She gives me a sideways glance. A smirk. She's trying this on for size like so many other things these days. Her humor tells me she's fourteen. Her silly giggle and matted puppy in her arms remind me that she's four.
I up the ante. At thirty-eight, I can bring it. My experienced side eye and smirk put her and the pup in their place. At least for now.
"M-A-M-A!" I tell her. We both laugh and I smother her face with kisses.
I want to be "Mama" forever.
She was twenty months old the first time I held her. Her cheeks were full of chub and her heart full of fear. My sweet baby went through so much before most learn to talk. From a mama she'll likely never know, to many mamas who I believe loved her well but not one could call her their own. To me, a woman dying to be a mama, but unaware of all that comes with it.
Two days after we met, our new family of three sat at a table near the dinner buffet at a hotel in Guangzhou. The previous forty-eight hours had been packed with trauma and tears and big love and tiny attempts to ease the pain and transition of this new life for our girl. We were all exhausted. I'd been desperate for her to reach for me instead of my husband. Drained, I got up out of my chair to get more fruit and rice. As I walked away, I heard my sweet baby cry out behind me from her high chair.
That word. Her little voice. A sweet salve in the midst of defeat.
Weeks and months went by and her English vocabulary grew. Mama, Dada, Vera (waywa), bird, bowl, cat, banana, cheese, cup, bubbles…
The chub around her fingers disappeared. The fear in her heart softened. The light in her bright coffee-colored eyes stuck around longer and longer each time they looked into mine.
Without notice, she started counting, singing and rattling off sentences. Without notice, my grays and smile lines multiplied. Without notice, time, as it always does, whisked itself away. And so, I try to listen closely. To settle in deep to this gift. I begged God for these days; I want to breathe them in and tuck them away so they're permanently woven into my very being for as long as I live. A heart and life of joy and gratitude.
Of course, there are days when, if I'm not careful, I let the cracks and challenges of motherhood take root in my very being. Days I get irritated too quickly if I hear "Mama" too often. When it's sandwiched between whines and requests and questions I've already answered.
"Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama!"
Incessant interruptions set off unnecessary anger as I search for patience to miraculously appear. If my heart is willing, sanctification comes slow, like sweet dripping honey, saturating my soul. This is work. Hard work. But I'm reminded that these days are a different kind of good. A different kind of gift. An ever-clear and clanging conviction that "Mama" does not define my worth.
He reminds me that I'm more.
The moon is rising now and she's rubbing her eyes. We ask who she wants to give her a bath tonight. More often than it used to be, the answer is "Mama."
She picks out her shark, crab and baby and mama turtles (they're inseparable) as I crumple and toss her cozy pants onto the pile on the floor. The animals make a splash; she climbs over the side of the tub and starts to tell me about her day.
The day I was there for, too. But it doesn't hurt to recall it again. Ten years from now, I'll want it to be there. This season of tears mixed with sheer delight. Burning brightly in my mind. The way she puts an "S" in front of her "L"s when she tells me how icky the "slemon" was at park preschool. The way she "reads" to me and the way she actually is learning to read to me. The way one sweet word at a dinner buffet in Guangzhou has strung itself into thousands of cherished conversations.
I finish our routine: bath, teeth, potty, jammies. I slow the chatter and hush my voice as I scoop her up and make our way to her room. It's warm, dark and cozy but she's needing a little bit more tonight.
"I want Mama to stay."
As the days and years have passed so fiercely but fully, I think to myself, "Sweet girl, I want 'Mama' to stay, too." We both know she can't forever.
But for now, I kneel down next to her bed, sweep the damp hair off her forehead and rest my hand on her back. Her racing heart and growing body settle into calm, deep breaths. Her matted puppy is tucked tightly in the crease of her elbow, against her heart. And oh, how she's filled mine. Someday, she'll be fourteen. Someday, she'll call me "Mom" and I'll have to let her, all jokes aside. But right now, tonight, love and gratitude rush through me because she wanted "Mama" to stay.