It’s difficult to pinpoint, and I often try, the moment I started loving my daughter. I like to pretend it was when she fluttered inside me for the first time. Or when I cradled her tiny body in my arms seconds after birth. The truth is, my love for her started much later in her life, when the reality of her conception faded enough for me to see only her, when I realized she, like me, was a survivor.
Probably, though, there was no one moment. Likely, an aggregation of collected moments, many of them, coming at the expense of her vulnerability: when she suffered through her first bout with colic, or her fussiness over cutting three teeth simultaneously—moments when a maternal stew of emotions and hormones hummed through me, signaling that it was normal for me to love her and reminding me over and over again that having her was well worth the cost.
I watch her now, playing down by the water, and remember why I questioned my love. Her long hair catches in the breeze, whipping sandy strands across her golden face, her unafraid avocado eyes watching, waiting for the next wave. These features—his features—were all I remember about him. And yet, what I didn’t know I see in her, like a window into a stranger’s soul. Her drawings always resemble, a bit too perfectly, her intended goal. A dog. A tree. A house. Talent you’re born with not taught. And I often wonder if she didn’t eat fish because he didn’t or if she loved to swim because he did. One thing is for sure: she was all him and none of me. And that single thought terrified me.
What comforts and sustains the worry and fear is the bond we share, a kinship deeper than most can imagine, one shared between two people who have suffered together. To me, that idea trumps all boundaries of DNA.
“Mom!” Alana yells, yanking me from my thoughts. “How long was I under that time?”
I glance at my watch and close my empty notebook, its blank, line-filled pages hungry for words. “Twenty-two seconds.”
She twists her full lips into a wry smile and churns her arms to control the strong current of Howard Cove jostling her around. “I can do better.”
At ten, she possessed the quiet air of someone far beyond her years. She was already stronger, more determined, driven, than I was when I had her at eighteen, like she was living her life at a faster clip than everyone else.
“One more time then we have to go.”
“Aww…Mom. Can’t we stay just a little while longer?”
We’d had a great day. Just after sunrise, Alana leaped into my bed, sending a billowing wave of sheets sailing into the air. She settled against me, her right elbow propped against my thigh, left hand moving steadily, drawing something, probably another clock. I wrote two lines of a poem that morning, my fingers entwined in her unbrushed hair, my mind churning for a third line. We clung to each other like that, transfixed in the rhythm of our everyday life, beset in silence, until Alana’s stomach, or maybe it was mine, growled, a deep bellowed roar. We looked at each other and laughed. Alana glanced at the yellow watch (her fifth one this year) strapped to her tiny wrist. 12:05. Had we forgotten to eat breakfast? Again?
It was my idea to come to Jasper Beach. That afternoon, the entire house glowed with the return of the prodigal sun. Downeast winters were frigid and brutal, biting to the bone. So when the early summer sun beckoned, its rays spreading like liquid gold across the landscape, and the cloudless sky, in all its vastness and splendor, stretched its waking arms up to the heavens, you heeded.
But as I look skyward, in the far distance, the afternoon sun gathers at the break of the horizon and an ashen blanket of clouds loom overhead. A sharp wind whistles around my ears and slits against the gravel beach below, creating a haunting screech.
“It’s getting late and I want to get home before the rain.” I stand, my left hand saluting the setting sun. “Ready. Set. Go.”
Alana wipes her nose, takes in a deep inhalation, and dunks back under water as I gather our things—which is no small task. I’m prepared—if not over prepared—for anything. I stuff a set of goggles, two beach towels, sunscreen, empty bottles of water, a fully stocked first-aid kit, and hand sanitizer back into our monstrous bag. I hook the small, pink lifejacket in my arm, cursing myself for bringing it along since Alana can officially swim now and has been able to for two years. But when I start packing our beach bag, somehow, it ends up in there. I can never be too careful when it comes to Alana. Her safety.
She asked about him the night before. After ten years, she increasingly wanted to know more about him. Her interest always started with a question: could my father wear a watch? I’d swallow hard to ease the constriction in my throat, a move imperceptible to her naïve eye, and respond with an equivocal answer. “I’m not sure,” I’d say, my voice pitched up on the final syllable, my lips crooked in contemplation. I never knew the answers to her questions. But I looked the part as best I could. We’ve followed this seesaw pattern for almost a year now and I didn’t know how long it could continue.
I would do anything to protect her from the darkness of the truth.