“What’s wrong honey?” I hugged my eight-year-old daughter tight as tears streamed down her sunburned cheeks. We were picking her up from her first week at a Girl Scout horseback riding camp, north of Houston. This was her first time away from home for more than a night or two. She was my “independent child” and spent the weeks prior to camp in a state of intense excitement--paging through the camp handbook and shopping for the perfect, cherry red, cowgirl boots. I wasn’t expecting the tears
But there they were.
“I missed you so much Mommy,” she sobbed, burying her face into my neck, as scores of girls in pink, camp t-shirts and shorts swarmed past us, searching for their parents. My poor girl! She must have really missed me, I thought. She called me Mommy not Mom.
Oh, how I had missed her too. The camp discouraged parents from calling their children on the phone, because it made them more homesick. I followed the staff’s recommendations and dropped off a packet of letters with the camp office instead. She received one a day. I also e-mailed her every morning, being careful not to say how much I missed her. She sent a few, maddeningly cryptic letters home (“I met a new friend today. Her name is Claire. She is very nice,” and, “Dear Mom, today I went swimming, went on a hike and did Dance and Drama and it was Fun. Love M.”). Still, our brief communications did not match the intensity of our daily conversations/confrontations.
Admittedly, our interactions had been more confrontational than conversational as of late. My daughter had always been the strong-willed type, even when she was a baby. Perhaps those first, difficult months of her life had something to do with that. I flashed back to a memory of my six-week old daughter—dangerously underweight, yellow-skinned and covered in tubes and wires in the neonatal intensive care unit. She was recovering from major surgery for a rare liver disease called biliary atresia. Surgeons had removed her gallbladder, part of her damaged liver and rerouted a segment of her intestine to help drain the bile poisoning her liver. The surgery was hard on her tiny body, but she healed quickly. We took her home just five days later. Against the odds—an estimated half of children with biliary atresia will need a liver transplant before they turn five—she thrived.
Eight years later, my daughter was the picture of health. She was on the swim team, Brownies, played piano and danced. A long, faded, silvery scar on her belly was the only physical evidence she had a chronic, life-threatening disease.
She was a fighter, and so we fought. We fought about brushing her hair (“No one cares if I have tangles Mom!), and her choice of outfits (“This skirt isn’t too short, geez Mom!”), and her personal hygiene (“I took a shower three nights ago! I don’t need another one!”) She balked at letting me help her do things, wanting to do them by herself. Outwardly I said I was proud of how independent she was. I was proud, but the constant pushback wore me out. I secretly envied those moms with the little girls who said “yes,” when asked to do something instead of “no.” Those moms I saw at swim practice bonding with their daughters as they serenely combed their hair free of tangles. They made the mother/daughter relationship thing look so easy. For my daughter and me, it could be hard.
So, I felt sorry for her when I saw the tears. My heart ached when she choked out the real reason she was so upset: the camp cancelled her cabin’s performance of the play Cinderella in which she had the starring role. But the needy part of me also felt validated. She missed me! She needed me! With my four-year old, baby boy headed to kindergarten the next year, and my husband pitching in more, I didn’t feel as necessary around the house. It was good to know my daughter still valued me. Five days apart from my daughter also showed me how desperately I missed her. The house was too quiet. I even missed our squabbling.
All these thoughts rushed into my mind as we reunited at camp. I tried to enjoy the moment, but I was under no illusions that all would be smooth sailing when we got home. We would argue. We would fight. That was for certain. But right now we were together. Our relationship could be difficult at times, but it was strong, like she was. She was healthy, despite her liver disease. Sometimes I forgot how lucky our family was. I remembered it now and hugged my daughter to me, then wiped away her tears until she felt better. I held her hand as she said goodbye to her counselors and fellow campers. Then we grabbed her backpack containing a week’s worth of muddy shorts and t-shirts, and our family headed to the car.
I buckled the kids in, slid onto the passenger seat and shut the door behind me. I could hear my daughter in the backseat sniffing back the last of her tears. I glanced at her in the rear view mirror. Her eyes were still pink and puffy.
“Who wants ice cream?” my husband yelled, breaking the silence as he backed the car out of the red, gravel lot. Cries of “I do!” erupted from the back and front seats. Finally, both mother and daughter agreed on something, even if it was just ice cream. Good enough for me, I thought. I can work with that.