Your father went to San Diego for business that weekend and it was just us girls in the house. Perfect for female bonding. He’d almost convinced me to go with him—a weekend getaway—but I couldn’t leave you so soon. You were seven months old. And you were the most beautiful baby girl I’d ever seen. I was biased. But even strangers stopped to get a better look when I pushed you through aisles of the supermarket, down the sidewalk to the park, through bookstores, parking lots, pharmacies. You drew the attention. With your big green eyes. Your dark hair—thicker than most your age. Your smooth skin and rosy cheeks. Your dimples. You were something to see.
You were advanced, too. Your motor skills began developing early. You were always very alert, aware of your surroundings. Sometimes I’d look at you and I felt you could see right into me. That you knew exactly who I was and how we came to be together. You filled every gap. I’d never known that kind of love until you came around. Came around—like I didn’t expect you. Like I didn’t anxiously waddle through nine months before your arrival. Like I didn’t pore over every book, every article, every piece of gossip that could help me prepare for you. Like I didn’t feel you move within me—especially in late afternoon. That was always your busiest time of day.
No. You, baby girl, were planned. You were anticipated for years. You were conceived after a night of dancing in Oahu. Your father and I had ventured away for the week of our anniversary. We got back to the Aston Waikiki Beach Tower Hotel that first night, fell into bed, and made you in those soft white sheets. And you were so needed.
When I found out you were growing inside of me, I took all the advice I could get. I wanted to do everything I could to keep you safe. So I talked to my mother. I talked to my mother’s mother. I talked to my sister, mother-in-law, aunts, cousins, friends, strangers.
“You should breastfeed your baby if you don’t want to cause any brain damage. You don’t want your baby to have brain damage, do you?”
“Honey, you’re eating for two now. Have a second slice of this pie!”
“Before I had Tabitha, I was a 34B. Now I’m a 36D. Oh, you’re just gonna love what pregnancy does to your body. At least, your husband will!”
“Do you have a piece of paper? I’m gonna let you in on the seven principles of eating healthy.”
Anecdotes, admonitions, and real advice, I took it all. I wouldn’t leave anything to chance. Being pregnant mostly gives leeway for others to reminisce on their pregnancies. But I didn’t mind. With you, I was the happiest I’d ever been.
Almost nine months to the day of that anniversary trip, you graced us with your presence. The only reason I’d ever say no to going away with your father was to be with you. To share a little more time, to witness more of your life. It was your father’s first time being away from you for more than the few hours he spent at work each day. Broke his heart to leave you. But he knew you’d be in good hands.
With a kiss for both of his girls and a wave, your father headed to the airport. And so began the first day of our girls’ weekend. It was early October, the weather just beginning to cool. We spent most of the day in the park beneath an old poplar tree. I laid you on your back so you could watch the occasional leaf fall from the high branches. You squirmed and flapped your arms trying to catch them. You were so small on my grandmother’s checkered quilt and I was so happy to be beside you. To watch you grow in small ways. I’d do anything I could to give you a happy life.
When we were done with the park, we came home and I fed you. I remember clearly the onesie I changed you into before bed—white with little violets all over. It took you longer to get to sleep that night. I sang, cooed, hummed, rocked you gently. I was in the rocking chair when you fell asleep—your head on my chest. I waited a while and put you into the crib. When you were settled, I went back downstairs and picked up a book. I wasn’t satisfied with the quiet, so I turned on the television.
An hour later, lonely and tired, I came upstairs to check on you. You were so calm in sleep. I stood and watched you breathing in and out. You didn’t stir when I picked you up and brought you into my room. I lay down on my side of the bed and put you down beside me. I’ve never forgotten the peace I felt then. The feeling of being so connected to another human being. You who took up space within my physical being for so long. You who took up so much space in my heart. I watched your long lashes flutter and your tiny feet kick until I fell asleep holding your little fingers. I slept soundly that night—better than I had in weeks.
You and I were inseparable. Just you and I in our special place in the park. I can’t count how many times we’ve been back there. Mommy and Ava under the poplar tree. The years since that girls’ weekend have been like a dream. Your father came home and restored order, but it was different.
I remember when you first spoke, saying my name. I remember your first steps. I remember you fighting me when I first tried to feed you peas. You pushed away the little spoon each time it approached your mouth. The train sounds that came from my mouth couldn’t persuade you to open up. Peas ended up in your hair, on my arms, around your chin, on the floor, but never in your mouth.
I remember when your hair started growing in curls. Beautiful, dark curls like your father. You never made a fuss when I had to brush your hair. You’d just tilt your head back and close your eyes, letting out a content sigh.
I remember taking you to your first day of kindergarten. Another little girl offered you a baby doll to play with and you had no trouble saying goodbye to me.
I remember your tenderness. You were always so willing to share, willing to be whatever someone else needed. In fifth grade a boy in your class got leukemia and you insisted on buying him a blue baseball cap. You used all the money you’d saved from the tooth fairy.
I remember when you came home from school and announced you were going to be an archaeologist. You took to digging all over the backyard, underneath the poplar in the park, on the playground at school. For the next four months, you were always dirty. No one minded. Especially not when you smiled and made the dirt vanish from thought.
I remember when you started learning to drive. Your teacher called to tell me you’d lied about your age so you’d be in the first class that went out on the road. I remember when you got your license. I also remember how you hit a deer the first night you drove alone. Well, the deer hit you, didn’t it?
I remember the dances you went to. Four proms and a ring dance. You were beautiful each time. You asked me to do your hair and makeup. You told me you trusted me more than those ladies who worked the makeup counter at Belk. I kept it simple. Your natural beauty was always enough.
I remember your graduation. How all of your friends cried and told you to visit as they hugged you and tried to wipe snot from their noses simultaneously.
I remember your first heartbreak. The boy who so reminded me of your father at that age. You were going to separate colleges. You’d keep in touch, but you wouldn’t keep up the relationship. You kept a brave face. Later, I held you in my arms while you cried. You’d never felt something like that before. And my heart broke with yours.
I visited you at college and argued with you when you came home for breaks. I mailed you countless packages, took phone calls from you at three in the morning, transferred money into your bank account when you were running low.
In your junior year, you met a new boy. You fell in love again. Only, this time, the love stuck. He wanted to take care of you from then on. Your father and I let you go. We knew you’d be in good hands.
And now I sit writing to you. I write to you because you are far. Because I love you. Because I seek redemption. Because all of my memories are pretend.
Because you didn’t make it past that girls’ weekend. Because I fell asleep beside you in my big bed and rolled on top of you in the middle of the night. Because I slept too soundly. Because you were too small and helpless to relieve my weight. Because my sleeping form smothered you in the night. Because I didn’t realize I was taking the very life I’d given to you.
I woke that morning eager to see you. Eager to watch your eyes when they met mine. But you were so still. Your face was mottled. Your chest didn’t move up and down the way it had when I’d been watching you just hours before. You were so small in that big bed. Small. Lifeless.
You, baby girl, answer to prayer, beautiful being that you were—you were gone. I had to tell your father. I called him, told him to come home early—there’d been an accident. I told him everything. He said he didn’t blame me, said he still loved me—no matter what. He left me two months after your funeral.
I remember when I began living as though you were still here. I picked up right where we’d left off, baby girl. I took you to that poplar in the park, to birthday parties, to bookstores. I braided your hair, gave you nicknames. I fed you, taught you to tie your shoes, made blanket forts with you. I taught you to read and let you pick out your own clothes. You and I have been inseparable since that weekend. Forgive me, Ava, if it isn’t everything you’d hoped it to be. I’ve done everything I can to give you happy, to give you presence, to give you life.