My first daughter, Grace, was born into student housing. Long ago. Cinder blocks on a slab that drew no sunlight 85% of the day. Bad maintenance and spotty heat. But in the summer would heat up like a brick pizza oven. We ran the window a/c so high one summer that our dwarf hamster froze to death in his cage. But, as a young family we were glad to have it. Glad to have a home, our education in place, a healthy new baby. She had her own room, we had cable and our own parking spaces. I remember thinking, for a short time, that we had it all. Especially when there was still money left for food and diapers. There wasn’t (thanks, Mama!).
One of my heros, Neil Simon, passed away recently and I was thinking about a part of his book Memoirs. Where he talks about the first apartment he and his wife had in New York. How expensive everything was, how broke they were. How small. How the ceiling would pour water. And they’d lay close together just to keep warm. And he was wise enough later in life to realize that, in their life together, the two of them had never been happier. Than when they were struggling. How he grew to miss what now seemed like ‘the easy years’ comparatively. The good years.
I think of these old days. The tiny victories of finding ‘good’ clothes at Goodwill so my toddler would look nice at daycare. Taking parts from one Ford Probe and sticking them in the other just to Frankenstein together one car good enough to keep us on the road. Figuring out how insurance worked in urgent care for a baby with a double ear infection on Christmas eve. Making Christmas a ‘thing’ period. And I still laugh at that young feeling that you’ve really made it once you finally have a place of your own big enough for a Christmas tree that doesn’t have to sit up on a piece of furniture. We didn’t. Not then. And it was great.
But everything is relative. You can’t see or truly embrace these simple beauties when you’re living them. You tend to forget them…once your Christmas tree is sitting on the floor. Once you’re on to the next struggle. Once you level up.
When I see my child now, in these old pictures, I’m torn. I see how sweet her childhood truly was. How safe. But I also see everything that was still coming. The pain ahead of her. The things she would have to learn to carry for all time. And all I want to do is protect her. From all of it. To hold these pictures tight for all the times I knew I wasn’t going to be able to hold her. The eventual times where she would have everything she ever wanted, but nothing she so desperately needed.
It isn’t often I revisit those first years. In the past when I have, It’s always been in times of great struggle. And grief. Times when I wished most for those old simplicities that I couldn’t see then. Times that taught you that love and protection really were all that mattered. When that was all that you had and it was plenty. The things you didn’t know then. The things we forget once we level up.
Today, when I see these pictures, it’s no longer in reminiscing for that ‘simplicity’. Or in what we believe, later, to be so charmingly uncomplicated. Even relatively. It’s in pride, and embracing the whole of the storm we withstood.
And all these years later, I no longer stand in front of her to protect her from hurt. I no longer stand behind her oblivious to her pain. I stand with her now. We have made one another stronger. Both well aware that we saved each other. We won’t have to get years out to see it. She’ll be ready when she lets go of my hand. This time for the right reasons.
Happy Birthday. Level up, Baby Girl.