I watched her hair fall out of the shoddy bun I did my best to create. Cinderella skipped on the sidewalk in front of me, no cares in the world as she swung her jack-o-lantern filled to the brim with treasures, candy spilling out here and there. What was one or two pieces compared to the bounty she would find when we got home?
Another piece of hair fell from the back of her up-do; the bobby pin gripping to the piece, trying its best to hold the piece of hair in place. Internally, I grimaced. Brushing her hair was hard enough. Trying to style it after her favorite princess? Impossible. Many "dress me up" dolls suffered underneath my practicing hands. Many didn't make it. As I created bald patches trying to put hair into a simple bun, Cinderella panicked and I had to replace the monstrosities. Eventually I had accomplished something that would hold. I didn't prepare for the trauma a four year old child would put it through. Watching each piece made me grimace internally. But it was only one day and it was an important day. She had never been trick or treating.
And I had never had a child to take.
She turned to look back at me and her joy swelled into my heart. Messy hair felled around a round, flushed face. I swear I saw a sparkle in her eyes; shining like bright emeralds. It was a moment I couldn't help but feel through my entire body. The tears fell before I realized they were in my eyes.
Her father should be here to see this. My brother should be here to see this. It was never supposed to be me.
"Aunt Elisa!" I snapped out of my thoughts as Cinderella skipped back towards me, candy spilling out everywhere.
"M'lady," I bowed. She giggled; a sound I could listen to forever. "You might want to watch it; you're losing your candy."
With a gasp, little hands ran over the ground, picking up any lost candy and sweeping it back into the treasure jack-o-lantern. Blue, to match the princess's dress.
As she stood again, I bowed once more, watching as she fiddled with the black ribbon tied around her neck. Kneeling, I smoothed the bottom of her dress and moved some hair out of her face.
"Bothering you, huh?" The grin fell as she shook her head vigorously. RIP bobby pins. RIP all my hard work.
The last of the bobby pins clinked on the ground and what was left of the bun clung to the back of her neck. Raising a brow, I let out a sigh.
"Alright, Cinderelly," I turned her and started to pull her hair back, "if we're going to hit a few more houses you need to look your best for the people of your kingdom."
"What kingdom?" She asked, loudly and with a shrieking giggle.
"Well the Kingdom of WalkSidea, of course!" Another shriek.
"That's just the sidewalk!" Her laughing almost pulled her hair out of my hands. Shushing her quickly, I wrapped the emergency blue hairband around her hair into a quick ponytail.
Always, have a back up hairband when around a young girl. Always.
She spun around, watching her dress with with wind and laughing at herself. She had so much of her mother in her. There was no denying that. But when she laughed, or smiled, I could see him in her eyes. There was nothing in this world my brother loved more than this little girl.
When she showed up at my place, clutching a bag full of toys and her tablet, I would have given anything to wake up from the nightmare of our reality. I would still give anything for my brother and his wife to still be alive.
I never understood how Ella ended up with me. I never figured out why my brother and his sister chose me. Passing both my older sister, also a mother, my parents, and even his in-laws. What could I have offered her that the others couldn't? It made me wonder if they ever really considered something could happen to them. No way they would have requested I take Ella if they really thought anything would happen to them.
My brother had written a letter that was tucked into Ella's bag. Once she was settled, after a long night of trying to put down a hyper child who barely understood this was not a sleepover, but her life, I read and reread the letter.
"There's no one else God would want her to be with. Teach. Learn. Love. Trust. "
I chanted those words over and over for our first few days together. I went from a single woman with only focusing on a career, to a single mother. All while knowing nothing about kids. Especially little four year old girls. My parents repeated they would take her. That just didn't feel right. Even if Jake never meant it, Ella was left in my care. Giving up on that was like giving up on Jake. He never gave up on me. I would never dishonor him in that way.
I told myself that through the very rough beginning. What do you eat? When do you sleep? Should we wash your hair? What do you mean nightlight? The one in your bedroom? No, you can't go home. This is home now. I'll get you a new nightlight. What do you mean playlist? Okay, okay, your bedtime playlist. No please don't cry, I'll find it! What are you doing climbing around? You'll hurt yourself! I don't know what cartoon cartoon mouse mouse is, translate please. I'm doing my best! You hate me? Well, tough - I'm all you got! No, please don't cry. No, I'm not hurt. Just sad.
