We all remember that kid. In college, in highschool, in gradeschool, maybe even in preschool, we knew that kid. Boy or girl, gender is not the issue. We all recognized them on sight. There was an essence that emanated from them, through the skin, maybe - possibly a rare hormone that the rest of us don’t possess. You can recognize it even when they are absent from a room that they once, recently, inhabited - the residual fumes left by the thermonuclear heat of their afterburn.
Tonight, Q was over at her grandmother’s for her Tuesday evening family night, the one even out of the week that I generally have free to work for a few, precious, uninterrupted hours. Instead, like a lost dinghy, I found myself drifting into her room to straighten a few things that didn’t really need straightening. As I folded some clean leggings onto a stack on her shelf, I realized it: there was that scent in the room. That rarefied essence left behind like faerie dust only by the select few.
As the realization hit me, I stopped with a pair of tights dangling from my fingers, and glanced around my daughter’s room. I realized that, when she’s not around, I go in there just to admire her essence...the way she arranges her toys, the favorite blanket tossed carelessly over the end of her bed, the set of baker’s spatulas that she hangs from the light switch next to her play kitchen. It’s the same way that I press her miniature sweater against my nose before tossing it in the hamper. The same way that I sneak into her room at night before turning in, just to lower myself gingerly onto the coverlet and put my face close to hers, admire her profile in the halflight, the confident rhythm of her breathing, the straight line that her eyelashes make in repose, the achingly perfect angle of her chin.
I see it in the faces of strangers whose footsteps veer off course as they pass her on the street, distracted by her beauty. I see it in the gentle and somewhat dogged eyes of the boys who go out of their way to help her climb the highest structure at the playground, the children who stop dead in the middle of a game to murmur “Ohhh..she’s pretty!” as we wander by.
I’m not too proud to tell you that I was never the cool kid. I was often the kid with the cool life (thanks entirely to my very cool, bohemian and adventurous parents), but in essence I was always the dork, the geek, the intellect, the introvert, the teacher’s pet, the quiet one, the odd girl out. I do not know what it’s like to be Q, what she will face, what she will care about and what she will not care about, what she will miss and what she will resent. She is another being entirely from me.
This morning, after her speech therapy class, we all three went down to the mall to visit “Santa Claus” along with her best friend Esme. Q has never been a fan of Santa. In fact, she doesn’t trust him as far as she can throw him. And frankly neither do I since I smelled the alcohol on his breath last year when, at loose ends, Q and I made a visit to take a first photo with him. Taking photos with Santa is something of an American tradition, one that has always made me uneasy since my rather foreign parents never participated in this ritual when I was a child. Last year’s photo was my very first venture into this particular American tradition. I was really hoping that the local mall’s Santa would not fall under the infamous stereotype. When he did, it did nothing for my perception of the ritual.
As for Q, she was terrified of Santa when we went last year. And I could hardly blame her. So when we went to join Esme this year, I was fully prepared to give Q the out. But when Esme sat down without hesitation on Santa’s lap, Q almost immediately went to join her. At first, seated on Sant’s left knee, she was frozen. She was an animal in the headlights, afraid to move lest the predator devour her. But after a few minutes, undevoured, she relaxed.
After the fact, looking at the photo of Q and Esme with Santa, I could see her essence captured in that shot. Her straight and confident carriage - shoulders square, graceful limbs at ease, face relaxed and just a bit cocky, and I could see for a moment into her future.
When we tell Q’s story, people have varied reactions. They say “she’s so lucky”, or “she’s so brave”. But the real story is in the eyes of those strangers who, all unknowing, are stopped in their tracks by her beauty, her charisma, the sheer force of her physical presence. These people don’t see the “abandoned child”, the “orphan”, the “disability”. They don’t see the social welfare institute, the malnutrition, the many, many surgeries.They see that rare creature that stops them in their tracks with the barefaced, careless, joyful force of her Q-ness.