This is the last in a series of April’s trials and joys. I wrote the first reflection on the suicide of my brother, which was posted on Facebook. The second was on the death and redemption of my relationship with my father. This final piece is dedicated to my daughter Hannah, who recently celebrated her 21st birthday. It also prepares us for Mother’s Day, which will be celebrated this May 8. I share this with Hannah’s consent.
Listen to: Celine Dion "Every Mother’s Prayer"
The sting of that final push still reverberates in my bones, in a place of motherhood-forged memories. Through the fog of eight hours of intense labor I hear a midwife’s voice proclaim: “It’s a girl!”
I am awe-struck, giddy, high on endorphins from this birthing marathon, yet the irony doesn’t leave me. The sonogram technician had assured us four and ½ months ago that we were having a boy. I nestled with my newborn baby girl, named Hannah, a name which means “favor” or “grace.” As I held my little chameleon, I could not begin to imagine the ongoing changes she would bring to my life. She would be a lesson in God’s fierce grace.
I had wanted a girl. We had a precious son, Andrew, whom we loved, but my mother’s heart also wanted a little girl. Not without trepidation however. My relationship with my own mother had been tenuous and ambiguous. There were occasional moments she touched me with a singular tenderness – warming my hands on a cold winter’s day - and demonstrated insight and acceptance— studying sociology in college and the activism that later entailed. However most of the time it was a blanket of duty and distance. The youngest child of a single mother, she was just too tired to play games, to go to the park, to engage my prattle, to bake cookies with me, or to indulge any explorations of what it means to be a girl finding her identity in a changing world and in a family surrounded by boys.
With Hannah I wanted a different relationship. Armed with very little practical knowledge, I wanted to buy frilly princess dresses. Braid her hair with matching barrettes. Buy all the Barbie’s and books her room could hold. I wanted to read to her, take her to parks, museums and circuses, and sprinkle her with fairy dust and each ice cream cone with sprinkles.
Hannah from the beginning was an independent being, fighting for freedom and creative expression. She engaged people on her terms. She determined how long she would be hugged or held. When she had enough of one thing she sought out something new. She loved to sit in boxes and bowls, sometimes to spin, other times to snuggle. She loved to imitate horses galloping around on all fours. She ferociously fought taming her massively bushy red hair. She howled in doctor’s offices and it often took two people to administer shots or draw blood. She was captivated by the unusual to say the least; one day she had to have a fish head she saw in a market window. That fish head engaged her for hours. Dolls bored her. She surrounded herself with denizens of beanie babies and stuffed animals upon which she lavished great care. She begged for a cat and we got her a stray, Bobbie, as she would later clamor for pugs and add Gracie and Betty to our fur-family. Hannah was rewriting the manual on parenting and I was barely keeping up.
We tried all the usual things with Hannah: sports, gymnastics dance. Nothing seemed to stick. As someone who found a path of survival through books, faith and education, I yearned to introduce my Free-Spirited One with the treasures I had discovered. To my dismay, I learned that the path that freed me imprisoned her harshly.
Over time, Hannah was diagnosed with learning disabilities, Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and a low-grade depression stemming from a struggling self-esteem. At a caring but academically rigorous private school, Hannah found herself at the bottom. She learned to think of herself as dumb and unattractive. She hated being singled out for “special classes.” While she shined in art she became afraid to express herself. I fought for services from the Board of Education. How could I fight for her self-esteem? I was in unknown territory. I began to experience a profound loss of control. I longed for some “fish-head days” where I could make her happy again for a few hours.
It got worse before it got better. Moving to Long Island to a new home but with a still academically focused and affluent school continued Hannah’s unraveling. She didn’t fit in. I also didn’t feel like I fit in this new community, so I felt helpless as she spiraled downward. She cut classes. Shoplifted. Tried smoking. She pierced her own nose and ears. Around this same time Hannah was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Disease, an autoimmune disorder that attacks the thyroid. Near to failing some classes, she had suicidal thoughts. Her school and counselors recommended hospitalization.
Having a child in the hospital is another one of those visceral experiences, like childbirth, that never leaves your body. Time stops. The world around proceeds in slow motion while every living second is focused on how your child is doing, the next time you will see them, the doctor’s consultations. There is no way to turn the clock back ten years when you can hold them in your arms and everything is safe. In this new world, they have power to make choices, and you push harder than ever, harder than in any delivery room, for choices that point to life, wholeness and healing. Shattered at this hospital were any lingering illusions that the path I took to growth, wholeness and sanity would be similarly shared by Hannah. I discovered she indeed had her own unique path. God was with her and would give her grace, but she would have to embrace it. I came to accept this. No matter what, we could still journey together, my chameleon and me.
This grace came when Hannah transferred to a different high school, an alternate learning program, where she truly flourished. She did a dual program with Barry Career & Technical Educational Center and studied cosmetology. She is now a licensed cosmetologist and employed full time at a salon. Always a creative spirit, she loves the field of makeup and color. As someone who couldn’t tell a mascara wand from lip gloss, I was awestruck. Where did this gene come from? It is humbling and exhilarating at the same time to watch Hannah blossom and find her own path, which is very distinct from my own. I see God’s grace offered in different ways than I am used to.
One way Hannah has continued to embrace art through tattooing. While she has designed a beautiful “sleeve” for her left arm, and the back of her neck, I am drawn to one a simple tattoo she has. It is a straight arrow through a diamond. Diamonds are the hardest elements on earth. So the arrow represents the human spirit able to endure the toughest challenges life has to offer and to not only endure, but to emerge, straight and true. That’s my Hannah girl, my chameleon.
Being Hannah’s mother has taught me something that Kahlil Gibran said: that “children came through you but not from you.. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.” Being a parent has taught be to be a bow. To follow Gibran’s analogy, God is the archer, and I have been bent, sometimes gladly, sometimes in protest, in order to be shaped so that the arrow could be launched to its destiny.
So on my daughter’s 21st birthday, I pray this: fly, child, fly far and true and hit your mark. And know you have a mother who loves you and watches with pride as you soar.