It’s a Monday evening in late summer, and I am at the municipal track with my five-year-old daughter. She waits at the starting line, body angled forward, unicorn tennis shoes perfectly positioned for maximum leverage. It’s a city-wide, all-ages meet, with foam javelins, long jump, high jump, all the jumps. We signed up on a whim and were surprised to find that my daughter—whose only prior athletic experience was t-ball, which she was adamantly only in “for the snacks”—loved to run. And either through raw skill or determination, she was pretty good at it.
We watch the rec department employees adjust the hurdles to the next level. They always raise the hurdle height between age groups. “Those seem too high,” says the girl in lane 6. They do. They are definitely higher than in previous weeks. An employee explains that this is actually the appropriate height, that these are new hurdles, ordered to replace the old, mismatched ones.
The whistle blows, and the race starts before I am ready. I watch my daughter’s back as she runs away from me, towards my husband who is waiting for her at the finish line. Her light-up sneakers flicker with each step, tiny rhythmic illuminations along the lane. She clears one, two, three hurdles. Then I hold my breath, as the fourth one catches her foot and she falls, hard.
The month before she started kindergarten, I made myself a promise about my daughter’s final stretch of pre-school freedom: I would make the most of it. I would savor those precious, fleeting moments I’d heard so much about.
Parenthood, I was coming to understand, means forever coming to terms with loss. Every milestone is an aspect of life annihilated, leaving only memories. A first birthday party signals the end of infancy. Years flip by like pages in a baby book. No one warned me about this vampiric side of parenthood. Every day, if you pay attention, you feel the slow ebb of your blood. This must be why people say obliquely, “Goes by fast, doesn’t it?” What they mean is that you will feel time slip like sand through your grasping hands, a train gone off the track and hurtling towards oblivion.
So, I did the best I could. I tried to stave off September with an unforgettable summer: swim lessons, waterparks, sports.
Monday evenings were track. At our first meet, my daughter raced in the 50m hurdles with seven other five-year-olds, each in their own lane. She won a green participant ribbon. As the weeks passed, track became her thing. The place where she raced with a firm intensity I had never seen in her before and could not locate in myself. I was now the mother of a child who had her own thing.
Now I watch, as other girls begin to stumble on the new hurdles, toppling and colliding like bowling pins. The track is strewn with their tiny, sprawling bodies. Then, to my astonishment, I see my daughter stand up and keep running. When she approaches the final hurdle, she stops—full stop—uncertain about trying the jump again. After a beat, she gingerly steps over the final hurdle and finishes the race. I’m filled with disbelief and bittersweet pride. She could have stayed on the track and cried until her dad rescued her. She could have crawled off the track and onto the soft grass. But she stood up and finished the race. Like some fully fledged independent person, with her own motives and goals.
I run to the finish line, where she is crying, clutching her green ribbon. The road rash on her right knee is peppered with black bits of track grit. I pick her up and hold her. A cautious child by nature, my daughter balks at slides with steep inclines and doesn’t do playground ladders. She is terrified of mosquitoes and papercuts. I don’t think it had occurred to her that hurdles could hurt, that racing was potentially painful. Can’t we have this one untouched thing, this thing she has made her own, this one August, before everything changes? One thing that doesn’t hurt?
We should go home, I think; but she wants to stay. She runs the next two hurdle-free races, the 50m and 100m dashes, and finishes second in the 100m. Who is this kid? I wonder, watching her fly past me. This willful, determined kid?
Later that evening we leave the track, my daughter tired and bandaged, proud but a little shaken. During dinner, she announces to her dad and me that her front tooth is loose. There’s an edge in her voice, the kind that tells me that I need to respond calmly; otherwise, I’ll lose her to terror. “Cool!” I say brightly, while my mind launches into an anxious internal monologue: What age do kids lose their teeth? Or did this happen because of her track fall—did she hit her mouth and I missed it? Does she need a doctor? Googling hastily, I learn that six is the magic age for tooth loss. Not too far off, but she’s not technically six … No, this is normal. Of course, this is normal. But then I’m thinking: Why am I blindsided by this, how did I not see this coming? Meanwhile, my daughter is refusing to eat because her tooth hurts (Is it supposed to hurt? Is this normal? Is any of this normal?). She’s begging me to do something. I’m trying to keep my voice light, as I see tears brimming in her eyes. Now it is way past bedtime, and dinner is mostly uneaten on her plate. I look up the fastest way to extract a tooth and read that you shouldn’t pull it out before it’s ready, because that can cause gum damage. But a dentist’s website advises that yanking is okay, if the tooth is really loose. What the hell, I think, and I wash my hands and get some tissue paper. I’m trying to gently yank a slippery, bloody tooth out of my fatigued child’s mouth, all while worried that I’m scarring her emotionally or inflicting lasting gum damage. And trying to do so with a big dumb smile on my face, so as not to scare my family.
As I pull, I’m struck with the sense of everything converging, of time accelerating. This is too much: today was too full of blood and broken dreams. My daughter is only five, I have my hand in her mouth, and I can tell she is scared because this is her first loose tooth, and no one here knows what they’re doing. Yet she is telling me with steely determination, “Mom, just pull it out.” Even as I fail to do so, even as my grip is too unsteady, because I’m scared of hurting her more.
I take a deep breath and pull again. The tooth comes out; relief washes over me. I look at the pile of toilet paper on the dining room table, and there’s only a bit of blood—a respectable, normal, definitely-not-problematic amount of blood. I look back at my daughter, who is smiling at me, an adorable gap in her teeth, holding this unfathomably tiny baby tooth in her sticky palm. The bleeding has already stopped, and I can see the tiny jagged edge of her next tooth, her adult tooth, coming through the surface. Her first grown-up tooth. It was there all along, but now it’s right in front of me. And it seems startling, how it happened so fast, catching me so off guard. Like a hurdle to the shin, something I should have seen coming but didn’t. What am I supposed to do? What can I do, other than pull myself up and reluctantly move forward, gently, over that next hurdle?