Yesterday, I drove through salt-bleached, frozen streets on my way to retrieve my daughter and her friends from school. The temperatures here have been dangerously cold; I am regularly rescuing my children from the frigid walk home.
As I drove my empty car past the grey of filthy alley snow under a colorless sky, I half-listened to the music playing through my speakers. I believe in the Oracle of the Random Playlist, my name for the theory that whatever plays when I hit “random” is a coded message from the universe. Several fiddle tunes and a standup comedy bit from Ellen DeGenerous later, I heard the opening piano chords from John Legend’s song “All of Me.”
I’m not much of a pop music fan, as any of my friends can tell you, but parenting brings surprising gifts. Beginning with Owl City when my older daughter was in elementary school, I found myself reluctantly led back to paying attention to the radio when my daughters started singing it at home. In 2014, as my husband and I waited for months to tell our younger daughter Sammi that she would soon be facing a second cardiac surgery, she came home from her school’s chorus practice one day singing “All of Me.” I listened from the front seat as she hummed, then asked her what she was singing. She opened her mouth and sang,
What’s going on in that beautiful mind?
I’m on your magical mystery ride,
and I’m so dizzy,
don’t know what hit me,
but I’ll be all right…
“That’s so pretty, sweetheart!,” I said then. “What’s it called?”
Her big sister told me the name of the song, and I looked it up later. I remember sitting crosslegged on the floor of my kitchen, listening to the song online, and feeling the earth underneath me roll and undulate like waves. It felt personal. It felt cruelly perfect.
I used to secretly roll my eyes at overly sentimental music appreciators, whether their genre of choice was Christmas carols or slow jams or jazz or something else. The idea that a piece of music could move someone to tears in any random moment seemed silly to me. I think that must have been because I hadn’t lived long enough or experienced enough intensity to associate a piece of music with a moment in my history, or with a sensation from a specific time and place. As a parent and an amateur musician, I have several pieces of music like that now, pieces that can send me spinning back to a sensation I thought I had long ago put to rest. Some of them are fiddle tunes I played when my daughters were small — one from my pregnancy with my older daughter — and some are songs with words. None are as intense for me as “All of Me,” a realization that surprises me every time I hear it play and have to stifle my tears.
How many times do I have to tell you
that even when you’re crying, you’re beautiful too?
The world is beating you down
I’m around through every mood
Sammi sang this, and I thought about the moments when I watched her fall asleep in operating rooms, wake in recovery rooms, doze drugged and flushed in beds and on backseats of cars and couches. I thought about the ways she raged against me as a toddler, banging her head on the floor and on sharp-edged tables and against my chest. I could see her chin pressed against my knees, looking up at me, begging and pleading not to go to school, not to leave the park, not to go to bed, tears streaming down, rage building up, and through all of it: beautiful.
For the months leading up to the chorus concert, she sang that song over and over: while she got dressed, while she walked to school, while we rode in the car. I learned every word and sang with her. She was eight, by then, and had a shoulder-length mop of dirty blond hair in varying stages of snarl and tangle. She was in that jack-o-lantern stage of missing baby teeth and half-grown adult teeth, and she was tiny from years of poor health. Still: she had her big brown eyes and her sing-song high clear bell voice, and she had skin like satin when I brushed my lips against her bare arms at bedtime. My head’s under water but I’m breathing fine, she sang, and I realized that we both were doing exactly that — but only I knew it.
All of me loves all of you
Love your curves and all your edges,
all your perfect imperfections
I struggled with those same sentiments when it came to myself as a woman and a mother. Even when she rested her bare cheek against my ravaged, stretch-marked, saggy-skinned belly and said, “it’s the softest most comfortable place in the whole world,” and even when she took my face in her hands and said, “Mommy, you look so pretty today,” I saw the ways I had been beaten down by the experiences of parenting. From the emergency c-section that took her from me to the dozens of times I’d been forced to turn her over to a doctor to keep her safe and alive, I felt at times that motherhood had turned me into a useful, sturdy, and visually unremarkable vessel.
But she was singing to me. To herself. To her friends, to the world. To the world that had given her to us and then dangled her at the edge of our vision over and over, with her oblivious and shining anyway.
You’re my downfall, you’re my muse
My worst distraction, my rhythm and blues
I can’t stop singing in my head for you
The song makes me cry. I cry with the memory of my fear of losing her, with the memory of watching her sing and trying to hold it in my heart forever. I cry with the realization of how much I can give her that I cannot seem to give myself. I cry with the stubborn feeling that I should stop crying, that she’s here now and that’s enough. I cry because I know some parents will cry over this song or another because their children won’t be as lucky as Sammi. She is my muse, in so many ways — the inspiration for the deepest discoveries and the most beautiful hurt, and for gratitude I could never have described before she swept into my life.
The song ended, and I parked my car on a side street behind the school. In the rear view mirror, I saw her running toward me, bright and singing.