I’m hiking with my little girl through a blooming field near the Superstition Mountains in Arizona.
The sun is shining and the air is unseasonably cool. This is the first time I’ve seen her in months.
“I’d like to find somewhere for us to sit and talk,” I tell her.
As I search for a resting place, she trails farther and farther behind. I slow down, giving her time to catch up. A soft patch of grass appears beneath the shade of an ancient saguaro, where we take a seat side by side. She won’t look at me.
“I’m glad you’re here with me, little one. We’ve never met in this field before, where the sun shines and we can’t hide from one another. I know I’ve been hiding. It might’ve felt like I’ve ignored you, like I don’t want you…”
My heart throbs as she looks to the sky, her fingers digging into a small stack of paper in her hands. I’m terrified to sit with her, face-to-face, seeing the tears in her eyes that won’t fall because she’s trying to be strong. I want her to know that now’s not the time to be strong. It’s the time to be honest.
“I know I’ve hurt you, sweetheart…”
I take a deep, trembling breath and go on.
“I’ve hurt you by leaving you alone for hours in your room, only stopping to play with you for a moment before I’ve rushed off to work. I’ve hurt you by telling you to stop crying, to stop singing, to stop dancing—until you looked like a silent doll in a box. I see the pain you carry inside, and it’s making you more tired than any little girl should be. There have been times when you hardly have the energy to play, or learn, or even stay awake…”
I slap a hand to my mouth and sob into the deafening silence. My little girl draws her knees to her chest and picks the grass at her feet.
I take a few more deep breaths until the tears subside, and confess,“I know you’ve been watching me as I float through rooms wearing perfume and pretty dresses as though I were the most important person in the world. But, I don’t feel important. I feel like a little glass bottle floating in the middle of the sea, full of confusion, ready to break. I’m sorry I never told you how I felt. I’m sorry I never told you it’s okay to have feelings, to name them, and to crawl into my arms until you feel better again. Instead, I’ve made you like me: someone who swallows her emotions like sour milk until they eat away at her insides. I’m sorry. I’m sorrier than I can ever say. But I know it’s not enough to say sorry.”
Two yellow butterflies land on a dead, spineless prickly pear in front of us. We watch their wings entwine for a moment before they fly into the noonday sun.
Exhausted yet hopeful, I tell my little girl, “I want to know how you feel. I will be here with you as long as you need me to, and I will listen. Is there something you’d like to say?”
She takes a sharp breath in, still looking away from me, as a tear slips down her cheek. She stammers, throws up her hands, and they fall into her lap with a thud. She shakes her head.
I assure her, “You might not have the words for what you need to tell me—and that’s okay. You can draw, sing, dance, or just look into my eyes, and I’ll do my best to understand you.”
She carefully unfolds the stack of paper and pushes them into my hands.
“Thank you for the drawings, darling.” I take a careful look at each drawing, feeling the graininess of the paper between my fingers, before I share my thoughts. “I like this one with the tall, red-faced girl who breaks things. She has the same hair as you, the same color eyes—and she seems mad and scared to be her size. But actually, she’s just right.”
My little girl purses her lips as a trail of dandelion spores blows overhead on a sudden gust of wind.
I pull out the next picture, drawn in royal blue crayon. “I like this one with the blue, sad girl sitting in a cave with rocks on her shoulders, carrying more than she can handle. What if we changed those rocks into flowers, the bright red poppies you love? Maybe that would cheer her up.”
The wind blows through her black bob and lifts the sweaty tendrils around her sun hat. She stretches her legs out in front of her, twirling a sprouting wildflower between her fingers.
“Oh, sweetheart, I think this one’s my favorite!” I show her a drawing of a mother and daughter holding hands in a big town square. The little girl is strutting with pride in her favorite dress. “This girl looks like she’s ready to perform. You have always been an excellent performer. But I want you to know that even when you’re not performing, you are still loved.”
Gazing at the palo verde ablaze with yellow flowers in the distance, her shoulders relax.
“The truth is, darling, you’re the part of me I never learned to love. When I was your age, the grownups who looked after me didn’t teach me to love myself, and whenever I see you, I remember how lost and confused I felt at the time. I was about 12 years older than you are now before I started to learn to love myself. That’s a long time, isn’t it?”
For the first time during our conversation, she looks me in the eye. A slight, knowing smile lifts the corner of her mouth. Meeting her eyes, I exhale deeply with a mixture of relief and gratitude.
“I want to teach you that you are always loved. I want to teach you to come to me when you need me, to tell me your thoughts, feelings, and dreams. If something doesn’t feel right, tell me. If it does, tell me. If you’d just like to be quiet, and lie in the grass or play on your own, tell me. I’m here for you.”
I sit stunned, feeling her words resonate in my body for what feels like hours.
Then, I tell her, “There are some things I’d like you to teach me, too: how to dance again, how to dig my hands into the dirt and feel the softness of the earth, how to laugh with my whole body until I burst like morning sunshine. But for now, can we rest together in this field for a while, and let that be enough?”
My little girl melts into a warm, full breath and returns to my heart. I lie down on the grass, palms open to the bluest sky I’ve ever seen.