She weighs a hundred pounds shivering wet but calls her biceps Lightning and Thunder. Some days she dresses like a ninja, but in hot pink. Some days I find her so high in the tree in the back yard I can feel where my breath begins and ends, somewhere near the point blood enters and leaves the heart, where the ribcage flutters like the pages of the books she reads while lounging high in the tree, as if this is normal, as if anything our children do is normal.
She tie-dies her underwear. She wears a shirt with someone else’s name on it. She re-upholstered our couch one rainy weekend and now it looks like a dairy cow. When I asked her why, she said she wasn’t sure but it seemed like a good idea at the time.
She once told me the War of 1812 started because the British were bamboozling America’s trade, so America had to kung fu karate chop them. She once told me George Orwell’s real name was Freddy Krueger. I once asked her why she had on two different-colored socks and she replied that she couldn’t find the matching one. When I asked her why she didn’t simply wear a different pair, she explained that she liked the first sock.
She is fourteen, her chest thin and frail as a bird’s. Or a kitten, like the one we saw outside the restaurant and she begged to take home. It was in a sorry state—eyes wild as olives, fur matted like my hair in the morning after I fall asleep on the couch. I thought of distemper and rabies and fleas. She thought of clipping out the matted fur, of small bowls of milk on Saturday mornings.
When I found her tie-dieing her underwear—and socks, and white t-shirts, and one of her first bras, which had the power to make me fear the future and the back seats of cars and frathouses years down the road in some city I’ve never seen—I asked her why I felt like this was going to cause me trouble. Note that I only meant the mess she might make on the kitchen table, not the fear the cotton and elastic and small hooks stirred in me, but her answer might have been for either thing when she told me that perhaps I needed to do some deep reflecting to find out.
What I reflect on here is her. The mind so like my own, the way the wheels turn when she is thinking, when she stares out the window on October afternoons with the sky so blue it hurts to look at it. Like her eyes. The brown hair. The thin bones that frame her face.
She is the younger of my two daughters. The older one, the first one, we chronicled with pictures and videos, with postcards and finger-paintings from pre-school. She is the one who tells me, when I say her mother’s foot is dirty, to be nice, because I am married to that foot. She is the one who begins sentences with actually, or listen here, or long dramatic sighs at what she considers my foolishness. She is the one who remembers birthdays and anniversaries, who steals my wife’s cell phone and puts hearts and kissy face emojis beside my contact info, who texts me before going to bed when she spends the night with a friend, who sometimes texts me from upstairs to say good night because she doesn’t want to walk downstairs.
But not long ago my younger daughter was going through old albums and asked why there weren’t any pictures of her. By the time she was born we had gone digital, and most of our pictures of her are stored on the computer, but I have a suspicion we took fewer pictures of our second child, and while she rarely notices the absences in her life, she seemed to take
notice of this.
These, then, are excerpts from her life. For those of you who have children, who have made the choice to let your breath walk around outside your body.
During breakfast my wife asks: “What’s wrong with the potatoes?”
Daughter the Younger answers: “They’re not bacon.”
This was last winter, when snow caused the cancellation of school and we stayed home and stood in the kitchen listening to the gas stove tick, our hands held out for warmth, all of us crushed together for the heat of the open oven. I put my arm around my daughters and felt the bones of their shoulders like the hollow wings of birds. Outside it was still snowing. There were downed limbs all over the world and later chainsaws would echo up and down the street. Even looking outside made us cold, so we huddled together for warmth, for the heat of each other’s hearts.
We take photos now of everything: our food, our friends, the door of the hotel we stayed in on our way through Tennessee to visit your folks. We take pictures of our new haircuts and our new houses and the spider hanging in the hall closet. We measure out our lives not in coffee spoons but in close-ups, faces reflected in bathroom mirrors early in the morning or late at night, as if we might forget what we look like if not constantly reminded, as if we change so often we have to keep track.
Consider these pictures as well, then. Slightly blurry, out of frame. That’s my thumb there in the corner. That’s my voice telling you to smile. In the frame is my blood, my breath. You’ll have to provide your own caption beneath.
Me: Why are you spinning?
Daughter the Younger: Why aren’t you?
The obvious comparison here is to spin. Me, trying to slow the world, while she wants to speed it up, to become lost, like that game we played as children, dizzying ourselves and trying to walk while everything twists and turns around us, trying to find the righted world. As we grow older we wish for stability. A slowing of movement. A turning back. Watching her spin I feel like I am only trying to find my footing.
But spinning also brings us back to the beginning. To the point the breath begins to draw and the blood begins to burn. Our bodies are made of liquid. We roil within because we are all formed from fluid. To spin is to stir and eventually separate but before that, in each revolution, is a moment of clarity. Here. And here. And here, when we come back to the point where we began. Spinning holds the center in place.
A picture has parameters. It has edges, no matter how far out you pull the focus, how panoramic the view. It has geography: that house, that back yard, that state. That time. When you were pregnant. After she was born but before she was born. You can arrange them in rows, force some semblance of order on them, accord them a position in time, a place.
