At seven, my daughter is already a better human being than I could ever fathom myself to be.
When Vasialys was five, she lent her scooter to a new friend she made in the park. They took turns racing down a slope, and I watched as Vasia gave her new friend tips, demonstrating the tactics she uses: “Bend your knees.” “If you’re going too fast, drag you foot on the ground like this to slow yourself down.” A little while into the impromptu lesson, the little girl fell, sending wails into the blue sky. The girl’s mother dashed over and cradled her daughter. When I arrived, Vasia was staring, bottom lip trembling, at the little girl whose brown strands of hair were stuck to her tear-soaked cheeks. I picked up the scooter and smiled at the mom who looked up at me with a sigh, “She’s okay. Just a little scrape, right honey?” Vasia watched as the mom picked up her child and walked away to their picnic blanket. I grabbed her hand and made to walk back to ours but Vasia tugged at me. When I looked down, Vasia’s big brown eyes were shiny with tears. I kneeled in front of her, “Nena, what’s wrong? Do you want to cry?” “Yes, mommy,” she collapsed into my arms.
My chest squeezed. Why hadn’t I realized that she was waiting for me to give her permission to cry? Why did she need my permission? Was I making it so that crying was unacceptable as it had been to my mother when I was a child? Had I gotten yet another mommy-daughter moment wrong?
Vasia pulled away from me and pushed her curls out of her face. I wiped her runny nose. “Why were you crying, baby? What’s wrong?”
The question spurred another round of blubbering. Between hiccups, Vasia said, “It’s my fault she fell. She was riding my scooter.”
I smiled at this fascinating little girl who decided to enter the world via my womb, and marveled at the profundity of her compassion.
What most shocks me about Vasialys is her compassion towards her very much imperfect mom. One morning earlier this year, I was delirious with lack of sleep. The weight of the relentless guilt that accompanies memoir was leaning in with increasing ferocity, and as I attempted to work through it in the writing, the subject matter was getting excruciatingly difficult, keeping me up at night as I worked through the often treacherous emotional landscape of writing about my childhood. That night I’d only managed to sleep an hour. I had to teach for three hours straight that morning, to a group of 90+ often ungrateful high school juniors, no less, and Vasia was having a particularly whiny morning. She cried when I woke her up, and pouted and dragged her feet through the entire process. My patience already thin, I snapped and flew into a tirade about how selfish she was being and how unfair it was that she was having a tantrum so early in the morning. (Of course I realize that she’s all of seven and was just being what she is, a kid, but I was too exhausted to think rationally at that point.) I caught myself mid-shriek when I recognized in Vasia’s face the same desperation I’d often felt when my mother went off on me, making me feel unloved and unwanted. I breathed deeply, told Vasia in almost a whisper to please finish getting ready, and locked myself in the bathroom, where I cried quietly into my hands.
There was no denying that I’d messed up. I’d done to my daughter what my mother had done to me so many times, though I’d sworn that I wouldn’t and couldn’t ever be so callous. I had to make it right.
When I walked out of the bathroom, Vasia was fully dressed, coat and hat on, scarf around her neck, she was sitting quietly in the kitchen, hands folded on the table, waiting. She didn’t look at me. I put on my coat and we walked out the door with nary a word. I watched her as she walked to the bus stop two blocks away. She stared at the ground, avoiding my eyes. I stopped, kneeled in front of her, and bit my lip. “I’m sorry, baby girl. Mom was a jerk to you. You didn’t deserve that. I’m sorry. I love you.”
She finally looked at me. “It’s okay mom, it was an accident.” She hugged me, and was lighter when she climbed the stairs to the bus, but I wasn’t. I spent the day beating myself up, re-visiting the scene in my head repeatedly, chiding myself for not having handled myself better.
I surprised Vasia that day by picking her up at school and taking her to buy her favorite smoothie — mango, strawberry and banana. Yes, it was a desperate attempt at assuaging my own guilt, but I wasn’t sure what else to do.
On our walk home, Vasia stopped mid-sip, “Mom, I almost forgot. I made you something.” She smiled her beautiful, two full rows of teeth smile, and dug into her backpack, the same one I ask her to clean at least twice a week but always manages to be an even bigger mess after each alleged cleaning. “Mom,” she whispered with a weary giggle. “I wrote a bad word, okay?”
“You made me something?”
“Yes, here.” She handed me a white sheet of unlined paper, folded lengthwise, a single flower scrawled in pencil on the cover. It read: “First of all, mom you are not a jerk. Your the most beautiful woman in the whole world. Your the best thing that ever happened to me and I love you to pieces to pieces, forever and ever. Let’s work on our relashionshup, okay?” Of course I collapsed into a heap of snot and tears, and hugged her tight.
That day my daughter helped me understand that I am human and sometimes I will mess up. Breaking cycles of abuse that have spanned generations is not easy. I am working diligently, doing what I can, but I will err, and I must be gentle with myself when I do. I must recognize the mistake and apologize for that is what is making the all difference in my daughter’s life. And, ultimately, that’s what matters.