Sometimes I catch you, when you think no one is looking, smiling in the mirror and doing some of your favorite moves. They are moves I remember from when I was about your age. They are cheerleading moves.
I mean, really, cheerleading? That’s your chosen sport? But no matter how surprised I am by this, you don’t care. You love cheerleading.
I can’t be upset about this. I was also a cheerleader in high school. I’m sure my own mother saw me do the exact same moves when I was your age. But what strikes me, when I see you practicing a cheer, is not how flexible you are or how sharp your movements have become, but rather the joy on your face. You understand that at your middle school, cheerleading is not popular amongst your friends. You can’t wait for team tryouts next year and you keep trying to convince your friends to try out too, but none of them want to do it. You don’t care. It is what you want to do.
In so many ways you are the average preteen: you want to text your friends at inappropriate times, you think you should have more freedom than we give you, you love funny videos on YouTube. You have always had a sense of justice, and it has developed even more this year. You have a new style each day and you’re starting to experiment with lip gloss. But in so many other ways you are your own person, unique from the other kids your age.
You have always been a person who sees the good and someone who hopes for the best. You have always been someone who will try something new, even if it’s not the thing that everyone else wants to do. You have always been someone who finds joy where it exists. I saw that in you when you were three years old. But your life experience has also shaped who you are.
That sense of justice? I know you would have felt it whether or not your father had died. I know you would have asked, “What is right?” and “What is fair?” when you looked out at the world. But you thought about it a lot more because you had to face unfairness at a young age.
Sometimes this meant that you struggled. When you were nine years old, and we celebrated your father’s birthday at the cemetery, you couldn’t make sense of it all. As I tucked you into bed that night, you looked at me and you asked, “Why did our nice dad die instead of someone mean? Why did this happen to our family? Why do all the other kids have dads and I don’t?” You knew it wasn’t fair.
Understanding that unfairness makes you understand others. It means you know how to react when friends of yours are sad after the death of a grandparent, or when someone goes through a hard time and feels frustrated. You get that life isn’t equal for all of the kids that you know, and all of the other kids that you don’t know but who live in our country and around the world. Of course you don’t understand everything, because you are still a child. But you understand that life is not always fair.
This understanding informs your sense of justice. It informs how you see the world. But the unfairness you personally know – you haven’t let it define you.
Despite everything you’ve experienced and despite what you’re learning day by day, you still believe that there is good in the world. You still believe that there is hope out there, and you still believe that good things can happen. When Chris came into our lives, you were more cautious with him than your brothers were. They leapt into his arms that first day, wrestling with him and screaming with joy that he had finally come to visit. You stayed in the background, politely interacting but also thoughtfully watching, trying to figure out what exactly what it meant that your mom loved someone new.
You could have rejected him. But you didn’t. You could see that Chris was good and you could see that your mom was happy. And over the weeks and then months that he spent with us, you grew to love him. Now, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when he wasn’t your parent.
It takes a lot to open your heart up, after you’ve been hurt. Once you know what unfairness is, it can be hard to embrace the joy that’s out there in the world. But somehow, you hold both truths: that it was unfair that your father died and that we are so lucky to have Chris love us now.
It’s hard to be a preteen. You have moments when you’re really mad at me, and you let me know it. (The key sign we knew you’d really accepted Chris as a parent? When you yelled at him, “that’s not fair!”) In fact, just the other day, you were mad at me for taking away your screen time, and you said, “ugh! I hate you!”
Before I could say anything in response, you said, “no, I love you! But I hate you. And I love you!”
I laughed and then you laughed and we hugged and I thought how amazing it was that you could hold both of these emotions at the same time.
This morning, I came downstairs and there you were, practicing your cheerleading moves. You were smiling in the mirror and then you did a little jump. “I love cheerleading!” you said, and I smiled. I smiled because you were happy, and I love seeing you happy.
You do not come to that happiness with blinders on, unaware of any real pain. No – you come with your eyes open. You know that bad things can happen.
But you also see the beauty in the world. You know that good things can happen, too.
Happy birthday to the girl who made me a mother.
Image Credit: Becky Hale Photography.