Today, my daughter turned 17.
Of course, just yesterday she was sixteen. But sixteen, while notable for driving and dating, still felt manageable, somehow. Still felt like enough time was left.
But 17? 17 feels so urgent it can't be typed with letters, only numbers.
17 feels like a butterfly unfolding her wings.
17 feels like flight is imminent.
17 feels like a contradiction: a loss and a gain all at once.
It feels like the hush of the breeze before a door closes.
It feels like although another door will open, I wasn't quite ready for the one on childhood to shut.
So today as I helped her get ready for her prom—and how magical is that, to go to prom on your 17th birthday in just the dress you've always wanted—as I sewed straps and added lace and adjusted measurements, gave make up advice and touched up a few last curls, I was swept up in the contradiction.
Here she was, her beautiful and competent self right in front of me, talking and laughing and curling and painting. Yet sometimes when I turned too fast I could almost see her just behind me. Her six-point-five-year-old self (who knew enough math to calculate that she was already halfway to thirteen) was adoring her prom gown, adoring and pointing out all of the perfect details. And then asking to spin in it. Her nine-year-old self was touching, with careful but ink-stained fingers, her thick, long, curly auburn hair, commenting on its beauty. Even her thirteen-year-old self paid a visit, admiring the grace and the confidence of her walk in such high heels.
Those selves fluttered around us even though she didn't see. They are only in my heart now, as only a mother can know how she saw her own child. This girl whom I held when she was 17 seconds old, then 17 minutes and hours and days and weeks and months and now years. Who will she be? I wondered, watching her change, who will she become? and then I went back to her in that moment and gave her what I could.
I never knew just how immense my capacity for failure would be.
I also could not imagine the ways in which I would succeed.
And I didn't know, when they first put her in my arms, what it would all mean. They hand you your baby like they're handing you your baby, the small being you chose to make. Who they are really handing you is a person, a person for whom all your choices are made in order to help her make her own choices.
What else do you do? You teach them everything, from that first thing—this is human touch and voice and breath—to whatever is last—tonight it was a trick for the bra strap and a way to keep her eyeliner from smearing and a reminder to take some Kleenex in her tiny purse—with the goal of helping them find their own happinesses. With the desire that, when they stand on the precipice of their familiar cocoon, spreading and drying the impossibly beautiful wings they have formed, you have taught them enough.
When your daughter is 17, you want her to know that you look backward because for you, the entire metamorphosis matters, not just this one moment of it, and that the looking back helps you see the future as well and that her whole life matters to you. That who she is right now is formed of all those other versions of herself and that for you all the incantatory swooping of time coalesces in the here and now.
You want her to know that you know she can move forward and that she will be strong enough for life's tumults. You know that her heart will be broken and her will and her hope but that she will mend and find and renew. You hope that she will appreciate beauty and love the world and be loved by others in amazing ways. That one day she will be handed her own sweet bundle of life.