Happy Birthday, Carlene, Age 24

I wrote this essay in 1999 for my oldest daughter on her 16th birthday. She turns 24 tomorrow, but I still feel the same way 8 years later.

Thanking a 16-Year-Old Life Changer

Well, here you are, 16-years-old today and I can’t think of what to buy you to mark this crossroads birthday. Clothing will only wear out, jewelry will get tangled and forgotten, figurines will chip and end up on a table at a garage sale.

What do I get a girl who has changed my life so profoundly, expected nothing less than everything from me, taught me promises are not contingencies?

I thank God every day for you, that you came into my life when you did. After your dad died, you were my only reason to live. Our 1 a.m. feedings, watching Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, the dozens of car trips that first year to visit your grandparents singing “Apples and Bananas” and “Jelly Man Kelly” over and over to pass the time, waking to find you peeking out at me between the bars on your crib and playing peek-a-boo when I should have been getting ready for work – these were not just distractions from sadness. Our life together has always been tightly bound by love and wonder.

I was overwhelmed by how protective my love could be the day you came home from first-grade and cried (which you rarely did) because the other girls in your class wouldn’t invite you to play with them during recess. It broke my heart to think no one would give you a chance – you, the most quiet and sweet girl I’d ever known. It’s why today I would defend you against anyone who hurts you.

I know you don’t always understand the animosity I harbor for people who have caused you pain, especially the ones you have forgiven. Maybe someday when your daughter cries because someone pushed her down, called her a name, broke her heart or a promise, you’ll understand.

From the day you colored your walls red and told me you didn’t know where the crayon was, to the time you stood at the top of the stairs, hands on your 3-year-old hips, and yelled, “Mommy? You piss me off!”, to the day you walked out the door with a boy on your arm and high heels on your feet and gave me a little wave from his car, I’ve watched in awe as you’ve grown up with the kind of conscience and self-awareness some people never find if they live to be 100.

As each year passes, you peel back the secrets life holds – the freedom that comes from tying your own shoes and staying out past dark, and the knowledge that it’s OK to make mistakes and eat last night’s leftovers for breakfast.

Soon I will teach you to drive, which will be a far different experience than when I taught you to ride your bike. When I ran behind you while you rode, white-knuckled, on your two-wheeler, my hand only rested on the back of the seat but it made you think I was steadying the bike. You didn’t know you were doing all the work. You didn’t want me to let go, but you wanted me to let go. You saw ahead of you, with the wind blowing across your face, the freedom you wanted and feared. The decision was yours and after days of practice, you yelled “Let go!” and you sped up as I slowed down.

Now it’s me who sits at the junction of your emancipation and my desire to hang on to the familiar. I want to let go but I want to hang on, steady you with my guiding hand, make decisions for you. But as you’ve told me many times lately, you can think for yourself and you hate it when people treat you as though you can’t or don’t.

I promise I’ll try to never be one of those people.

I hope God lets your dad take a look at you every once in a while, during those times you’re singing or long-jumping or sleeping between your flannel sheets with the yellow blanket we wrapped you in when we took you home from the hospital.

It’s the least God could do for the man who was the first to hold you, sing to you, and rock you to sleep.

So happy birthday, honey. No gift I could give you could show you how glad I am you are my daughter. If there is a gift to be given it is from you, for without you these last 16 years, I would never have learned the meaning of unconditional love.

2 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Carlene, Age 24

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