Words fail me as I replay seven years with Finley.
The truth is that Finley made us the family that we are and we couldn’t be a more perfectly F.A.B. fit.
Happy birthday, Fin.
“Mom, it’s wiggling again, like seriously wiggling.” She had her finger wedged in the side of her mouth as she said it. Her head was in my lap, the clock read 8:20. All of us girls were cuddled up tight on the couch, pjs on, teeth brushed, watching The Voice.
Sean and I had talked in the kitchen earlier in the night. “They all have their homework done and Briar was amazing helping me this afternoon,” I whispered. We were standing close, sweet reward for a full night’s sleep and a day that went unexpectedly smoothly. “I say we get them fed and washed up for bed. I’ll read a chapter of the book and then we can let them watch The Voice.”
He nodded, “You know it’s only on at 8, no On Demand.”
“I know, it’ll be ok. It’s just one night and we all slept well last night.” We’re in an odd space related to sleep. The big girls press to stay up later, Fin too sometimes, but their growth spurts and the weight of certain days of homework have them shuffling their feet and rubbing their eyes. We stretch toward older kid bedtimes and then sling shot back with weepy mornings or grouchy evenings.
I looked down at Finley’s face, her brow was bunched up and her finger had stopped moving. “You ok? You want me to get you a tissue to hold it? We can pull on it softly,” I said. She looked up at me eyes pooling, “Yes, please on tissue. No thank you on pulling. I don’t want it to come out just yet.”
I slipped off the couch and into the bathroom for a few squares of toilet paper. I cam back and handed it to her softly. She wrapped the white paper around her finger and slowly poked her finger back in her mouth. She pressed her head into my side and I traced my fingers along her temple.
Briar and Avery were rapt, their eyes scanning the screen, fingers pointing to the performers, “Oh, that one, it’s totally going to be that one. Don’t you think?”
I smiled and wiggled my toes, they tickled Briar’s tailbone and she wrapped her arms around my foot and squeezed twice. “Love you, Ave,” I whispered across the couch. She stretched a hand out and rubbed my leg, “You too.”
After a few minutes Finley took the tissue, crumpled it in her hand and leaned into me. “I’m going to ask you a question and it’s ok if it’s no. Would you want to go upstairs with me and read a few books?”
I tried to read her face. “Do you mean after this show?”
“No, I mean, the girls can tell me what happens, who wins, you know. I just wondered if you would want to go away with me now to read.”
I beamed. “Of course.”
She grabbed my hand and we darted upstairs, me whispering to Sean where we were going as we flew out of the room.
Upstairs she raced down the hallway and called to me, “You get in my bed, I’ll bring the books.”
I nestled under the covers, part of the blanket had slipped between the bed and the wall. I pulled it back up and found it had been resting on the heat register, I pressed the warm fleece to my face. It smelled like conditioner. I looked around the room, the map decals on the wall conjured the squeals of the girls from nights past, “Which states have no in them?” Sean would call like a game announcer.
“No-rth Carolina!” Ave screams.
“No-rth Dakota!” Briar shots.
“Illinois,” Finley squeals.
“Good job, Fin,” Sean calls with admiration.
“Vermont and Montana have it backwards.” Laughter.
She bounded into the room. “I have Pirate Girl and Despereaux.” Her mouth still struggles with making an r sound, so Pirate came out like a growl. She smiled at me and I looked at the gap on the top side of her mouth. A stubborn tooth, still hiding, leaving the space from the last tooth to fall out wide open.
“How’s your tooth?” I asked.
“It’s ok, mom. I just sometimes don’t want the things to happen so fast. I’m not afraid of my tooth coming out, I’m just not wanting all my teeth to be done coming out.” Her hand was in mine. I squeezed it.
“You are a gift Finley, always have been, from the day I found out you were in my tummy to the day we brought you home.”
We read the books slowly, there between the warm fleece and the bright colored states. We traced our fingers over the pictures, reading together, and flipping back to check things on pages we’d already read.
