She was five when I first met her. Hiding behind her mother, who was wearing a forest green robe and slippers. They weren’t expecting visitors, but here we were, pulling up in a dirty burgundy Buick. A time before cell phones, a time of surprises, what’s forty-five minutes out of the way? Let’s try it, they might be home.
I was traveling with a close friend, and this was his family. He grew up outside of Providence, across the street from fields and cows he used to say. The oldest of seven, my friend was in college now, and wanted to check in on his mother and the kids.
When his mother saw he wasn’t alone, she teased him. You could have given me a heads up, she said, tightening her terrycloth belt. The girl giggled. I can’t imagine being the youngest of seven children but I suppose you might need to physically attach yourself to your mother’s robe if you wish to spend any time with her.
I shook the mother’s hand, which was small and soft. I remember these details, like the small hand and the green robe, because this was one of the few times I met my friend’s mother, before the darkness that swirls around all of us seeped in and took her away. I waved at the little girl. She was beautiful with dark eyes, light brown skin, and soft curly hair. She had the kind of face that would inspire origin questions, to which the answer could equally be Iceland, Indonesia, or in this case, Rhode Island.
It was three years after this first meeting, after this friend of mine and I had fallen in love, when the darkness struck. Witnessing children of various ages lose their mother was a study in dread and quiet fascination. This was the saddest thing I had ever seen, and to this day, still is. Some of the children reacted in anger, others in denial, and the little girl, now eight, in stoicism. She announced, with confidence, that her mother would not want her to hide, that she would want her to be strong. As an adult now, I understand that we often look to children for tips on how to live, but then I was twenty-two, pretending to be an adult, and her bravery stunned me.
I have had the privilege of watching this brave girl grow up, along with her equally courageous and kind siblings. The loss of their mother was character defining for all of them.
Recently I visited this girl, now thirty-one and the mother of a newborn. She has the same beautiful face, and the same measured strength. With the support of a devoted partner, she is confidently sorting out nursing and sleeping. Her cozy apartment in Queens is decorated with family photos, including one of her mother in aviator sunglasses. When I first saw her baby, who has dark eyes, light brown skin and a few tiny soft curls, I felt that a mysterious question had been answered. I don’t believe in an afterlife, or spirits watching us, but then again, I choose to believe my deceased father is now living on the moon. Things don’t happen for reasons, but they do happen. And this girl is now a mother.