The Tiny Little Thief
The Tiny Little Thief
An Essay by Emily James
I am being preyed upon by a tiny little thief.
He is invisible, though I picture him like a miniscule Charlie Chaplin, small black hat, pointed mustache framing a silly, detached face. He comes uninvited--like that asshole that crashes the party and hugs you before making his way to the raw vegetables and dip--and stays however long he pleases. I mostly find him lurking between me and my four-year-old daughter, making himself a home in that empty, unpredictable space.
Do you know how much I love you? I ask her, as we sit together on the wooden floor in the hall by the bathroom. My hands are on her shoulders; I'm trying to see into her distant brown eyes. And there goes that naughty thief with his fierce little hands, the interceptor, snatching the words from the air before they can reach her. She looks off, tenses her shoulders in a polite demand to walk away. There is something else that beckons her, and it's anything else, a doll peeking out from beneath the couch, a mirror where she can practice tying her own hair in a ponytail. Look Mommy, she will say to me, curls in a half-bundled mess. Look what I did, all by myself.
And he doesn't just steal my words-- he takes hers too. At night, when I've gone in to give her a kiss, and the dishwasher needs to be loaded, and the baby is on the bed without a pull-up, and the big hand has spun relentlessly around the clock more times than I can handle, she looks up at me. Mommy, I needa tell you something. So I crouch down beside her, and she tells me about a missing Shopkin and that her bedside water tastes old and yucky. Goodnight, I tell her, sealing it with a second kiss. Mommy I needa tell you something else, she says, and that’s when he appears, swatting her words away as I back towards the door and the rest of my life that is calling me to finish up and end. She is looking at me with pleading eyes, each short sentence a desperate attempt to keep me with her, but each plea is chewed up and swallowed by this tiny bandit, and with another "goodnight" I am gone, sometimes with her banter only fading from the close of a door.
Most times, after a few minutes of quiet has given me a clearer perspective, I return to do it the right way, to tell her I love her, give her another hug, and another chance to be heard. But often, it's too late: I find her sprawled out, laying with open hands and a mouth ajar, all of her precious and peculiar words hiding somewhere deep inside her dreams.
When being a mom was just an idea, a belief I had picked out in a catalog, shiny and two-dimensional, I didn't know about this thief. I assumed that when I had my own little girl, and she had hurt feelings, or aching questions, I could look into her eyes and tell her little open heart everything it needed to hear. That her soul would be a container I could fill up with life lessons and love. I had thought that as long as I had compassion and care and conversation to give, it could be received.
I would plug myself into the outlet of her being and light up any darkness in her world.
I didn't realize how sticky and scary the space between us would be.
The thief appeared early on, when she came from the hospital, her body tense and flailing beneath a carefully selected, fuzzy white "coming home" gown. She screamed and screamed in the piercing and painful way a newborn screams, and I hugged her, sang to her, and she screamed and screamed some more. That's when we met for the first time; that little bastard took his cane and swung so hard at my affection, knocked down each hug and kiss and hum and coo before she could even feel it.
She has always been made up of sharp edges-- the opposite of invisible, the antithesis of a blur. Her hugs are anxious and in haste: you feel her elbows before her heart, and an imminent escape. Her words can sting: I don't even really love you right now. Or--I want the Mommy back who you used to be. Sometimes I can see her grasping so desperately for control of the world around her, frustrated as it slips away like an accidental eggshell in a bowl. During story time, her baby sister sinks into me, still, relaxed, puddle-like on my lap. But my big girl has never been that; she's always been the busy, falling rain, drop after drop, a vertical plan. Readjusting her body, mind somewhere else. Are you listening? I often ask. Can I skip the pages? She responds. And there he is again, that audacious bandit, crashing hard into moments that are supposed to be sweet, and soft, and only ours.
I have to tell you how much I hate him, and I have to tell you why. It is not because he is greedy, and arrogant, and unapologetic, although he is. It is not because he gets to enjoy or demolish so many of the gifts we are trying to give to each other, although he does. It's because I know that for much of our life, he will keep me from protecting her, and he will keep her from feeling seen by me, and feeling heard. He will carefully construct the secrets that separate us. He will guard her locked door while she blasts music and rips her Disney posters off the wall. When she lays on a pillow and sobs about a boy who pushed her too hard against a bookshelf and shoved a beer-tasting tongue down her throat, he will sit by the threshold of her bedroom, staring at me with that snarky smile. I'll take your words, he'll threaten, I'll take them all, and ball them up, and throw them back into you, and watch them fall to the ground.
And then, he takes his little stick and draws a line in the sand...separating her universe from mine.
* * *
I was on the A train during a surprise thunderstorm, humidity and sweat all squeezed together, umbrellas dripping rainwater on open toes. People sopping and sighing, complaining through eye-contact about a rainfall that was just plain rude.
And that's where I saw him, another thief, although this time--he wasn't mine.
A college girl and her mother, holding a pole together. The girl erupts in chatter. She tells her about the dining hall and a wafflemaker and a John Mullaney comedy special. The mother looks off, beyond her. Where did you get a waffle?
From the dining hall, she said. I already told you.
The mother nods, stone-faced.
And the tiny thief is there, destroying the words as they soar from the twenty-year old who has turned into an excited little girl in the presence of her mom. He's cutting up their communication like a pro, pilfering each of the girls thoughts just before they can reach a mother who-- after all these years-- has learned to exist in her daughter's life, while secretly and silently thinking about her own.
* * *
When I begin to look for him, and I see him everywhere. Hovering, smugly--not just between mothers and daughters--but fathers and sons who are suddenly tall enough to look them straight in the eyes. Wives and their husbands, sitting separated by children on a bench, as the tiny little thief sits with a backpack full of all of the love they once had. He is ubiquitous, parked between teachers and their students, or feuding strangers, juggling so many words and intentions round and round into an enormous, chaotic circle of misunderstanding.
And when I search the neatly stacked-up folds of my memory, I see traces of him too. As young girl hiding from my own mother during dinnertime in a treehouse full of dreams, or a newfound woman in a hooded sweatshirt, driving through the unlit streets of my home town way past curfew, cigarette smoke and rebellious teenage desires escaping through a sunroof into the night. Even though I never saw him, or understood what he was doing, only felt angry, and lonely, and misunderstood, looking back now, I realize he has always been there.
His little black cloak is made of both polyester and permanence, and most likely- he will never truly leave for good.
I owe it to my sweet little coconut scented curly-haired princess to never stop searching for a way around him.
But mostly, I will do my best to live so fully and presently in all of the moments where he isn't there. Maybe he is distracted, or feeling generous, or lazy, or even kind. And I will connect those moments like dots until the end of time. Because sometimes, for whatever reason, I look up from wiping strawberry smears off a placemat, and he is gone. She tells me that her teacher let her wake up each of her sleeping classmates from nap time, and shows me how, with a soft little pat and caress on my side. It's time to wake up, she whispers. I did it like that.
And then there are those golden moments where he is so far off, I can't even feel him at all. I am sitting outside, under the shadow of a treetop, watching her play. She drops the water hose, and walks to me. If you hold my apple, I can show you how much I love you, she says.
I take it. She opens her arms big and wide.
All the way to Disney world
All the way to South Carolina
All the way to Mexico
All the way to Ocean City
All the way...all the way...to...all the way…
All the way to the sky
All the way to the stars
All the way to outer space
All the way to the boardwalk
And all the way back.
That's how much.
I lean to hug her. She extends her hand.
Can I have my apple back now? She asks.
So I give it to her, my accidental eggshell, after taking an enormous, delicious bite.