I came across the photo quite by accident. I was researching a book I plan to write. I needed old pictures from a house we once lived in – a house that was haunted beyond comparison. My mind was set on looking through all the old photo albums to see if I could find anything amiss, anything that would support the haunting. I was hoping for a creepy face in a mirror or a window, one I’d missed when I so carefully pasted the picture into the album more than twenty years ago. Instead, I found this photograph, an encapsulated memory that is frozen perfectly in time.
It was 1990. I was just a little older than my daughter is now. Life was complicated, as it often is, but it was easier too.
Having a one-year old wasn’t something I had ever encountered before. Nobody could have fully explained it to me beforehand. It was something I had to experience for myself. Life came with sticky fingers and very little sleep. I shopped with coupons, did the dishes with one arm as I held her in the other. I cooked dinners that were often burned. The house usually looked as though it had been turned upside down and shaken and I seldom wore make-up or brushed my own hair. I had no friends, my husband worked long hours, and my family was a thousand miles away.
And my daughter was nothing like the sweet cherub I’d imagined. She was sometimes an outright terror. She threw tantrums at the drop of a hat. She wouldn’t allow me to snuggle or cuddle her for long, and she refused to take naps. When she was two, she wouldn’t allow me to brush her hair. I had to chase her through the house first. If I was lucky enough to catch her, I had to straddle her and brush her soft curls through her swinging arms. And she always wanted three books to be read to her at bedtime, usually the same three books she always chose. If I tried to skip a chapter to hurry up the bedtime process, craving a few minutes to myself, she’d always catch me, even before she could read herself. It probably goes without saying that she was the love of my life.
Never, had I felt such overwhelming love for another human being. Since the moment she was born, maybe even before then, I felt a connection with her that I’d never experienced before. She was so quick, so smart. She taught me how to look at life in a brand new way. When we put her on her first carousel ride, she spent the duration of the ride studying the gears above her, as if trying to figure it out. She started crawling at seven months and was outright walking by nine months. Nothing would stand between her and what she wanted. She made me examine my life and all the fears that had held me back from my dreams. If a two year old could master uncertainty, why couldn’t I?
When she looked at me with those bright blue eyes and smiled, the world just faded away around us. I would have done anything for her. I would have died for her if I had to. I’d never felt that way before. It was simply mesmerizing.
I’d always considered myself a modern woman. I worked because I enjoyed it. I liked making my own income, not having to rely on someone else for my existence, but it all changed the moment she was born. My values turned on a dime. How could I hand over this precious child to a stranger? How would I know that they would feed her when she was hungry, change her diaper when she was soiled, or looked at her as if she was the most amazing creature who ever existed? I just couldn’t do it. All my priorities,all my thoughts of making a name for myself, fell like dust to the ground. Nothing mattered anymore except for her.
We were living a typical life of newlyweds with a baby. With me out of work, we were suddenly living on one salary in a house we’d just moved into. Vacations were a luxury we only dreamed of. Going to Hawaii was something I thought I’d never do. But then it happened. My in-laws gave us frequent flyer miles to fly to Hawaii on our way to the island in the South Pacific where they lived.
We only spent two days in Hawaii. It was all we could afford at the time. I should have looked around and really appreciated the overpowering awe of actually being in Hawaii. I knew people twice my age who had never been before. It should have been a dream come true and in some ways it was, but I only had eyes for my baby.
I marveled at the way she curled her little pink toes into the sand, squealing with glee as the ocean lapped up onto the shore, covering her feet. I laughed as she chased the seagulls, always out of reach from her outstretched arms. And I loved the way she pointed to her bathing suit, the one with two little fishies kissing, and said, “fishies,” in a proud voice.
I might have seen Hawaii, but the best part was seeing it through her eyes.
As I was packing up my house recently to move further west, I came across that tiny little bathing suit in a cardboard box marked “Laura.” It was nestled in between all the other cast-offs from her childhood: the dress she wore for her first Easter, the handmade unicorn costume she wore in the third grade, a pair of red glittery shoes that she insisted on wearing when she was two. I just held the bikini in my hands for a moment, marveling at how tiny it was. And then I thought about the woman who once wore it.
Laura is now 24. It came as no surprise to anyone that she would never settle for less than what she wanted. Teachers described her as tenacious and social. She made friends easily and took on challenges with the same fearlessness she displayed all throughout childhood. She put herself through college and graduated with a mechanical engineering degree. Unlike many of her peers, who would struggle to find work, she’d already secured employment by the time she graduated. She now works as a nuclear engineer on a Navy submarine in another state. She has many close friends and a new boyfriend I’m eager to meet. If anything scares her, I’ve yet to see it.
Even though I don’t see her as often as I’d like, I still remember moments like this when the world just faded away. I was on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii, but I only had eyes for the small jewel in front of me.