Nicole Kate is 3. She stands at the edge of the dock and looks down into the water. She is old enough now to remember our warnings: it is too deep for her. She doesn’t know how to swim. But she thinks no one is watching and this is why I watch her now with a mix of curiosity and horror. It is too soon for me to be teaching our children that tired adage of “character is who you are when no one is looking,” but still I think somehow she must know this. She is, after all, Nicole Kate. This is something we still say to one another, my husband and I, my children to each other, her grandparents. It is her very name, an explanation of who she is. We named her after my mother, Kay. I always knew Kate would be the middle name of my first daughter (my next daughter took the maiden name of her paternal grandmother, another strong woman), but Nicole left the hospital without a first name. For three days she was nameless. At first it seemed almost cool, something celebrities do in their especial challenge of choosing a name fitting of their revered position in society (Moses, Reign, Saint). But this wasn’t why we resisted naming her. I felt like I didn’t know her. She didn’t look like me. She didn’t look like anyone in the family. She had a shock of black hair which promptly fell out. Her eyes were almond shaped and exotic, vaguely Asian, gorgeous but unlike her older brother’s, mine or my husband’s. Who was she? I agreed to my husband’s suggestion of Nicole because it sounded romantic, like the name of a French school girl. I never dreamed of giving her the first name of my mother, her maternal grandmother. My mom has big shoes to fill. She is still, at 79, the most beautiful woman I have ever met. She is also the smartest person I know. She will tell you about the history of Colonialism in India. She will tell you which James Baldwin novel you must read first and why. Recall in detail the lives of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. She will explain in equal detail why she taught controversial novels which made her colleagues squirm, why she dragged her high school students on field trips to the state prison to talk peer pressure with the inmates. I did not know anything about the parietal lobe until my mom’s stroke. I will not write about her changed brain because it is only partly my business. It is enough to say she is still and will always be the smartest woman I know. She is also the most stoic, just like Nicole Kate.
So back to my daughter on the dock. I could see in her frozen stance that she was considering the jump. I could see too in the split second the decision to stop thinking and act. And she dropped, not a jump, more a surrender, plummeting ten feet into the lake, into 25 feet of water. And I, also without thinking, jumped after her.
“What was she thinking?!” I raged later at my husband, horrified by the possibility that I might have turned my back for a second and not seen her go in.
“She wasn’t thinking,” my husband said. “She’s three.” Still, I was concerned. Here was a child who didn’t speak for the first two years of her life. Her brother, the first born, did all the talking for her. She didn’t sit still to listen to books. I tried to resign myself to the possibility that a) she might not be articulate, b) might not be smart, and c) the worst possible scenario, might not be a reader like me.
She was physically impulsive, a risk taker and thus, a natural gymnast. When she was four, I asked her to please quit jumping on my bed and get down now, and she executed a perfect round off backhandspring and shattered her forearm. Later that year, she had a hernia repair. I will always remember her walking stoically into the OR in the purple Pocahontas nightgown she had outgrown but refused to stop wearing. She declined the hand of the nurse escorting her to the OR. She would do this alone. She did not look back to see me and her father trembling and tearful. When her brother accidentally busted open her lip and she needed two sets of stitches, she spoke quietly with mouth tight against the strain of stitches, offering him reassurances that she was okay. When she was 11, she fell off the high bar of the uneven bars and hit the rim of a trampoline, busting open her head. I gagged when I saw the gaping hole, the gleam of bone. I remember her eyes wide as she gauged my horror and struggled to master her own fear. Her face blew up the next day. In the family photos from her brother’s Bar Mitzvah that weekend, she smiles bravely and unselfconsciously into the camera, her face so bloated, it looked distorted. Years later, when her brother had a health crisis and we spent five hours in the ER’s trauma room, Nicole was the only one of us who never broke down. Only years later did she tell me that she went to hide in a small storage closet when he was having a CT scan so she could weep privately and then be done. She had decided that she had to hold us together.
This June she was the valedictorian of her high school class. I worried about all the wrong things. She is not only brilliant, and the most articulate of speakers, she is an ardent, crazy reader like me, and her grandmother.
I am counting down the days until her departure for college. Every song on the radio is a goodbye song. Justin Bieber (one of her favorites)- all his songs make me sad. I listen to “Purpose” to make myself cry. I picture singing this to my daughter: “Feeling like I’m breathing my last breath, feeling like I’m walking my last steps. Look at all these tears I’ve wept..” Sam Smith is unbearable. I stood up in the middle of a restaurant and left when “Stay With Me” came on the radio. “You’re killing me!” I called out over my shoulder to no one in particular. Even Lady Gaga makes me weep: “I will fall apart if you break my heart…” They are all love songs about yearning, about the pain of separating, about lost or spurned love but it is the same thing. My heart wants her to please stay with me. Here. Forever.
When she is at work, I feel like a mama octopus with knowing tentacles probing every room in the house, testing the emptiness and how much it hurts that she is not here, not coming back after coaching gymnastics, after being with her boyfriend late at night. I do not know how to stop listening for her, how to begin to un-listen.
I rehearse my goodbye, resolve as I did with my son, not to cry when I leave her at her dorm. This will be my parting gift, to not burden her with my emotion when her heart already aches from saying goodbye to a boyfriend on the other side of the country, goodbye to her younger sister who has always been her best friend. I remember leaving my son Luke at his freshman dorm, my husband and I like stalwart soldiers. We backed slowly away, too fast and I felt I might shatter and no one would be able to pick me up off that cobbled stone path. Luke said, wait. Do you have to leave now? And then, an older student reached from around the door and clasped his shoulder and escorted him inside. and my husband and I continued to back away. Turning slowly, holding ourselves together until we were at a safe distance and could sob, alternately consoling one another and then weeping again. It only took me three years to adapt to Luke being gone. I used to take out the garbage at night and then linger in the alley behind our home and find the moon in the sky. Your moon, too, I would think to Luke, finding comfort that we were really not so, so far away. 2,860 miles to be exact. If only there were a bridge that you could cross whenever, I texted him. Throughout the years, he would occasionally ask, how’s the bridge coming? And I knew that he missed us, too, and longed to be home but we didn’t speak about it because it was too painful.
She is not gone yet. Tomorrow will be eleven days before we take her cross country and move her into her dorm, her new home. I have been working on the words. I want to say something like, you may be leaving but we aren’t going anywhere. To fix us in the same spot, so she knows she can always find her way home to us. That we will always share the same moon. To remember she is Nicole Kate. I am not watching anymore, but I trust she will be who she is, weigh those leaps with the dangers and consequences. That it is okay to feel sad and she doesn’t have to be the stoic one. We will weep. Alone in our cars. Together at night. And we will not break. We will not be sad forever. It will not always hurt this much.
Claudia Hinz lives in Bend, Oregon. Her novel, GODS OF THE ICE, a love story, is out on submission. Sometimes her neighbors watch her in the alley and listen for her braying at the moon.