Fifty-two degrees. November. Mississippi. We walk along a winding gray road with no stripes. I pick up an empty plastic bottle coated in red mud, carry it in my nervous hand.
“She’s doing great,” I finally get out.
They nod. My brother and sister-in-law aren’t much for talking. Around them, neither am I, but I want them to know that even though their daughter is living with my husband and me in Montana, we haven’t stolen her from them, and, more importantly, that she’s okay. I picture my own preschooler as a mostly-grown woman, old enough to vote, but not to buy beer: I will always want to know that she’s okay.
“I went through some of that myself,” I say. Understatement. What I went through when I realized it was time to leave my home took many years and many bad decisions, most of which involved bourbon. My niece seems to be making her transition with more grace.
My brother and sister-in-law never left.
“Every day since we were eighteen, we put everything into getting by,” my brother says. He works for the railroad, before that, a factory. I remember that he had to wait six months for his girlfriend to graduate high school before they could marry. He is only nine years older than me, but we seem to be from different generations. “We never dealt with any of this stuff.”
By “this stuff,” I think he means the questions: Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live?
The sound of a truck engine approaches at our backs, and we step off into the shallow ditch to let it pass. As we return to the road, the sun grows warmer. I take off my wool Montana hat, feel the Mississippi sky on my scalp.
“She worked in an orphanage in Haiti,” my brother says. “And none of us cared.”
“No, we cared…” my sister-in-law corrects, pauses. I think I know what she means: it can be hard to really care about anything else, even about orphans, when your own daughter’s life is at stake. She softly continues, “We worried.”
When I was twenty years old, I thought my family would never understand me, and that I would never understand them. In some ways, I was right: there’s plenty we don’t discuss. But in other ways, I’m starting to see that I was wrong: this frantic love-worry-love-terror-love-pain-love that comes with parenting–it transcends, doesn’t it?
“You raised her to care,” I say. “That’s a good thing. You should be proud.”
They nod. They are proud.
Now I am thinking that we should get back. We’ve left their daughter to care for mine, and we should rescue her from marathon hide-and-seek. As we round another bend, evergreens rising high on either side of us, I am surprised to find myself awash with gratitude, for her, for them, but I can’t quite figure out the right words. When I was twenty years old, busy traveling the world and feeling misunderstood, they were here, raising their children, and caring for my aging parents. Because they stayed, I was able to grow into who I am now. Not much for talking, words escape.
A light breeze loosens a few pine needles; they flutter to the ground without sound.