There are days when it feels as if the color around us is fading in real time, like a vintage filter being applied to the moments we are living. I bat and flail to keep things crisp and vibrant. Other times it feels as if we are characters in a book, just like Pirate Girl, our colors staying bright and rich, and the letters and sounds of this time perfectly preserved upon each page.
The girls didn’t have school today. All of last week and over the weekend, the girls excitedly talked about what they’d learned about Veterans in school and the ways in which they had honored them. I listened and hoped that the conversation wouldn’t take a dark turn. I had read of the passing of Tomas Young and I know from Briar’s chatter about the student news that they watch at school that she is familiar with ISIS. I am sure that in the ways that kids pick up little tidbits, some from lessons, others from eavesdropping, there could be real confusion about war and how it is to be against war but in support of our service people. The tough conversation never came, though I know it eventually will.
I explained to them that despite there being no school, there would in fact be work for me. “Girls, Dad and I are going to need you to be quiet as we do the photo shoot. You can watch us or you can camp out with a movie, ok?”
“Can we take pictures?” Avery asked.
“I think so, but you’ll have to be respectful of the photographer.”
“Can we be in the pictures?” Finley asked.
“Maybe, but we have to get the work stuff done first, ok?”
“Of course, mama. Of course!” Finley waved her hand and squinted her eyes in her I-totally-get-it-I-am-practically-an-adult face.
“Hey, mom, would you like me to be taking photos and videos as you’re going? You know, document the shoot,” Briar offered.
“Absolutely, thank you!”
I had butterflies that were a result of equal parts nerves at being photographed and at having an audience of at least 15 while I tried to do the business owner/mom shuffle. I didn’t want to have the girls be bummed out by how they spent their day off, and I also didn’t want our family to make the process difficult for everyone else.
The set-up went incredibly well. Everyone had their make-up done and there was suspender snapping and hair teasing that bonded us all. The space took shape as we brought in instrument after instrument, the girls’ eyes wide as they took them in.
Everyone relaxed, the kids held out with shuffling crates and providing unpredictable comedic relief. They also mugged so relentlessly that they ended up in a number of, “Oh my gosh, this is great, let’s shoot this. C’mon, let’s do this.
I revel in watching them in these situations because as surely as they are my daughters, they are entirely their own people. I had been so worried that the workday would be boring for them or that they would feel like afterthoughts. The truth is that there are times that rather than parts of life colliding in calamitous ways, there are opportunities for sharing and illuminating the ways in which all the pieces and people fit.
I am so grateful for the days and the questions and the laughter in life with my F.A.B. girls.
Time is doing that thing, that thing that reveals how fast it goes even while some days seem to last for weeks. It isn’t the back-to-school blur or a concentration of deadlines at work, though those are both real and present. It’s the toss of hair and expressiveness of Finley’s eyebrows, her declarations of, “It’s just odd!” followed by a quick scan of the room to see if we all caught how mature she is. It’s Briar slipping quietly into a private realm, emotions and Minecraft, daydreams and song lyrics. The way Avery thrashes in the night, limbs too long for her pjs and shocks of hair that when tucked behind her ear, reveal new hollows in her face.
I buck against the inevitability, the idea that parts of our lives were rewritten or that certain paths I said I’d never tread are predestined. Mostly I just want life not to feel so out of control, just long enough to conquer time. I crave mornings that I know exactly what will be packed in the lunches, how I need to dress for the day, and which activities call for what preparation. That isn’t the way though. The more I try to be calm with certainty, the more the ends of the day unravel and tatter and a yes to one commitment gives way to something that I will have to miss.
“You mean you won’t be there to see me get my new belt?” Avery asks crestfallen.
“No, what I said is that I will be there on Saturday for the testing when you earn your belt, but Monday I may not be back to see you receive your belt.” My voice was firm, but it was a thin veneer, behind it my nose burned and my insides raged. I don’t want to miss either. How did this happen? When did the reins of my own life slip from my hands?
Looking at my calendar, the color of my commitments are purple. The lines attack the tidy little squares, slash here, slash here, bigger slash here, overlapping slashes here. It goes on in a blur. There is no prize for being busy and yet paring it down seems insurmountable.
