“I want to fly,” she says. She is four, she is five, she is six, and this is always her birthday wish. She is my first child, my smallest child, five pounds at birth.
She is the child I was always getting used to, a tiny risk-taker, so different from me. Before she should have been standing she’d been pushing her baby doll at top speed in the bucket swing. At eighteen months, she was running. I’d find her at the top of the monkey bars in our backyard.
“I’m flying Mama!” she would say as she jumped. “Catch me.”
As a toddler she sat on my lap, the co-pilot in the back of the private planes her father flew smiling as we dipped through clouds. The only anxiety in that Cessna came from me, lurching at every turbulent, at every gain in altitude.
It is the spring of her seventeenth year, and Sophia has an internship at Carabiner’s, a rock climbing gym. She excels at the job. After two weeks she is doing level B climbs and belaying children in the after school program, holding them up, helping them fly.
I buy Sophia her first pair of climbing shoes. Woman’s size six. She stands at barely five feet. Not much taller than the kids she teaches.
When Sophia first expressed her wish, I did not yet know that I would divorce her pilot father by the time she turned five. I did not yet know that the devastating divorce would be punctuated with a court-appointed Guardian ad Litem. That she and I would be sequestered in a hotel room after filing another motion. That once a property settlement agreement was reached I’d have to bring her to her father’s rental apartment every other weekend.
I did not know that her moods would swing as mine do, with sporadic bouts of depression. That we would tightrope this thin line together, but handle it differently. Her seeking out thrills and superficial friends when her depression hit, me spiraling down a black rabbit hole, alone.
We handled almost everything differently, her way of seeing the world so different from mine. She wanted to fly; I wanted to stay on the ground.
When the time comes, our college visits are a disaster, and when every one of my friend’s children has selected a college, my daughter does not send back her acceptance letter. She’s taking a gap year. She is headstrong and determined, and I can only do what I have always tried to—support her.
“I want to teach you to climb,” she says and I eventually go to her work place in the next town over because this is where she spends all of her time. This is where she has found her friends, a group of climbers who don’t need to get used to her; she is already one of them.
“This is my mom,” she introduces me to her tribe—every co-worker and club member—and insists I climb the synthetic wall. She belays me.
She controls the ropes. I am tethered to my daughter.
Eighteen now, Sophia wants to climb real mountains.
“I wish I was more like you,” I say on our way to the airport. She is off to certify as an outdoor adventure specialist. She will join climbers on cliffs. “Light and fast“ is the mantra of the mountaineer, and so she is.
“You still want to fly, don’t you honey?” I say as we drive the forty-six miles to the airport at 5 a.m. in the drizzle, and she smiles. I won’t be able to contact my little girl for three months. She will travel from camp to camp, all she needs strapped to her backpack on her 90-pound body. She will go skyward in her climbs, tied vertically to cliffs using a double rope. She will hike from cave to cave, across the country from me and from our home in Connecticut. She is no more mine than she ever was.
At the ticket counter, we take a selfie. The older woman in line behind us is amused. “I’m doing something crazy,” Sophia says to the woman.
“She’s going to climb mountains and dwell in caves,” I exaggerate.
“Let me take one of the two of you,” the woman says. This is the photo that I know will stay in a frame on my desk for the rest of my life, this along with the one of Sophia in her high school graduation cap and gown, because she did not fly through high school and her landing was uncertain.
I leave the airport, see Sophia’s small body, her too-big sweatpants, and perhaps I see a shadow of ragged wings on her, through the window where she waits on the security line, the nice woman now next to her, the other passengers, lethargic and gray at this early morning hour.
The airport is lit by one woman. My daughter.
It took a long time to get here—to the place where my daughter has direction in her life, where she introduces me to everyone she knows. Where she says I love you Mom. Our lives and personalities have twisted in conflict over the years. In her freshman year of high school she was expelled for having prescription pills in her backpack. According to a friend, Sophia was purchasing pot from a dark-haired boy behind the Starbucks in town. I was terrified that pot was just the beginning, that heroin would be next I became the type of mother I never thought I would be, following her places without her knowing, waiting outside of the movie theater to make sure she didn’t leave the movie early.
One night, the smell of smoke on her breath, I confronted her about the drugs and she screamed, “You don’t even know me.”
She was right; I no longer did.
I decide that boarding school is the answer.
A bird passes above us, a question mark thrown into the air as we tour Cheshire Academy. Melanie, a perky senior with long red curly hair, points out the quad and the dorms. Sophia is morose, disinterested, she fusses with the new gauges in her earlobes. She does not speak to Melanie, so I break the silence with something stupid; “Is there designated study time?”
Ten more minutes of silence, and Sophia speaks for the first time. “Can I wear what I’m wearing to classes?” she says. Melanie looks at Sophia’s ripped black jeans and Grateful Dead T-shirt. “No, you have to wear slacks and a navy blazer. But you can wear that on weekends maybe.”
“I won’t be here on weekends,” Sophia says, her words smothering any possible conversation.
After the tour, Sophia slumps in the huge leather chair in the main hall. She is ill-prepared for her interview with the Director of Admissions. She is called in and I sit for an hour in the waiting room, wondering what Sophia is saying, assuming it must be I hate my mother, my mother is making me come here, my mother is clueless. When Sophia comes out, I go in. “I see teenagers with this profile all the time, “ the Director says. “She’d fit right in.”
What profile, I wonder. Belligerent, sulky, with a ‘why should I give a shit’ attitude?
“This could be a new start,” I say to Sophia as we get back in the car. She wants me to go faster, to step on it.
The day I told her she’d been accepted to boarding school, she’d stormed to her room, slammed the door, and came out three hours later, a purple streak in her long black hair, a third ear piercing she must have done herself while blasting the Grateful Dead’s “A Friend of the Devil.”
“It will get infected,” I said and it did.
The hair color will wash out, I thought, and it did.
I get the call at midnight from the chaperone of the spring break field trip. Four girls shared the hotel room but the beer was Sophia’s idea. Her third “incident” while at boarding school. “Three strikes,” the headmaster said to me over the phone. “She’s out.”
I arrive early at the airport to pick her up, and I weep as I watch the plane land in the dark.
“I’m sorry; I love you mom,” she says as we drive home. This is the first apology my daughter has ever made. I break down crying at the wheel, and eventually turn into our driveway wondering what comes next.
“Make a wish,” I say, winking, as she blows out the candles on her eighteenth birthday cake.
“I’m an adult now,” she says and winks back. Two days later, she comes home from the climbing gym with a tattoo.
“You’re taking turning eighteen seriously,” I say, when I see it, covering half her arm. It is a sketch she has drawn over and over again in her notebook.
A rocket launching toward a planet.
“What flavor?” I ask. I am at home at my desk, tears welling up as I type. I see her green eyes in my mind, those green eyes that could pull the stars right out of the sky.
“Cookies and cream,” she says.
I don’t expect to hear from her again before her expedition.
But I know where she is. She is flying.
Rumpus original art by Claire Stringer.