“You can be brave on the inside even if you aren’t brave on the outside,” she said the other night as I tucked them into bed. The profundity of her statement made me catch my breath.
“What?” Little sister scrunched her nose, not nearly as impressed as I was with her big sister’s wisdom.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Alea said. “How can you be brave on the inside if you are scared on the outside?” She pantomimed screaming in fear for effect, waving her hands beside her head as though she were Chicken Little and the sky was falling.
Cora was undeterred. She quietly and calmly said, “I was brave today.”
And she was. They both were.
It all started at Walmart. My sister-in-law, my girls’ beloved Aunt Hannah, wanted to get a third piercing in her ears, so when we went school supply shopping, we stopped by the jewelry counter to get some back-to-school bling for the soon-to-be high school Sophomore. (With her mom’s permission, of course.)
After watching Hannah get her ears pierced, Alea hopped on the chair and said without an ounce of concern, “My turn!”
I was a little taken aback… we’d talked about piercing ears before, but both girls had been too afraid of how it might hurt. But after watching Hannah, Alea was steadfast and unwavering. She closed her eyes, took three deep and slow cleansing breaths as though she were in a yoga class, opened her eyes and calmly said, “I’m ready.“
And she was. She didn’t flinch. She didn’t cry. She didn’t waver. She hardly blinked.
She looked astonishingly brave on the outside.
Meanwhile Cora was standing off to the side, wide-eyed and looking a little stricken. When the associate had finished piercing Alea’s ear, Cora was giddy with excitement for her and began psyching herself up. “If she can do this; I can do it too.” She said it over and over like a mantra, praying it would feel more true with each repetition.
“Do you want to pierce your ears today too, Cora?” I asked. “It’s totally fine if you aren’t ready. We can come another time if you want.”
“No, I can do this. I want to do this. I will do this. If she can do this, I can too. I’m so scared but I want earrings. She’s littler than me and she did it. I can too.” She picked out her earrings and asked to sit in my lap and promptly clamped her hands over her ears. I convinced her to move her hands and she screeched when the cold alcohol swab touched her ears and shrieked when the woman doing the piercing marked tiny dots on her ears with a thin black marker. She clamped her hands over her ears again and spun in verbal circles. “Will it hurt? I want to do this. I’m so afraid. Will it hurt? If you can do this, I can too. Ok I’m ready. Will it hurt?” Her hands were still clamped over her ears.
“Sweetie, you have to move your hands if you want me to do this,” the kind jewelry manager said, ignoring the line of customers growing at the counter and patiently waiting for my little girl to steel herself.
“OK. OK. OK. – I’m ready” (Hands still unmoving.)
“Babe, you don’t have to do this today if you don’t want to. No one is going to make you. But I promise that if you want earrings, this won’t hurt too badly.” I fumbled for words, trying to reassure her and at the same time give her the freedom to walk away. (And let’s be honest, saying it all loudly enough in hopes that passers-by didn’t think I was forcing her to pierce her ears.)
“Yes, you don’t have to do this today, baby,” the Wal-Mart associate kindly said, catching my eye, “But your mom still has to pay for the piercing because we’ve opened the kit.”
I hadn’t considered that, and my frugal side kicked in.
My voice grew more stern. “Cora, it’s fine if you don’t want to do this. I don’t mind paying for the kit. But I’m not going to come back for a very long time, because I don’t want to buy multiple kits waiting for you to be ready. If you want your ears pierced, you need to do this now. We aren’t coming back next week.”
And with that she asked me to help hold her hands away from her ears. And as I held her trembling hands in her lap and felt her back stiffen and muscles tense, I marveled at how astonishingly brave she was.
My eldest daughter is entering third grade this year. That’s the same age I was when my dad’s mental illness first unleashed its full fury on my family. None of us have ever fully recovered. It’s the year I thought I had to act like a grown-up and not need anyone to take care of me anymore. It’s the year everything fell apart. I keep waiting for it not to hurt so much. Someday, I think, I might outgrow my need to be mothered; to feel the love of my father. I keep waiting… and many, many days I feel frustrated with myself for the way it still stings, like alcohol on a fresh cut. Does it ever scab over?
She’s a lot like I was at eight… lanky legs, a budding interest in Nancy Drew, a protector’s heart, a desire to please and do all things well. She’s inquisitive and cautious and tender. She has a tendency to answer the question of “What’s your favorite thing in school?” with “readin… I mean recess!” (But really, even though we both think we’re supposed to say recess like everyone else, it’s reading… because when it comes to sports and competitive games, we’re good at other things.) She’s growing faster than my growth chart on the wall can keep up. All knees and elbows, she keeps hitting her head on things and I’m convinced it’s because she’s growing faster than her own sense of self can keep up.
This is an in-between age. Little girlhood was one exit back and tween-hood is right ahead. And though she’s somewhere in the middle, what I most see in her is that for every moment she wants to be fiercely independent, there are ten moments when she just wants to be protected. At eight she’s still a little girl who needs the grown-ups in her life to keep her safe. It’s exactly as it should be.
But when I was eight, my world fell apart. Eight when my parents ceased being able to provide a shield of protection over me. Eight when my sense of “felt safety” shattered… and the truth is, I’ve been working to heal since then. There are so many days when my life feels rich and fulfilling and utterly saturated in the love and care of a deeply rich community and family and marriage. And then there are days when I feel wrung out and dry, lonely and unmoored… and I just wish I could pick up a phone and hear my mom’s voice. More precisely, I wish I could hear another version of my mom’s voice than the one that would exist if I did call… I wish for a mother’s voice that is whole and sound-minded and healthy and strong, reassuring me and covering me with the soothing warmth only a mom can give.
I’m starting to recognize those wrung out and dry days as days saturated in grief. And I know the waves of grief pass. And I know they will come again. And I know it takes bravery to stay grounded in the rise and fall. And as I face the waves of this grief, I am on a daily mission to cease being so harsh with myself; to stop berating myself for my “imaginary shortcomings” (as a dear friend admonished me this week) like being unable to “get over” the loss of my still-living-parents. Because though I’m 37 on the outside, there’s still a little 8-year-old inside of me… all knees and elbows and inquisitive and cautious and tender, a little girl who still loves Nancy Drew and still has a deep need for the grown-ups in her life to keep her safe.
Of course I am her and I’m not her all at the same time. But in some mysterious and restorative way, God is using my mothering of these two little girls to help re-mother myself. So when my own children have a need to feel safe and secure, covered in the soothing warmth only a mom can give and I’m able to meet it, it heals my heart a little bit more.
Having an 8-year-old gives me permission to show the eight year old within a little more grace. When my trembling and lanky daughter struggles to still fit on my lap and I find myself firmly holding her hands away from her ears in the middle of Wal-Mart, I know she’s drawing comfort from my presence. And it’s almost as though I’m able to go back to that little girl tucked away deep in my own heart and say, “It’s ok. You can come out now. You don’t have to be brave on the outside. You can look scared on the outside and still be brave on the inside. You’re doing ok. You are safe. You are loved. You can do this even if you feel afraid. Just keep going. You’re not alone and you’re not going to be overcome. You’ve got this.”
And little by little, that little girl is growing to understand that looking brave on the outside has very little to do with how brave she is on the inside.
And undeterred by the waves of grief, I can quietly and calmly keep moving forward and say, “I was brave today.”