September 7, 2018
I’m losing hold of my daughter. Losing hold in that wispy way that typically goes unnoticed until one day you see that your child is no longer little. She’s seven. I know—insert eye roll here—she is still little. But I’ve lingered inside this space for weeks, noticing a new confidence in her that wasn’t before there, evidence that she is less my child somehow, and more her own being. This aching within me must be that private part of motherhood that seasoned moms reference when they drop lines like the days stretch on but the years fly by. This must be the beginning of her letting me go.
My daughter loves to sing. I noticed, at age one, that she could legitimately replicate and carry a tune. As much as I wish I were, I’m not musical. At all. But in her world, she exists inside songs, and her melodies are the trusted backdrop of our home life. When she came home from choir practice with the Songfest flier, she mentioned wanting to sing a solo. And the beautiful thing about a church cabaret fundraising event is that anyone who loves to sing, is welcome to sing. One simply needs to prepare and have the nerve to do it.
So when her Songfest moment arrived, she stood all alone, defenseless and bare behind the microphone. Her fingers gently gripped and twiddled the layered material of her dress; her pale pink dress, picked out especially for the event. Loose curls perched on her shoulders and framed her face. She spotted her family and momentarily exposed a smile, then her face shifted back into an eager stillness. With her wide open eyes not sure where to land, she looked to her choir teacher and nodded; she halted her eyes at me for a nanosecond. Then, a deep breath, as she awaited the piano’s familiar first notes of the song she had memorized by heart. And we, the audience, fell quiet. A vision of vulnerability before us. A palpable fear exuded from within her, and we, collectively, absorbed her unease. Silently, we all decided to become her fans.
The piano notes float into the air, and the first words of the song faintly come out of her: I close my eyes and I can see the world that’s waiting up for me, that I call my own.* I hear that she’s rushing, going too fast for the piano, but her accompanist expertly adapts the notes to meet her. I worry. She doesn’t want to be doing this—it’s too much. My little girl. My little girl. She pushes on, steadies herself closer to the microphone. …Every night I lie in bed the brightest colors fill my head; a million dreams are keeping me awake. And I think of her colorful dreams, her mosaic of imagination, of unicorns, mermaids and magical landscapes. I think of being seven, of having the hope that a healthy and safe childhood offers. Believing that we can live in a world that we design. It’s that simple; life is supposed to be fair and available like that.
My worry turns to awe as she takes her breath into the next part of the song. She settles in with the piano and I feel her trust herself. As the lyrics fill the room, the members of the audience wrap themselves into memory and emotion and connection. I think of what the world could be, a vision of the one I see; a million dreams is all it’s gonna take. A million dreams for the world we’re gonna make. The room somehow brims with a mixture of joy for the lived dreams, sadness for the unfulfilled dreams, and hope for the unrealized dreams. And this little girl, who sings before us, lifts our hearts, heals our hearts, opens our hearts. We are one, living inside a dream.
She comes close to belting out the final line, holding back to her mother’s ear, but her performance gives us the sense that within this little girl, a big voice is taking shape. And when the song closes, the audience lets out their held breaths and cheers unabashedly! Her fellow choristers envelope her, the kind of embrace you see when the little guy scores the winning touchdown. Some people burst into tears, some deeply exhale and shake their heads, many people approach her and tell her that she has a gift. That room full of people is holding her up.
I felt amazed that she could memorize all those words and sing them well; I felt relieved that she got through something that for our family had been a big build up; I felt proud of the collective recognition of the special that I already knew existed in her. But more than anything, I felt the wispy letting go feeling beginning inside my chest. And I think it’s because she didn’t look to me as she finished.
She loves hearing me tell the story of her birth, and she especially loves the part where her umbilical cord was unusually short, like a premonition that we were meant to be closely tethered in life and spirit. And for her first seven years, we have been just that. My husband often regards us and marvels that we are like two of the same, just one little and one big. And as I’ve lingered here, inside her song, I’ve discovered an inner conflict: I know she’s meant to grow up and have her own life—I want this for her—yet I already miss her, and she’s only seven.
In the days that followed her performance, people reached out to me to share their reactions to her singing. My dad wrote her a letter in which he told her that her performance was “a highlight of (his) life;” my dear friend’s husband sent me a photo of his wife watching the performance video on her phone, while dissolved in tears; my minister said that her performance reminded him of Dr. King in his “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he started out palpably nervous and built his way to the moments emblazoned in our memories: “I have a dream today!” Now, this small church cabaret event in no way rivals Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s address to the nation in the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and that’s not what he meant.
I think what he meant was that we all felt part of something bigger than ourselves as she sang. And it wasn’t just the performance that moved us—although this proud mama must admit, she was fabulous. But when my daughter sang on that stage, when her vulnerability was understood by her audience, the pocket of the world before her responded with nothing but respect, support and love. And I think we, her audience, allowed ourselves to imagine what a world might be like if we all took such risks, led with our fears and opened up our potential. Maybe it’s possible that we could be loved for the vulnerabilities that are ours.
And as a mom who realizes the subtle shift in my relationship with my child, I find comfort in knowing that others hold her up too. I’m not her only fan, nor will I ever be her only fan. And although the change of her growing into herself is heart-aching as much as it is beautiful, I’m pretty sure that this is the dream.
* italicized Lyrics from “A Million Dreams” by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, from The Greatest Showman
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