Not so, memory. Or not always, anyway.
Her: I’m going to have some old lady grapes.
Me: Old lady grapes?
Her, as she holds up a box of raisins: Raisins are just old lady grapes.
This excerpt goes with the one before, like a magazine article with the same caption for a series of pictures. The feeling of young and old, of years skipping past until you are as wrinkled as a raisin. But that’s not really it, either. It’s that the years you want to remember are skipping past and you cannot catch up to them.
It’s not that we didn’t take any pictures of her. But there seem to be very few of her first years. I am sure they are simply lost somewhere between Arkansas and North Carolina, where we moved when she was a year old. She was teething. A 16 hour drive that became a 22 hour drive over three days. There’s a picture there as well, one of us pulled over to the side of the interstate to walk a screaming child until she calms while the wind of passing semis rocks the car and the mile markers gleam in the fading sunlight.
We might find them in the hotel room near Fordyce, Arkansas, the one with all the mosquitos, billions of them, so thick they formed a screen in the halo of streetlight in the parking lot where the smell of diesel fuel hung over the stretching rice fields and oil rainbowed in the puddles. Or just outside Knoxville, Tennessee, near where the first hills began to claw their way skyward into the Appalachians and we left our older daughter’s doll and she cried most of the way into North Carolina. We do have pictures of our apartment, the one the older daughter skinned her knees running to see, to be the first to enter, while the rest of us hung back, wary of new thresholds. I picked the gravel from her knees while my wife cupped our younger daughter’s head, then put her down to crawl on the floor of this new place.
There’s a picture there as well, though of course she remembers none of it. When we recount the screaming, the walks along the side of the Interstate, the 22 hour drive, she says “That must have been hard for you” and pats my back as if to comfort me.
I wonder what pictures are comfort, and which confusion. How often we frame ourselves in the best light: a smile, a pose, a peace sign. What is hidden, what stories lie outside the edges.
Me: You’re small.
Her: I am a ball of fury, and you better be careful.
I wanted her to take karate to learn to defend herself, but what I got were jabs thrown at my head and roundhouses veering toward my groin when I walked past where she was hiding in the hallway. I got jointlock and hip-toss attempts, headlocks, armbars, leg sweeps.
For months I sat on a wooden bench in the dojo in front of a room-length mirror while she punched at men three times her size. She earned her first belt. She said “Yessir” and “Nosir,” to the sensei. She bowed at the door to show respect. When I ask, after another left hook whizzes too close to my eye socket, where her respect for me is, she says, simply, “You’re not my sensei,” and when I remind her that I have two black belts, and started teaching martial arts when I was her age, she shrugs and says “I can hit you because you won’t hit me back.”
Feel free to insert your own images here. A red wagon, a bike with training wheels. Spaghetti in her hair, a birthday cake smeared all over her chubby face. Crying in Santa’s lap. Use the old icons. All the archetypes we adhere to. First steps, first words. First breath. Since that’s what this is all about anyway.
Me: You want to go to a movie with some smelly 14-year-old boy?
Her: Would you rather he was 19?
I would rather she did not go at all. That she remain. All fathers know this, just as they know that the true value a picture holds is a place in time, one that does not move.
Let us consider now that the lightning could be the flash of the camera. And the thunder comes when you look years later at what the lightning captured.
Me: Who didn’t put the cap back on the toothpaste?
Her: Wasn’t me, I havent brushed today.
Another thing we worry about: teeth. And bones. Skin. Hair. What makes up the heart.
Walking in the park one day she took my arm and started skipping, trying to pull me along. I told her I was too old to be skipping. She said she was too young to not be skipping, which made me think of shuffling cards and flip books. Old movies in which the calendar unfurls to show the passing of time.
“The US should just tell the goalie to block everything.”
She says this during the World Cup, with a short demonstration that I assume is a goalie blocking everything but that looks more like a frog hopping side to side. When I laugh at her she punches me in the stomach. I take the punch gracefully, happily. She punches again.
How easy life would be if we could simply block everything that might hurt them. If we could allow them to work out their frustrations on a world that won’t hit back.
In raising daughters, sometimes you have to do things you would not normally do. I have worn dresses and high heels and jewelry, have built more forts with Winnie the Pooh pillows and Dora the Explorer bedsheets than I care to count. So much hiding and seeking in the same spots my patience wore as thin as their small shoulders, as the smile I struggled to hold in place. At the risk of ruining the game forever, here are their favorite hiding spots: behind the couch, under the bed, in the closet. Though you will still spend time looking, even if you have been told exactly where to go and what you will find there.
Some of our older pictures have faded. They have developed sun spots, tiny coronas flaring like the flash of selfies taken in front of the mirror. The color changes, turns sepia, a faded yellow like liver spots, or the light in late afternoon when a storm comes over the hills. You ask when that was. Who those people are. Where is that place.
