She is six now. It is harder to control her in the ways that were easy when she was three. She has learned that she does not always have to hold hands with mommy. Sometimes she races ahead, cartwheels, undertakes excursions to investigate leaves, practices her dance steps. Sometimes she walks next to me, chattering away. Sometimes she will take my hand. When we cross the street or the parking lot, I reach for her. It seems strange to have to reach for her. I never had to do that before. Her slender hand was always nestled in my hand. I was afraid of the world outside our apartment. She was afraid that I would leave.
She wants to go to the bathroom by herself. She does not want to accompany me. She wants to sit in the car while I run in with an errand. She wants to walk into the school building herself.
Of course, she also wants me to sit with her, or preferably lie with her as she falls asleep and not let go of her hand until she is snoring. At church, she crawls into my lap, drapes herself over my legs. At the grocery store, she steps to the edge of the cart, loops her feet on the bottom shelf and rides that way, leaning back–her curls resting on my chest. If I sit on the sofa, she snuggles tight, shoulder to shoulder with me.
We are constantly negotiating these boundaries. She can go to the bathroom herself at the JCC, at my workplace, at church, but not restaurants or stores. She can sit locked in the car while I run into the bank in one neighborhood, but not any others. She can stay locked in the apartment while I run to the basement to do laundry, but not if I’m running to the back for the dumpster. I can sit on the chair instead of the bed, but I can’t leave until she’s sound asleep. I can take a thirty minute break in my room, but I can’t shut the door. Every little step feels huge to me. Some of it is the constant tearing of parenting, the incremental letting go. Some of it is the beleaguered city we live in, where not every bank is a safe neighborhood, not every corner can be turned down. And some of it is that ever-changing dance of attachment.
Last week, I did laundry in the basement, and let her stay upstairs locked in alone. I came up again, quickly, as promised, and let her know I was back. She was watching a movie. I went into my room to fold and sort the clothes.
After a while, I was aware of someone banging on my front door. Earlier that day, someone had slipped past the security door and knocked on my door trying to get me to change my electric provider. I was angry at him, and more angry at whoever let him in. I suspected it was him again and opened the door to find Selam there, crying, with my upstairs neighbor. She hadn’t hear me when I came back and got lonesome, so she left out the back door, unlocking it herself, to try to find me in the basement. She stood at the laundry room door and banged and banged but I didn’t answer (because I wasn’t there). The neighbor found her, tried to knock on the back door but that door is far from where I was and I didn’t hear them. He walked her around outside and knocked on the front door until I came. The whole time, she was convinced that I had left. I have never left her–never left the building without her.
Thanking the neighbor, I pulled her inside and in my arms. We sat on the floor in the entry way and she cried. I might have, too. “I am never leaving you, Selam. Never.” I must have said it a hundred times.
I beat myself up for a couple hours that night, before realizing that going to the basement is something people in houses do, too. Other kids her age are able to play in their yards unattended, to walk to school even. But she can’t. We live where we live, and she is who she is. I was grateful that she remembered that this neighbor is the one in the building that we have agreed to have as an emergency helper. She told me that she knew she couldn’t leave with anybody else.
There’s a book called the Invisible String. I bought it on recommendation of a preaching website, because it works as a children’s sermon (it does.) Though I’m not enamored of the book, she is. It’s about the invisible string that ties each of us to the others that we love. That is a concept that she has been able to grab onto, in a way that other books about how mommy always comes back have not worked for her. (She’s enjoyed them, but it hasn’t been a comforting talisman for her).
I suspect that in an ideal world, Selam and I would be connected by an invisible bungie cord, each able to call the other careening back with a simple tug. I suspect I would have perpetually bruised ribs, from the tugs and the crashes and the giving and the stretching and the reaching and the perpetual ache of leaving and returning and love.