Then we met our daughter.
At first, her personality seemed to fit tidily into our pedagogical plan. She was pensive and introspective. That was the first day. I like to tell myself I was not completely insensitive in failing to equate her mellow personality with the fact that she was malnourished, suffered from Rickets, and so exhausted she slept 20 hours a day. This is an excerpt from my journal. It depicts the rapid progression of my daughter from a docile, gentle child who seemed to passively absorb the world around her, to a child jock most accurately resembling a heat-seeking missile. The entire transformation occurred within a 3-day time span in a dark, damp Haitian orphanage.
Day 1: We have known each other one full hour. We are at the orphanage, sitting on the cement ledge adjacent to the courtyard bars where the other children are eating. She barely moves. She lies melted into my chest, her limbs loose and dangling over my legs, her neck supple. Despite the thick Haitian heat, she wears a pale pink, double-layered dress with smocking at the chest and oppressive ruffles around the arms, a gift from a well-meaning American who had never traveled to the island of perpetual humidity. She is au natural underneath. She closes her eyes abruptly and shivers before bluntly releasing her aqueous bowels. Just as this registers, both to me and her, two mademoiselles magically appear, armed with rags and a mop. One whisks her from my arms, tossing all 15 pounds of her, poop included, in the air like a ball of pink fluffy yarn. My daughter barely notices, hardly reacts.
Day 2: She is 22 months old and is not yet walking. She has just languidly cruised a stucco wall, pausing briefly at short intervals to catch her breath. During her final stop, her eyes dart from her legs to her feet and back to me. Legs. Feet. The blan I'm supposed to call Mamma. The other mothers and I are sure she will initiate her first step. Instead, as we lean forward on the edges of our sweat-drenched plastic seats, she lets go of the wall for a split second, teeters momentarily, and then, accompanied by a slight moan of relief, proceeds to pee down her leg and all over today's lacy orphan couture. Finally, she topples into her urine and waits quietly for the mademoiselles and their mops.
Day 3: She is bouncing on my lap in the cement courtyard. She willingly calls me Mamma now and verbally assaults any other child who attempts to do the same. She will tolerate sharing my lap with her brother alone. All other suitors are met with an attempted shove and her only other word besides Mamma, that being a resolute NO! I am beginning to wonder about the frailty that has loomed over her so far. It doesn't seem to fit this child wriggling in my lap. She is holding her head high, giggling voraciously, observing the mademoiselles who are playing the drums and dancing in their Haitian homage to an afternoon tradition, like high tea or a siesta. Her legs flail. Her hands clap. Her head bobs. A mademoiselle enters the courtyard carrying a large box of peanut butter filled crackers, an offering from another adopting family. My daughter, she who has for two days graced me primarily with lethargy and bodily excretions, propels herself from my lap and runs at an impossible speed to the leg of the gift- bearer. A pack of crackers is placed in her hand, whereby she turns to find me, looks straight into my eyes, busts out an ear-piercing scream-slash-cackle, and runs back just as deftly as she had run away. As she literally leaps back into my lap, I notice that the drumming has ceased, the dancing frozen, and the mademoiselles are screaming with delight, "Rhubarb marche! Rhubarb marche!" Rhubarb walks! Rhubarb walks!
I stare stunned, thinking that she hadn't really walked, but sprinted. My daughter's first steps, though later than normal, reveal the newly unbridled gate of a bona fide runner. She who had previously seemed so pleasantly lethargic and docile, is actually some kind of super-human creature who can go from falling in her own pee to sprinting across a musty room for a package of crackers in three days flat. Secretly, I am ashamed to say, percolating beneath the obvious relief at this burst of health, the self-absorbed, heady little nerd conscience that dwells in my flaccid bi-ceps and atrophied quads notes how different she seems from the child who, just a day ago, perfectly justified our plan to practice lazy parenting and cerebral schooling.
A year later, we brought Rhubarb and her little brother home to our book-shelf lined house. This time, it was our son who slept all the time and who spent hours snuggled up under one of our shirts, close to our chests, while we read. Rhubarb wanted us to simultaneously hold her and bounce her. Understandably frightened by nearly everything, she felt most comforted when her tiny but robust body was vibrating against mine. So, while I held her, she cried and shook, cried and rocked, cried and chest-butted me. When she wanted to be let down, I released her into jumping or running or slapping her feet against the ground with an impressive thumping that I myself could not even imitate. Once she grew more accustomed to her new home, she began seeking opportunities to satisfy her lust for movement.
