Her hand finds mine as we walk across the parking lot. Five slender fingers slip into my grasp and our hands bounce together to the rhythm of our steps. It’s a well-practiced rhythm. Hand-in-hand is how we’ve moved for years, but it is slowly becoming a child of habit more than necessity. She looks both ways, stays aware of her surroundings, and most of the time doesn’t really need to hold my hand on a suburban street or parking lot. I use this to my advantage when my arms are full of bags or coats. When I’m low on resources and overloaded with things, her little brother gets the free hand and I trust her to stick close by. But when it’s just the two of us? Most of the time, she finds my hand. In the parking lot. Across the street. Up the sidewalk on the way to school.
Still, we’re approaching a new space. I know it; and I know she knows it too. In this space, holding on to me is less compulsory. She has options.
In this new space, her hand in mind speaks volumes. It clutches sometimes and sometimes lies limply. Sometimes it squeezes. Sometimes it rests. There are times when it slides out and others when it vanishes.
Today, it is indecisive.
“You don’t have to stay today,” she says as we squeeze between two parked cars.
“No. You don’t have to wait for my teacher to get here. You can leave. I want to see what it feels like.”
We arrive at the door and I pause in the opening.
“So… should I go now?”
“No,” she says, not skipping a beat, “after I get my shoes off, then you can go.”
Her hand finds mine again and we weave down the hallway around mothers chatting, babies toddling, and girls sliding slippers over pale pink tights, tying ribbons around their calves. When we find our spot, just outside the door to her classroom, she drops her bag on the carpet and kicks off her sneakers in a flash of pink and Velcro.
“Ok, you can go now!” she barely looks up at me as she waves her hand. Later I will process the memory of her standing there and pull out the emotions bubbling barely beneath the surface. Later I will grasp what was hanging in the air between us, parse out what I put there myself, and use the rest to add to the portrait I keep of her in my mind. But in the moment, I’m all nerve endings sparking and heart strings pulling. So I kneel down to eye level with her.
“Don’t go running around before class. Don’t go into the classroom when it’s dark. Wait here for your teacher. Point your toes. Have fun. I love you.”
“I won’t. I will. I love you too.”
I squeeze my hands into my pockets and force myself to walk back towards the parking lot without looking back.
We keep peeking ahead like this, peering from the soft spot of childhood into the limbo between here and adolescence. We’re still replacing teeth with money and fairy notes. We’re still tucking in at night with stories and cuddles. We’re still walking together, past the kiss and drop, for hallway hugs and kisses before school. But, apparently, now we’re also parting sooner at ballet class. We’re taking small sips of independence in the late afternoon, to see if we like the taste.
We’re making a slow approach into adolescence.
And it terrifies me.
Adolescence terrifies me the way that infancy did when all I knew were heartbeats and kicks from the inside. It’s our next frontier and I know there is a lot to look forward to out there. But I’ve been dreading it since the day I discovered that childhood is my sweet spot. I’m ill prepared for the eye rolling and the sass. I’m mush at the thought of not tucking blankets around her little chin at night. And when it comes to her hand in mine, I don’t see how I’ll ever be ready to let go. I love her too much.
But then we peek into the future. She leads with two steps forward and a confident hand in mine. And I hold on while pushing her onward. I find my footing and feel for what will be my sweet spot in this new space. I practice the push and pull of nurturing her while raising her as she practices the push and pull of nestling while stretching her wings. And when she reaches well beyond adolescence for the voice to tell me that she just wants to try this on, see how it feels, I start taking notes. She teaches me that love is not what will keep me holding on; it is what makes it possible to let go.
In my logic-based brain, the next step would follow quickly. She’d have me walking away at the door before the next class. Then would come the drop off where I don’t even park the car and we part with a kiss over the shoulder of the driver’s seat. Within a week, I had us making a full journey. So I readied myself for it.
But she didn’t. When the next ballet day came around again, her hand found mine as we walked across the parking lot. Five slender fingers slipped into my grasp and our hands bounced together to the rhythm of our steps. She didn’t usher me away so I sat as she traded bright pink sneakers for pale pink ballet slippers. I waited with her there for her teacher to come, her bun brushing my cheek, her hand again in mine, speaking volumes.