternal it's a woman's lasting peace.


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