I spent the first year of our life together fighting myself daily, berating my self-imposed, viciously sanctimonious desire to encourage our children to develop their strengths. I constantly felt like I was having an affair, cheating on my daughter with the learning style I preferred. I grimaced each time I took great strides to avoid the ubiquitous jock-invested soccer fields that dot our suburban landscape, fearful that she might want to try them out. Sometimes I failed and the following dialog inevitably ensued when we passed one:
Rhubarb: Mamma, sak pase la? sak pase la?
What is happening there? What is happening there?
Me: Mwe cheri, ti moun la jwe malis...anpil malis.
My dear, the children there play malice...much malice.
I had learned my Haitian Kreyol in 6 weeks. I did not know how to say, "That, my dear, is a game played by people who can actually, believe it or not, run the entire length of a field without doubling over in searing pain shooting from their sides to their toes.”
Of course, deep down, somewhere near my bowels, where I keep all my fears, I knew that at least one such jock inhabited my very heart and that someday I would have to learn to speak her language. No longer living in an orphanage and finally nourished by an amount of food we could never have imagined that once-tiny child could consume, her legs had grown long and straight, her arms, at four years old, were cut with enviable muscles, and her feet had not stopped running since that day with the peanut butter crackers.
Four years later, my daughter's energy level is best compared to that of a hummingbird. She does not sit, but tosses herself onto a chair and proceeds to flutter until she either flings herself out of the chair or finds a comfortable position, frequently one that is upside-down. She neither stands nor walks, but bounces, dances and skips. When her swim instructor asked her to hold onto the edge of the pool and wait, she tread water instead. She moves in such unimaginable ways that her own body frequently surprises even her -- like the time she was flipping pancakes while simultaneously stretching one leg over her head. I suggested it might not be safe to do ballet while cooking near a hot stove. She looked at me perplexed before noticing where her leg was and coming out of her kinesthetic trance. Once, she ran to me crying, “I stepped on my elbow! I stepped on my elbow!” Her energy output is exhausting to watch. There are days when I seriously and shamefully consider sending her to school just so she will inflict her fidgety legs and flailing arms on some unsuspecting teacher instead of me. I’m not proud of this.
The day has come for me to back up my philosophies with some action. I have been forced to get off my academic butt and create an environment that honors the jock that is my daughter. I had to stop hiding behind her training wheels because she Forrest- Gumped them off her bike the first day of spring a few years back. Those blissful days when I could blame my shamefully weak tosses of the baseball on her baby sister in a sling hanging off my side are being replaced by her pitiful looks of shocked disappointment when the ball empties from my hand and dribbles to about a yard from my feet. She has been on to me for a while now. My inner nerd oozes from my pores, betraying me to this former president of the Mom Fan Club. She sees me curled up on the couch with Gabriel Garcia Marquez in one hand and knitting needles in the other, an aura of calm overtaking my body, and she offers a sigh of pity before pinning me down to wrestle.
No matter how badly I would prefer to meditate with my children over an e.e. cummings poem, this card-carrying bibliophile is striving to shed her nerd casing and don the lycra-clad countenance of a real life jock. If I am truly to share and encourage her educational passions and goals, after all, I am going to have to try and understand them.
This is hard work. It requires that I learn about an entirely new mindset: that of a person who enjoys activities that produce large amounts of sweat and total physical exhaustion. It forces me to show my face at places I had never previously considered approachable, like gyms and tracks, and possibly even those long-dreaded soccer fields. Most shockingly, it forces me to consider all that is good and healthy about this world I have shunned for so long. Though I must search deep into some previously unexplored crevice of my brain, for example, I am learning to read the poetry in a runner's stance, the theology of a cartwheel, and even the pedagogical benefits of an energetic wrestling match during Sunday morning snuggle time.
In fact, now that I can clearly see the effect a summer running on the beach and swimming in the lake has had on my daughter (she went from barely reading to tackling chapter books with no other instruction than that which could be done in sand), I am slowly convincing myself that our current “curriculum” requires little more than books on the shelves, her beloved violin, occasional field trips, and, most important, copious opportunities for physical exertion.
Of course, while she moves on to swimming laps across an Olympic-sized pool and ascending 5-story climbing walls like a spider on steroids, my feet ache, my biceps throb, and the old academic butt frequently begs me to sit on it and read like the good old days. It has yet to adjust to the endless hours it spends climbing virtual stairs at the gym in order to build up the strength and endurance of the mother of a jock. The good news is that I am seeing physical progress and Rhubarb reels with delight each time we forgo our bedtime stories for a 6-mile bike ride up the lake shore.
The bad news is that my son can apparently throw a ball further than any other 5-year-old my jock friends have ever seen. There is no turning back. It seems that I might actually be the mother of TWO jocks. Pray for me Miguez Bonino.
|Rhubarb enjoys a giddy moment after her first race.|