We were doing homework last night: she has a test in grammar today on pronouns. Personal, interrogative, indefinite, demonstrative, and relative. She has to know what antecedents are, and she has to remember the word antecedent. She’s nervous, because she doesn’t have a firm grasp on all of it just yet. She often confuses indefinite and demonstrative pronouns. She has trouble remembering the phrase subordinate clause, and this worries her, even though it’s more important that she understand the concept than memorize the words. This is a learning experience for me, too; I knew all of this once, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had to pin the parts of a sentence to a corkboard and afix their names to them.
We’re into this for no more than ten minutes when she starts to get pissed. I’m coming up with sentences for her and she’s identifying the pronouns and their types.
“Who put it away?”
“Who. Interrogative. It. Indefinite.”
“You’re right on the first one, but ‘it’ isn’t indefinite.”
“Remember? He, she, it. What are they?”
“Personal, but that’s impossible! We don’t know what ‘it’ stands for in that sentence, so it has to be indefinite!”
We go over it for a few more minutes, but she’s upset now, and finding it hard to concentrate. We take a break, and she stalks like a thwarted general into her room.
Thirty minutes later we return to it. She’s getting it; she’s doing a good job. These aren’t easy concepts to grab immediately, when you’re not used to thinking of sentences as machines, as a series of individual parts which work in concert. But she is still frustrated, and by this point my own frustration is mounting too. She gets the next one wrong and she throws herself back onto the couch, making a strangled noise.
It’s too much for me. I drop the notebook on the coffee table. “For Christ’s sake. Will you just calm down?”
Her face goes dark in anger, in righteous indignation. But just for a moment. Then it smooths over. She gets up and retrieves her notebook from the table. “I’m going to read over the notes in my room,” she says, very calmly. She walks in that direction.
“Kiddo, you’re doing well. You can’t expect to get all this right on the first try. That’s what homework and studying is for.”
She regards me with a cool eye. Then she turns away again.
“Are you mad?”
“You seem like you’re mad.”
She looks at me again, with what appears to be a detached, even somewhat contemptuous, curiosity. “Hm,” she says, and goes to her room.
I gave her about fifteen minutes and then I went into her room, where she was hunched over her laptop. I pulled her to me and hugged her, apologized for being short, told her encouraging things. She seemed unmoved by the whole exchange.
I knew these years were coming. I knew they were going to be tough. And now that they’re arriving, I’m finding that the tools I used to use so well to manage her emotions and her self-regard are no longer working. Tears don’t always dry with a hug anymore, nor do the dark moods dissipate as readily. She’s angry more often. In some ways I see this as a good thing: she has always been hard on herself and I am glad to see the anger directed outward, rather than turned inward, where she can only harm herself. And yet, it’s new, and sudden, and it causes problems. It keeps people at a distance; and in me, it inspires an answering impatience.
There are times when I have no idea what to say to her. I have no idea what she’s thinking, what she’s keeping from me, what’s she’s secretly, desperately hoping I will do or say. I can only react according to what she decides to tell me or what I can intuit, like a doctor treating the symptoms of an illness he cannot diagnose.
A lot of this is normal, of course. And a lot of it comes from me. It’s sobering and humbling to see your own worst traits reflected in your child. You find yourself less patient with the expression of those traits, less ready to forgive them, because you hate them so much in yourself.
As a single father, I had little fear in the early years of her life. She was a little kid, and I do well with little kids. But she’ll be a teenage girl soon, and I am so less sure of myself now.
But at night, when she sleeps, I walk quietly into her room to be sure the blankets are over her shoulders and her head is on the pillow, and there she is still. My little girl. The tiny creature that spent her first week of life in NICU, who was first held in love by my own hands. The little girl who would hear the rumble of the motorcycle when I came home from work or from school and run out to meet me on her tiny legs, actually laughing in excitement. The five year old girl who came with me here to this new place, without a mother to attend her, and trusted that I knew what I was doing and that I would protect her and guide her. The girl who until so recently could bury her sadness in my shoulder, and let my arms carry it away. When she’s sleeping I can still see her: in the roundness of her cheek; her small, parted lips; her closed eyelids and her unfurrowed brow; in the curled fingers of her hand, no longer tiny, but still so small. Still a child’s.
I see her sleeping and I reflect on every sharp word I said that day, every flash of anger or impatience, every time I answered her over my shoulder as I stared at a computer screen or read a book.
I remember my duty to her.