Last weekend, one of the lone remaining free weekends of the year, saw us driving to Boston. It was the Head of the Charles, so hotel room costs were astronomical. We opted to stay for just one night, but the kids are in this weird phase where they all get car sick and we had to be back Sunday for a thing due to start at noon which meant doing a 4+hour drive twice in less than 24 hours.
I booked a room 30 minutes outside of Boston, loaded the car with Bonine and Dramamine, packed snacks, and tried to unlock and discard my fury at once again being penned into a schedule that I was a part of making. The girls chirped in the backseat.
“Will there be skyscrapers?”
“Can we eat at restaurants?”
“Do you think the hotel will have a pool?”
The rat-a-tat questions lull me into a stupor, “Yes. Uh-huh. Maybe. I’m not sure. No matter what we’ll have an adventure.” Auto-pilot soothing and setting expectations uses the same muscle that sales pitches require of me at work. My drive to please and conquer sustain me no matter what.
I turned a movie on for the girls and they leaned into one another, heads tipped, legs tangled. I pressed my head against the window and let a montage of childhood drive memories fill my mind. The bittersweet tethers of loved ones and cherished times tug at me—my grandparents at the airport, the Columbia Gorge vista on the way to Sunriver, visits to my dad’s house with quiet tears there and back.
I checked on the girls and tried to imagine what they’ll remember. Will it be my hisses about the cost of the hotel? Sean’s excitement about seeing the boats race? Wearing matching Pedroia shirts? Briar looks at me, tilting her head sideways and mouthing, “You know I love you, right?” I stifle a sound, maybe a sob, maybe a laugh. There are parts of me that run through her so deeply, the keen awareness of pain or joy.
“Yes, I do, sweet love.”
The trip ended up being a whirlwind of laughter and magic. I stopped wondering what they’d remember and just let the day take us.
Turns out that the hotel did have a pool, not to mention a fantastic lifeguard that we’ll never forget. As we packed up and headed to the car, the girls crackled with excitement. “Ave, do you remember when we saw the first tippy top part of Boston?” We headed home through New Hampshire and Vermont, the route straighter and more beautiful than the way we’d come.
Again I watched through the window, thinking about time. We stopped at a small cafe in Bethel, Vermont for sandwiches and soup. The girls oohed and ahhed at the falls through the window. I was surprised by the experience, tipped glasses and complaints about food never came. We talked and laughed. No high chairs or bibs, no modifications from the menu, just five people having lunch midway through a road trip. It was wonderful.
When we got to the parking lot the girls wanted to climb a retaining wall, normally there would be sharp words about being safe and hurrying to the car. This time we let them climb. Briar was first.
“Dad, catch me in the air!” He spun and held the camera. I watched and remembered a time when “Catch me” was a literal thing, our arms outstretched, breaths held as we waited to feel the slightness of her form and the enormous weight of her safety fill our arms. I realized that we don’t catch her in the same way anymore and my heart splintered.
Then she said breathlessly, “Did you get it? Did you see me?” And it’s ok, even if it still hurts, because we did catch it and we taught her to catch herself and it’s supposed to go like this.
The memories, hopes, and dear-god-we-caught-her emotions all swirl inside of me, depending on one another to exist as they etch deep grooves in my marrow. I feel an exhale, slightly ragged, but still an exhale, that carries a simple reminder for me:
“It isn’t how it is that matters. The heart of everything is simply that we are.”
I had a former employee stop by the office this morning. He has a one year old son now and was remarking, “Amanda, I don’t know what I did with all my free time before having Julian. I mean, I certainly wasn’t productive with it. There was so much time.” We nodded and laughed, then he said, “It’s amazing. Having a kid, it just changes you forever. Changes everything.” I’d never seen him smile with such delight (unless he was mid-prank).
As we hugged goodbye and promised to find a time to have the little guy visit, I felt so grateful that I’d had a sweet morning with the girls. It wasn’t harried, I didn’t feel overtired. The girls were in great moods. They were all pinging about contentedly. Briar and Avery were Rainbow Looming and Finley was plunked down in a corner singing. I couldn’t help myself, I had to record her.
They really do change you, and your, life forever.