When we fly back to Arkansas in winter or make the long summer drive through Tennessee, we gather around an old drawer full of photos, passing them from hand to hand. We ask the same old questions, we make the same old comments, until we dig down far enough that no one except my grandmother remembers the geography or geneology, until the pictures
are as faded and worn as her hands. Then we all fall silent, pictures fanned around us, occasionally passing one so someone else might see. Look here, we say. Would you look at that.
As my daughters have grown into teenagers and taken on personalities outside my own, I have been forced to toughen the rules around me. I have banned dramatic sighing in my house, and shoulder shrugs and eye-rolling and sentences that begin with the word “actually.” All of my bans work about as well as trying to remember a time before every admonition of mine came with an eye roll or shoulder shrug. About as well as trying to keep them from walking out into a world that may not be kind to them. About as well as the words I whisper when they are crossing the street, or waiting for the bus on a cold January morning while I watch from the window because they are old enough to wait by themselves now, they say.
One evening in the kitchen she dances around me, jabbing at my mid-section. When I tell her she’s about to get hurt, she says “That’s an interesting theory,” and I think now that this is only theory here, that there is only theory in raising a child. In hoping the world does not hurt them. In hoping you do not hurt them in some way.
In those pictures—the ones we could hold, the finite ones, not the ones stored deep in the machinery of our time—she found one of her. “Here,” she said, “here I am,” but the photo wasn’t of her. Her face fell when her mother told her here, again, was her sister.
Easy to confuse the two, especially in pictures. They stand the same height. They have the same eyes, the same color hair. A bit of shade, an off-center flash, can fool the eye into thinking one is the other. I have asked my wife before which one is which. She has hesitated slightly before answering. As they grow older, they look more like their mother. In younger pictures, they look more like me. Place our pictures side by side to see resemblance. Compare and contrast. My eyes, your nose. When our daughter runs through the house throwing
roundhouses at my head, my wife says “Your daughter.” When my daughter rolls her eyes at me I say the same to my wife, as if we are blaming the other for the idiosyncracies, the slightly off-center craziness of our children. We also claim credit for the good grades, the awards, the athletic achievements, which seems to me, at times, to be a backward way
of looking at the world, especially after either one of our daughters has said or done something that I feel compelled to write down, to keep as a record. Like a picture. One we frame and place on the mantel, right next to the Christmas photos.
Sight itself is circular. Messages pass from the eye to the brain and back. Light waves travel from distant objects to form images in our eyes, which are translated by the brain. What we see is not really what we see, only an interpretation. What a father sees when he looks at his daughter is different from what the world sees. What you see in these excerpts will be different from my intent. Meaning is lost in the circuitous route from the page to your brain and back again. From my brain to my fingers to the screen. Pictures are no better. I can show you, for example, one from her third grade year, but it doesn’t show the days she came home crying because the other kids made fun of her slight speech impediment. Or how she stayed up so late at night sounding out her S’s in front of a mirror that she fell asleep waiting for the bus the next morning. How she didn’t talk all the next day, and the day after that, for fear of how her words might be heard. You will not know how I also stayed up late, drinking so much that my angry words were slurred worse than hers had ever been.
For a story like this we need words, even knowing they will fail. Take the slur of the S. From there say sleep and speech and sorrow. Those will get you closer than any picture ever could, though we always fall short.
At age 4 she fell down the 2nd floor stairs, flipping head over heels, her thin bones striking the hard wooden steps. At ages 8 and 5 both our daughters were lost among the big buildings downtown when a parade float driver failed to return them to the appropriate parking lot, dropped them off in a back alley and every backfire or raised voice we heard for the 45 minutes it took to find them sounded like the collapse of stars.
At 18 months the doctor’s feared our older daughter’s head was misaligned. My wife came home crying fiercely from a routine doctor’s visit. Our daughter’s brain could be squeezed as her skull hardened. As nurses slid her into an MRI machine a week later, I felt like my brain was being squeezed together as hard as my wife dug her fingernails into my arm.
The MRI took pictures of her skull. Not that different from an ultrasound taking pictures inside the womb. We prop photos beside the casket so that our lives begin and end with pictures but that day we only cared what the MRI did not show. I don’t need a picture for that. Only this: we waited in a little room until our daughter woke up. The passing feet of nurses went past and machines beeped and clicked and at some point the doctor came to tell us the scan showed nothing abnormal, that everything was fine. He pointed to a picture to illustrate his point.
My maternal grandmother lost an infant sister during the Great depression. My paternal grandmother lost her first child. My step-sister lost her 18 month old son. We have pictures of them somewhere, but no words. No deeds. We fall silent looking into those places inside us where we carry the pictures we remember.
And finally here’s the hospital photo, the one with a blank space for a name, a weight, which we later fill in and file away and occasionally take out and hold to the light and wonder at the time that has passed between then and now, compare what we hold in our hands with what we hold in our hearts. Like lessons, or lightning. Like thought and thunder.
Because you can’t know, on that day you bring her home from the hospital, what pictures and personalities will be formed. What geography lies ahead. You have only the ultrasound to go on, and then the birth picture, which you forget to look at until she no longer looks that way, because you have her now. These new lungs, this new breath.