Jessica and I are eating at the Mad Greek, our favorite place to go when she comes home from her father’s house. The evening sun is low in the sky and the mellow light glows through the window, glancing off her round cheeks, illuminating her intense focus as she tries not to drop the glass of Diet Coke the server has given her.
She looks up at me, her short brown hair framing a pixie face with a round chin and plump bow mouth. Her big brown eyes are clear and warm. I can tell from her look that she has suddenly remembered something she wants to say to me.
“If I grow up, I want to be a doctor,” she announces.
Her words lance through my heart. If I grow up . . . .
“When you grow up,” I correct gently. “When you grow up, you want to be a doctor. That would be a nice job, wouldn’t it?”
I will be honest, I vowed when she was delivered into my arms all those years ago, fragile and broken. I knew then our relationship would never survive lies and subterfuge, the superficial gambits of people afraid to face the life they’ve been given.
A noble intention, surely, and I feel unspeakably frail when I am unable to live up to it. Which I fail to do sometimes, still, even after all this practice, even now.
“Did you like being married?” she asks.
I get the connection between growing up and having a career and getting married, but I wonder why she couldn’t ask the usual suspects: What are we doing when we get home? What are the errands we will run? Can we see a movie? I know the answers to those.
“Did you like being married?” she persists. She is especially intrigued by the questions she knows I don’t want to answer.
“No,” I say finally. “No, I didn’t like being married.” The one good thing about my marriage was the daughter it gave me.
“What is marriage?” she asks.
As if I have the first idea. But there is no one else at the table to pinch hit for me, so I take a stab at it.
“When two grownups love each other and want to spend time together, they get married,” I say. It’s a lame definition even to me. I don’t know what else to say. I don’t believe in forever or that the definition of a marriage is one man and one woman. I know that love is not enough to make a marriage, and I know that she will never get married anyway.
I know what her next question is going to be and she does not disappoint.
“When can I get married?”
“When you are a grownup,” I say. I don’t know how to tell her the truth. As the server serves the salads, I cannot find the words to say: you will never get married. You will never have children. Whatever dreams ordinary people have, they can never be yours.
“Lots of people don’t get married,” I offer instead. “They stay single and are very happy.”
“Who is married?” she wants to know. Which friends, she means.
“Julie and Pete,” I tell her. “They’re married. And Mary and Steve. And Grandma and Grandpa.” But I don’t want her to think that all grownups are. “Randy is single,” I say. “And she doesn’t want to be married.” I don’t actually know if this is true, but I’m pretty sure she won’t mind my saying it.
“When can I have a baby?” Jessica asks.
I knew that was coming.
“When you are a grownup,” I say.
They don’t talk about this in the books on what to expect. They don’t tell you how to explain to your daughter that she can never have a child because chances are excellent that any child she had would be just like her. And why would you do that to someone, if you had the choice?
I look across the table at her, infinitely precious to me. There is not one demon I would not wrestle for her, there is no challenge too great to undertake. I would do anything for her . . . except I cannot bring myself to tell her the truth. I find this frustrating. It affects my self image. I was not always this way. Conflicted, I mean. Charge ahead, tell the truth, do what must be done and to hell with the consequences.
But as strong as Jessica seems to me, as brave and courageous for surviving everything with a smile, everything that has been done to her in the interest of saving her life, she is also a child, and children can be broken.
If someone had told me before Jessica was born that she would be so badly maimed, so terrifyingly different, I would have chosen not to get pregnant. But now that Jessica is here, I cannot imagine life without her. It might be easier, yes. But it would be missing everything that gives it meaning. I did not know how empty my life was before she came into it and I don’t want to think what it might be when she leaves. I cannot imagine me without her.
The trouble with the truth is that I don’t even know what it is. When Jessica was very young, the truth was she might never learn to walk or to run or to call me mama. But she learned all of those things. What if I had told her then that she would never learn to walk? What if she had believed me then? Back then, I told her, put one foot in front of the other and soon you’ll be walking out the door. It’s a phrase I got from an old Christmas show and I sang it to her every day. Anyway, she believed me and now look at her, walking and running and practicing yoga and tai chi, talking my ear off, taking huge gulps of air between sentences so she can say everything she needs to say. She calls me “Mom,” when she isn’t cracking herself up calling me “Parent” or “Jennifer Lawler.”
Maybe I am in denial, but I still correct her when she says If I grow up. And I’m not going to be the one to tell her that she’s not intelligent enough for medical school, that she’ll never mature enough to marry, that she doesn’t have and will never have the skills to care for a child of her own.
She eats her chicken, meditating on what I’ve said. Then she says, “I’m going to marry Shawn.” Shawn is a boy in her classroom. She sounds so ordinary when she says it. I’m sure I said something like it about a boy in my classroom when I was her age. Not really knowing what it meant, just saying something that I had heard others say.
And I say, “Shawn is a very nice boy,” and defer the truth for another day.