Last year, I wrote an appreciation for The Baby on her third birthday. Here it is a year later, and she’s turning four, which I can barely fathom. She talks better than me now. She’s learning her letters and numbers at lightning speed. I’m looking into kindergartens (to enroll her in, not just peeping through the window). She has become extremely opinionated about her daily wardrobe. Truth be told, she’s not The Baby any more. She’s a little girl.
I can barely say that, or even write it, because it seems so insane to me. The amount of time that’s passed in her life already is unfathomable to me, as difficult to wrap my head around as the concept of infinity (which I had to do when she asked me ‘What comes after space?’ and I tried to explain to her that space goes on forever). And I realize that so many of the cute things she said and did when she was little are dangerously close to being lost in my memory (because I need that brain-space to remember crappy 30-year-old commercials).
So I’m furiously trying to compile all these items so they won’t be forgotten (in a Word doc, because computer programs never become obsolete!). Like how when she was newborn, she wouldn’t cry, but make a ‘mew’ sound, almost like a kitten. How when was only a few months old, she used to light up when she heard the Feist tune used in an incessant series of iPod ads. How she had a set of play keys and would toddle around the house trying to “unlock” all the doorknobs she could barely reach.
As I compiled these things, going in chronological order as much as I can, what I keep coming back to is how gloriously silly she is, and how that allows me to be silly in a way that would be impossible without her. Like how she’s watched Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure so many times now that I recite scenes from it with her, verbatim (at her insistence). Or how she does the herky-jerky dance from Mr. Show (don’t worry, I just let her watch the dancing part). Or how she wants to be a “spaceman,” and asks mommy to make her a spacesuit out of tinfoil. (Stunning results seen here.) Or how, when she’s taking a bath, she loves to see me slide past the open bathroom door in my socks, often backward. (I’m talented.)
With each passing day, as she discovers something new, I feel like I’m discovering it right along with her. It helps that she has an affinity for things I like, such as The Adventures of Pete and Pete (she does a spot-on impression of Artie, Strongest Man in the World). But it’s so easy to be jaded and cynical about everything in this world, and having her in my life reminds me that there are wonderful things in it.
When she was first born, and I’d see her lying in her bassinet sleeping, I’d approach it slowly and listen for her breathing. It seemed impossible to me that something so unbelievably tiny and fragile could be alive. I thought a strong wind could hurt her. As time goes on, you realize that kids are much tougher than they appear. I’m astounded at how quickly her bumps and bruises disappear; you can literally see her heal over the course of a day.
Even so, when your child is hurt, it pains you like nothing you’ve felt before. Earlier this year, The Baby came home from school in an odd mood. She’s very often cranky, but this was something different entirely. She seemed depressed. I kept asking her what was wrong, but she said “nothing,” in this sad, distant voice that told me it definitely wasn’t nothing.
I did lots of things to cheer her up, putting on her favorite shows, taking her out for pizza, then getting her ice cream. She’d be happy for short bursts, then I could see a switch go off, as if she remembered “oh wait, I’m still sad,” and she would settle into a funk again.
Finally, as we walked back home, I got the story out of her. Some boy she was friends with at day care said he wasn’t going to play with her anymore. He would play with some other girl. She was heartbroken, and it broke my heart, too. It was her first taste of rejection more serious than me not giving her a cookie, and I realized this was the just the first of many heartbreaks that awaited her. I thought about being a little kid and how awful it feels to be excluded, usually for reasons you’re never told or can’t understand, and I felt the weight of all that sadness on me.
We were walking home on an overpass above the Long Island Expressway. She likes to watch the cars zip back and forth beneath her, especially at night, and the Manhattan skyline glisten through the exhaust haze in the distance. She stared in that direction, but really didn’t take any of it in.
“You feel sad?” I asked
“Yeah,” she said.
“You know what I do when I feel sad? I think about things that make me happy. You know what makes me happy? You.”
“Yeah, sometimes I’ll get sad or mad during the day when I’m away from you, and I’ll think of something silly you did or said and it makes me happy. Maybe you can think of somebody who makes you happy and that will make you feel better.”
She thought for a while, hand on chin, and named a classmate, not the one who’d just rejected her. “She makes me funny!” she said, which I interpreted to mean, She makes me laugh, and added, “I like to make people funny!”
“It’s nice to make people laugh,” I said, “because when people laugh, they’re happy.”
“Yeah…” she said, with a little laugh herself. We went home and watched Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure for the 8 billionth time. She laughed as hard as she always does for the Breakfast Machine scene, and when Pee-Wee yells IS THERE SOMETHING YOU CAN SHARE WITH THE REST OF US, AMAZING LARRY?!
She could not stay awake long enough to see her other favorite part, Pee-Wee overdubbed in his movie cameo (“Paging Mr. Herman…”), and fell asleep curled up next to me. I carried her to bed, laid her down, and kissed her good-night.
Watching her sleep, I thought about how tiny she once was and how I used to think her every breath was a miracle. And I thought about how fragile she once was, and still is, and how there isn’t a single thing I wouldn’t do to spare her one second of pain. Though I’m sure I could do anything for her, I haven’t been called on to do anything Herculean yet. Usually it just takes a 98-pound man-child wrapping scotch tape around his face.