You want to go to the park? Let's go. Read a story with me? Of course. This is your favorite doll? Tell me about her. I found a new song for your bedtime playlist. Let me rub circles on your back till fall asleep. Thank you! Ramen is my favorite too! Is it too hot? I'll put an ice cube in it. Yeah, just like Daddy used to do. Did I ever tell you about the time Daddy tricked me into making him dinner all the time? Yeah, I miss Daddy too.
I love you too. I'm glad you're here.
As time went by, we created a home together. Found her spaces in the holes of my heart and in the holes of my home. We marked her height from the first few weeks she had moved in and vowed to mark it each year. We scrubbed the walls together when her art took over the living room. We giggled at cartoon cartoon mouse mouse and did the "Roly Dog Dig" dance. Each week we visited my parents and had one big lunch. Each night we said our prayers; we made sure to say hi to Jake and Sarah, and let them know how we were doing. Each night I checked in on her before I went to sleep.
She was my entire world. My entire reason for being. It still hurt at times that it was me and not Jake. It still made me sad that she wouldn't know Jake the way she should. And, from time to time, I still wished it was Jake and Sarah here, and not me.
Teach. Teach her who Jake and Sarah were, and how much they loved her. Teach her right from wrong and how to tie her shoes. Teach her that squirrels are not pets and to not chase them in the yard. Teach her about God, and how He brought her to me. Teach her that love comes and many different shapes, sizes, colors, and words.
Learn. Learn what her bedtime routine was. Learn how she liked to do her hair and what her favorite color was. Learn how she loved and how she needed love. Learn what her favorite foods were. Learn that she didn't eat anything that was the color green. Or yellow. Or purple. Learn when to know she is messing with you. Learn how to get her to be strong when she is sad. Learn how to live without always missing Jake and Sarah. Learn that for myself.
Love. Love our moments of fighting as it brings us closer. Love the cartoon cartoon mouse mouse. Love the way she wobbles as she runs, unsure if her next steps will keep her standing. Love how she mimics you as you answer emails or write a new article. Love watching her run a staff meeting with her dolls. Love the weird concoctions of food she tricks you into trying. Love the fact that you have pizza way more now and make time to watch movies. Love the way she doesn't know how to whisper in the movie theater. Love that she is yours and you are hers.
Trust. Trust that Jake had an idea of what he was thinking when bringing you two together. Trust God had a plan each time you wish to trade places with Jake and Sarah. Trust that she never means to upset you or anger you. Trust that each time you apologize, she has already forgiven you. Trust that you aren't perfect, and that your love is enough to be what she needs. Trust you are what she needs. Trust you will find someone to love both of you.
And I did. All these things and more. Up until this, our first Halloween together. Her first official trick or treating. A first we could experience together and soak up all the happiness we could. The Cinderella to my prince, the costume I happily wore for her. As well as the Evil Stepfather (as I was not going to be the Stepmother); the man who came into our lives without hesitation, fitting right into our puzzle made of all the completely wrong pieces. We were just waiting for another piece to hold us together. We were finding our way altogether. He squeezed my hand as I huffed, watching her rip the hairband from her ponytail so that her wild hair could flow free. We chuckled together as she ran ahead to home.
Once more, she turned and looked at me, Jake smiling through her. I stopped and thanked God for making something beautiful from something so terrible.
"Hm?" She brought me out of my reverie once more, reaching her jack-o-lantern out to her Step-Uncle. He took it with a little confusion, rolling his eyes when Ella put her hands in mine.
"The prince is supposed to walk the princess home!" I laughed, bowing to my Cinderella once more.
"Of course, your highness." I took her hand into mine, kissing each little finger. "I will go wherever you will go."
Hand in hand we walked through other costumed families, taking their bounties home.
"Thank you, Jake," I whispered, squeezing the small hand in mine, "we love you and miss you so much."
And what a bounty I was blessed to call this princess. It was not what I wanted.
But she was exactly what I needed.