I snap a photo of Ellie in the midst of an open mouthed laugh, her inexplicably gold-blonde hair and blue eyes beaming joy across the room. Someone told me that parents aren’t happier than non-parents but only parents experience short bursts of sheer bliss. I am grateful and sad. Her grandfather would have been her biggest fan. After all, he was mine until he died on the morning after my eighth birthday.
Ellie grins. She’s wearing her chess tournament t-shirt over her clothes. At five, she still has that confidence I lost so long ago I can’t even remember what it felt like. It seems selfish to be jealous of my own child. Both her parents are here sharing the day that’s all hers. I’m terrified that I’ll die before she can really know me.
While Ellie was practicing for her first tournament with my husband, she lost countless games. 80% of the time, she reached a straight robot arm across the board and said, “Congratulations.” Her father said, “Good game. Play again?” But the rest of the time, games ended in truly spectacular displays of poor sportsmanship. Ellie would flip the board over, run crying and screaming from the board, slam her bedroom door, and wail. She’d flail for the longest ten minutes a parent can endure.
One of these times, after letting her cry just long enough to communicate that “we don’t behave like this,” I slipped into her room, sat on her purple rag rug and pulled her into the space created by my criss-cross-applesauced legs. She curled into a ball, letting me hold her like an infant until the wave of rage flowed out from her amygdala to her toes. The force of her feelings leaves me dumbfounded. As violent as her emotions are, she lets them flow. It’s petrifying to me who has spent well more than the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice required to master squashing emotional reactions.
I waited for her to quiet and then she asked the question she always asks when she’s a little embarrassed. She asked, “Can you tell me about a time you lost a game with your Daddy?”
“Sure. I was about your age and we were playing checkers. He always won at checkers. I got so mad, I crushed my own finger when I slammed the door. Unless I could calm down he wouldn’t play with me anymore.”
“Did you play again later?”
“I learned to calm down and we played again.”
“And your finger got better?”
“Yes, my finger got better.” I stifled a giggle.
“And then you won?”
“Well, no. You see my father was a very good checkers player. I never beat him.”
“Then he died?”
“Well, not right after a checkers game but, yes he died before I ever got good enough to beat him.”
Ellie stared at me. I wondered what was happening behind her azure gaze. She returned from her lizard brain. Instantly calm and in-charge, her hyper-sense of justice kicked-in.
“Mommy, that’s not fair.”
“No it isn’t. But life isn’t always fair, you just have to do the best you can with what you have.” Every time we talk about how life isn’t fair, I have to shove my own disappointment into the box under my sternum. That’s where I save my feelings for later. Without that box, I don't think I could survive these conversations. I have to be here for her, to be her mother. Feeling whatever comes over me or remembering anything that could awaken grief would be to fail her. It’s easier when we don’t talk. Teaching a child a lesson you never had the chance to finish learning is its own challenge. She gave me a fast hug and hopped to standing.
“Can I play against you? I think you might not be as good as Daddy.”
“Sure.” I hope she has a chance to beat me before I die. And just like that, I find myself sitting behind a chess board, playing black, losing to a five-year-old.