She is at the kitchen counter, tongue jutted out over her top lip, pencil in an awkward grip, tears rolling down her face.
“There’s so much of this!” she says, between strangled sobs.
I chop carrots, a profile at a counter perpendicular to the one where her science book, notebook, tablet, and half-eaten bowl of cheese crackers are scattered. Her hair is in her eyes, and she keeps angrily tucking it behind her ear. I put down the knife, rinse my hands, wipe them on the back pockets of my jeans, and walk gently and slowly around the edges of the counter. I pull her hair back and wrap it into a quick ponytail, and then I kiss the top of her warm, slightly-sweaty head.
“No way through it but to do it,” I tell her.
She falls forward, her head in her arms, and cries, still gripping the pencil. I rub her back, softly, and rest my cheek on her neck to whisper in her ear, little useless things about getting a drink of water, taking a five minute break, finishing her snack. She growls and rises, determined through tears to get it done.
I straighten and make my way back toward the carrots, noting that her sister is on the couch in the next room, laptop propped on her knees, papers everywhere, water bottle cuddled against her side. She’s absentmindedly eating a package of dried seaweed, listening to music, and occasionally holding her phone up at just the right angle for a photo containing only half her face. She looks up, and I blow her a kiss. She smiles, waves, and catches it.
The battle rages on at the counter.
I wonder what made my two daughters so different: the older one go-with-the-flow, flexible, arched toward satisfaction; and the younger one frustrated, questioning, mourning, her happiness easily won but equally easily lost.
It is the question that nags me the most, the one about nature versus nurture. My older daughter cried for her first five months and then suddenly stopped one morning and has rarely cried again. She was always joyful after that, always thrilled at the magic that reaches her each day and, with some exceptions, seems to notice far more beauty than anything else. When sadness reaches her, it is almost a shock to her system, a betrayal of her beautiful world. When we prompt her to share her three happy thoughts from each day, they often begin with “I got to do…” or “I got to see…,” a testament to her feeling of wonder and luck.
My younger daughter can also always find happy thoughts at the end of the day — some of them heartbreakingly beautiful and astute — but more often than with her sister, she is distracted by the negative. “It was nice when this thing happened,” she’ll tell me, in the dark of her bedroom, “but why doesn’t that happen more?” or “but then this other thing happened, and that was so sad…” She is easily hurt by a mean comment, and though she has grown more adept at brushing them off, she does not forget them. She is slow to forgive, slow to see people who have hurt her as redeemable. She needs more reassurance.
It could be simply their innate ways of being. It could be that nothing we did for or with them in their childhoods would have changed their essential natures. However, the what-if that plagues me has to do with my younger daughter’s medical history. After nearly a decade of invasive tests, surgeries, strange and restrictive diets, and specialist appointments, I wonder all the time what lessons my younger daughter subconsciously absorbed, all during the most impressionable years of her life.
Did she learn not to trust her body?
Did she learn that sometimes you go to sleep and wake up with needles in you that you can’t even remember? Did she truly believe that happened only in the hospital, or were there nights at home that she woke in the dark to run her hands over her arms, just to check?
Did she learn that there were things deep inside her that she couldn’t see, things that needed fixing because they were wrong?
Did she learn that food was unpredictable, could turn on you in a moment and become dangerous?
Did she learn that even the loving adults in your life sometimes have to hurt you? Did she learn that about her parents, who took her to hospitals to be poked and prodded over and over?
Did she learn how to ignore hunger so well that she forgets to notice it, leaving her under-fueled and unaware at the kitchen counter, trying to do homework on a mostly-empty stomach? Did she learn addition as food traveled up and down her esophagus for an hour after lunch?
What if none of that had ever happened to her? What if she had never learned these lessons?
Would she be next to her sister on the couch, calmly doing homework and laughing at the texts from her friends?
How much of my younger daughter is her nature, and how much is her history? I have made my peace with not-knowing. A wise friend of mine once recommended holding our most frightening thoughts lightly, not gripping them in our minds so that they can’t leave when they’ve served their purpose. My wonder at my little one’s quick temper, deep feelings, and easy view of the darkness rests gently in the open palm of my hand. It serves no purpose, and so I hold it up to the sun and study it like a flower petal.
It can float away any time it likes.
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post, hosted by the beautiful thinker Kristi at FindingNinee.com. This week’s sentence is “The ‘what if’ I have the hardest time letting go of is…”