In any compelling story, there is a natural building of intensity that leads, as we all know, to a climax. A couple searches for each other, meets, falls in love, and commits or separates, and they’re left different, marked by their experiences. Or: a world is beset by confrontation and battle, factions emerge, one side is victorious or decimated, and a new world is born. Or: a child is born to a yearning mother, grows sick, struggles, stumbles, regains her footing, and is cured, revealing mother and child older, changed, and almost unrecognizable.
That’s the resolution. What happens next? What is in the falling action of my story, the third story, the one with a once-sick now-well daughter, and a once-frightened now-what mother?
My daughter is eleven now, almost three years past her final surgery, two-and-a-half years past the time she first began eating well, two years past her dismissal from all her specialists, two years past the first major gains in height and weight she’d had since her babyhood. I haven’t had reason — real reason, justifiable reason — to worry about her health in the last two school years.
It has been, in many ways, like becoming a mother all over again.
Who was this child, once our relationship expanded past the edge of the dining room table where she labored to finish a meal in under two hours? When I stopped crossing the threshold between the operating room and the hospital corridor every few months, I had to find a new place to explore. No longer defined by all the things she and I had to do for each other, our relationship slowly became the sacred one I’d always wanted with her.
To begin, we had space and time we’d never had before. Morning breakfasts could become lazy and include circuitous conversation about her friends, a tv show, and what we each thought about a new song we’d discovered. She told me stories about the cat who slept on the warm cement of the parking lot she could see from her bedroom window at night, and I started seeing all the parts of the world visible to her through her vital, awakened eyes. We’d been sleepwalking, or maybe army-crawling — machines in our relationship, dedicated and loyal and engaged but more steadfast than passionate. In those mornings when she absentmindedly ate her whole bowl of cereal in fifteen minutes, there was time to let friendship blossom.
Then, she both grew away from her fraught little-girl-years and grew toward adolescence, and her ideas gained complexity. Her vocabulary began to catch up to her mind, and the poet’s soul I’d suspected lurked beneath bubbled up to surprise me. She told me her friend’s voice made her feel warm, that she could listen to her talk all day about anything and it would be perfect because her voice was like the sun, or the sun coming through a window when it’s cold out. I stared into my girl’s sparkling brown eyes and saw a kindred waiting for me.
But still, in those moments I was often pierced with the sharp edge of memory, the years when she was inarticulate — yes, from age, but also from hunger and impatience and low energy — and when more than half our conversations were about medicine or nutrition or paying attention to me, NOW. That pointed memory played across my heart often as I was falling in love again with my daughter; it drew a line in my family history that created a before she was well space and an after she was well space, effectively cutting her in half in my heart. The before kid and the after kid. The one I didn’t understand and the one I do.
I’m trying, now, with the gift of time that only keeps expanding, to blur that line. Eleven is the in-between year of childhood and real adolescence, and she asked me, recently, if I would take a picture of her surgical scar for the Rock My Scar Contest by Mended Little Hearts. Because her surgeon opened her through her back, along her shoulder blade, I had her take off her shirt and flex her muscles; I’d take the picture from behind her.
In the photo, her back is a tight canvas of visible muscles. Her recent passion for rock climbing has made her strong, and her time spent flipping over a bar in our basement had done more than tire her out before bed. She’s edging closer to womanhood, and her waist dips in below her athletic torso. The scar, a white line tracing the path of her shoulder blade and joined by a second, raised scar from the chest drainage tube, is the least remarkable thing in the photo. What’s most noticeable is how vital, healthy, and powerful she looks.
That scar line simply doesn’t define her anymore.
The picture was too much for me, and as it turns out, it’s too suggestive at her age. The placement of her scar makes it too hard to take a photo any other way but topless, and she’s now just too old to put something like that on the internet. Most importantly, all of that became true without me even noticing.
We’ve crossed a boundary together. I, too, am not the same parent I was. I’m more rested and introspective; I’m older and softer; I’m more curious and less controlling. Our falling action is falling still. Someday, I will remember her early years as one stop on a long route; not the border but one of many passings. That moment, when I realize how I’ve reframed, will be sweet indeed.