For so much of her first year and a half Esmé was in my arms. I never put her down because, frankly, it was too risky and, since she was unable to sit up or crawl, she couldn’t do much on the floor anyway. We’d sit for hours curled up, staring at each other. I often felt like some form of a human skin-to-skin medical detection device. The slightest changes in Esmé’s breathing patterns or muscle tension prepped me for an impending retch or seizure.
It had seemed to me that so much of Esmé and my connection was about physical contact. So often it felt like we were two parts of the same creature: her needing, me responding…Even now I find myself keeping a hand on her any time I am distracted, in conversation with a therapist or nurse, knowing that if something shifts in her demeanor, I will sense it even if I am not looking at her.
This connection was rarely tested at much of a distance until these recent months where her improving medical stability has led to ever-increasing independence. As she adventures around her play area, claiming larger berths of our living room, vestibule, hallway, and dining room, she is happier much of the time if I keep my distance and allow her to enjoy her independence. It has been a challenge for me to give her that space–but I try to be respectful of her desire as she clearly becomes aggravated as I hover, suggesting toys or picking her up.
Part of it is habit, but also I worried that without words between us the distance would be stagnant…because language is so often how we (at least I) fill distance, inhabiting it with emotion through words. With so much space and so few words on her part, I had been afraid I would loose track of her needs.
But, interestingly, the connection stretches, linking us through a vibrating gap. It is like those beautiful moments I’m sure we’ve all had, when two people are moving apart, but they both turn in the same moment and look back toward each other…as thought something has plucked a string tied between them? That precious moment when they are almost out of each other’s sight, but they share a fleeting thought. Ez and I still share thoughts across these new expanses. I still know the moment before she is going to start fussing. I can sense the pause when she is about to get into something. And I feel the inhale before a retch.
There is something in this newly stretched link that is more exquisite than the physical closeness Esmé and I shared before, because it acknowledges that we are not the same person, but that we are still deeply harmonic…and it makes those moments when she allows me to hold her that much more sweet. But the distance hasn’t only changed me and my perception of her…it seems to be changing her perception of me too. Lately she has started “asking” for me to hold her, she whines for me to lift her, and when I do she snuggles in against my neck–clearly just needing a hug.
I was asked recently if Esmé shows me love. I carefully explained that, of course she does…perhaps not like other children, but in her own spectacular fashion, though loving looks, through the most faint and fleeting touches, through her smile.
But perhaps Esmé loves me most of all through the promise that if I just wait, if I just give her space and time, if I believe, she will also love me in this way that comes so naturally to other children. She will reach back out to me, not just through some shared thought or need, but only as an expression of love, of tenderness.
Last night, for the first time ever she crawled to where I was sitting on the floor, climbed into my lap, pushed herself onto her knees with her hands on my chest and looked me in the eyes…and then snuggled up against me.
There was no tether, no string.