When I was a girl, I dreamed of you. In my dreams, you were always tiny — I’d envision myself giving you a bottle or watching you sleep. Mostly, I’d envision holding you. Baby dolls and dishes were my favorite toys.  I’d name the dolls, sit them up and talk to them. But I always imagined they were you. From as far back as I can remember,  I’ve collected names. I wasn’t even a teenager when I got my first Baby Name book. The names were for my characters but I kept a secret catalog of names that I could picture being yours.

Being a mother is the only thing I have ever truly wanted. When you were born, I could not stop asking, “are you a BABY?” I could not believe that you were really here. I’d imagined counting all your fingers and toes. I’d envisioned the color of your eyes. I’d pictured your feet wiggling.  I’d conjured up images of how tiny your hands would be in mine.  I’d imagined the kind of clothes I’d dress you in.  I thought I’d pictured our life together fairly well.

But.

As it turns out, there were lots of things I had not imagined at all.

I never imagined it would be standing in front of a whole aisle of diapers, debating which brand was REALLY superior, that I would miss.  I did not imagine myself missing waking up every three hours to breast-feed you or pumping milk.  I did not anticipate the pure joy I felt as I watched you lie on the bed and squirm as if your body simply wasn’t big enough to contain all its emotions, as you stared in wonder up at the light.  I did not expect to become teary eyed when, years after you stopped playing with them, I ran across some of your baby special toys.  I never expected to be the one to form attachments to pacifiers, or to find myself missing them when you no longer wanted or needed one.

What I especially could not imagine was you. Who would have thought that a grown woman could be so enamored over such a little girl, or could find herself making the silliest sounds and faces simply because she longed to hear you laugh again?  Who would have thought that a little girl could adore animals — even slugs! — as much as you do, or that I might actually attempt to unearth some of them just for your viewing pleasure (even though I might have inwardly went: “aah! What IS that?”)? Who would have thought me capable of playing for endless hours with cars and dinosaurs, because your short little nose crinkles when you smile in the most adorable way?  Who knew that you would love to cuddle as much as you do, or that you would love to play pretend, like me?

I never envisioned myself crawling around on my hands and knees looking for bugs: now,  though, whenever I see an icky, slimy bug my first thought isn’t to squish it but to capture it for awhile so I can show it to you and then release it safely with you later.  I never envisioned myself extracting an unbelievable amount of pleasure because I was standing beneath the biggest T-REX on the planet with you; I never would have thought of the Human Obstacle Course had it not been for you.  I never would have thought I could find such absolute enjoyment from spending an entire day outside — yet, with you, it’s fun, an opportunity that I would not miss for the world.  I probably wouldn’t throw flour around my kitchen,  trying to make homemade bread and human snowmen, if it weren’t for you. My walls wouldn’t have fingerpaint on them either.  The moments with you that I cherish the most are the times we laughed, played and cried. I remember getting to hold you when you were sick, being the one you turned to when you were scared of something you couldn’t see, of being the reason you laugh. I have experienced more of this great city because of you than I ever would have on my own. I would not have searched out a strawberry patch, or an apple orchard, or a pumpkin patch, or spent time deciding which slide was worthy of my time without you.  I would not have had the need to discover children’s books that have made me smile with tenderness and sometimes roll over laughing.  I probably would never have visited a dinosaur museum or planted a garden. I wouldn’t have sent a letter to Santa Claus or had such an interesting, one-way conversation with the Easter Bunny. I wouldn’t have had need to paint eggs — and the whole kitchen — without you. I wouldn’t know the songs “This is Breathe’s Lullaby” or “Little Ali-ght, Little Ali-ght” and I wouldn’t know how to dance.  I probably never would have been given the excuse to dance in the rain.  I wouldn’t have spent the whole day painting my entire body–just because I could, or squeezing myself into tunnels and mazes not meant for adults.  I never would have known the joy a trampoline can create or the importance of playing Cloud Shapes.   Teaching you to read and write has given me a far greater appreciation for the complexities of the English language than I would have otherwise ever known. I’d never have felt true pride.  I wouldn’t have considered water a toy, not before you. I would not have taken the time to feed the ducks or walk up a hill to a playground three times a week. Spreading a blanket under the shady tree in our yard and waiting for the ice cream man would have seemed like a waste of perfectly good time, before you.  Playing monsters and dragons and hiding from pretend ghosts would have freaked me out, before you.  I would not have ordered caterpillars so I could watch them transform into beautiful butterflies to release.  In short, some of my favorite memories would never have been created without you.

I would have a life void of daily, hourly, reminders of innocence, of God’s joy, of His presence. I wouldn’t laugh as much. You see, I would not have ever known what true love really is, not without you. I would never have thought myself capable of staying in the same spot beside you in the ICU for 72 hours but the very thought of your enduring pain made leaving impossible. The idea that I might experience great fear because your foot got stuck in the bars of a kitchen chair would have seemed far fetched, until you were the one who got stuck and I felt utterly helpless.

You have taught me what it means to love. You have given me a daily reminder that God exists and that He answers prayers. You’ve taught me that time given to TV or being easily saddened is time wasted.  You’ve taught me that to spend time doing nothing, of spending an entire day engaged in play, forgettin that the outside world even exists at all, is time well spent.  In a world that would have otherwise been dominated by thoughts of myself, you have taught me to grow in ways I could not have fathomed. I cherish everything about being your mother, even the things that have been difficult. I adore absolutely everything about you: from your spunk and independence, to your humor, to your sweet tooth (ice cream would never have been what it is today for me without you) to your need for cuddling to your unbeatable stubbornness to your intelligence and overall sweetness.

I knew, as a little girl playing with dolls that I would love and like you. But I had no idea how much or that, in loving you, I would come to love life itself so much more than I ever did. Life teaches us something every hour of every day–but, in reality, it is not “life” that makes us grow or become stronger: it is the people we share our lives with that ultimately transform both our lives and our hearts.

Every day, we have lessons. We work on math, reading, handwriting, science, counting, colors and gross motor abilities. You think you’re learning from me. The truth, though, is that I am learning from you. I have been, ever since I first witnessed the changes in my body while you were getting ready for the world. That was the first chapter in our story. Without a doubt, it is the happiest and most loved one I’ve ever known.

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