Sarah looked so happy on the carousel. This day turned into a real mess, but none of it mattered now that Sarah’s face was beaming, amber locks waving as she spun. It was like her whole world existed right there and then on that spinning top, with her grounded at the center of it. I can’t remember the last time I found something that so completely released all my woes and sent me shooting off into the distant land of worry-free-ness. I felt muddled with a sad type of joy, for how fleeting this moment was for my sweet five year old girl. For how I can see, in the snap of my fingers, my teenage daughter who will forget all about carousels and their magic capacity to lift her out of anything, and for my one-day adult daughter who will walk around similarly to me, full of love and pride but riddled with anxieties that no carousel could lift.
“Mommy! Mommy! Look! No hands!” Sarah screamed as she raised her arms up and took the world for a ride. She was on a rollercoaster, risking it all, risking the fall for a taste of freedom.
“Wooooo! Yes! Look at you!” I yelled back, grateful for this moment when my daughter was still so young, so carefree.
Just twenty minutes earlier, when I was picking Sarah up from her elementary school, her best and only friend’s mother Sue told me she needed to talk. She said that they were moving, and soon. They had just learned that her husband’s father had cancer, and they decided to move as soon as possible back home so they could spend what time they had left with him. He was their daughter Elizabeth’s only grandfather, and since he lived across the country, she didn’t really know what it was like to have a grandfather. They had more family out there than here anyway, and they were not planning on moving back. They were leaving immediately - tomorrow. They hadn’t told their daughter yet because they thought less time to think about it would be the easiest way to transition her. They didn’t want to bog her down with goodbyes. She hoped I would understand that they needed to spend their time together as a family packing and getting ready, so Elizabeth would not have time for one last playdate.
I wanted to scream at her, demand that she reconsider how she’s doing this. For her daughter as well as mine. For god’s sakes, Elizabeth was Sarah’s only friend. She had so much trouble making friends, and to pull them apart without letting them say goodbye to one another? But the bell had already gone off, kids were already running to their parents and guardians. Both our daughters ran up to us, holding hands, speaking over one another asking for a playdate. Sue told them she was so sorry but they had a very busy few days ahead of them and they could not have a playdate today.
Sue tried to explain to me that they were so sorry, they were frantic with packing, but I didn’t want to hear it. Everything had gone silent, her words had the wah wah wah quality of Charlie Brown listening to adults. It took everything I had, biting back a wild rage and sadness, to tell my daughter that it was okay they couldn’t have a playdate because we were going to have a special park day today just the two of us! She accepted this shift, and I walked alongside my daughter, heartbroken for her and the goodbye she would never get. And scared that I had taken that chance away from my daughter, that I didn’t fight hard enough for her.
As we walked, I tried to listen to my daughter as she rattled off all the things that happened in school today. What she drew in art class, what silly thing the teacher had said, a sweet moment with Elizabeth…but I kept thinking about much trouble Sarah had had making friends. She was incredibly shy. We’ve been through so much together, it’s always been just the two of us, and though I’ve tried as best I could to shield her from my anxieties and breakdowns, the stress has affected Sarah more than I’d like to admit. She makes this face when she starts to bottle things up, like a soda bottle rolling around the trunk of a car that’s ready to burst the second someone tries to open it up. A feeling I know all too well. Sarah has meltdowns sometimes too, big ones. She screams, shrieks, and throws things. I want more than anything to pretend like this is normal for a kid, who’s still learning how to handle emotions, but another truth nags at me. She learned it from me.
Sarah races towards me, asking if she can go again, please?! Never have I felt an easier YES. I wanted to scream it. YEEEEEEEEESSSSSSS!!!!!!!! Nothing would make me happier! And it was true. Off she went, round and round and round, looking happier after each spin. She was as she should be. As I watched her free from the realities of the world, I felt guilty. My thoughts tumbled in as fast as she spun. How is she going to feel when I have to tell her about Elizabeth? Will she feel betrayed that I knew and didn’t tell her? Will she come to hate carousels? What if I’m not giving her what she needs to thrive? What if…what if…what if…? Wait, I’m doing it again. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. I look over to my daughter and can see that in this one simple moment, everything is okay. She is smiling, carefree, all the worries that she wants to help me carry and to help other people carry fly off in a spiral above her head. Round and round and round, and in those moments, it seemed as though everything would be okay.
I want her to live in this moment forever, and somehow never learn about Elizabeth going away. It’s too soon for Sarah to have to take another step into growing up, not yet. It’s too soon for her to know that people leave, that goodbyes happen, or don’t. It’s too soon for her to learn about cancer and the end of grandfathers. I wish I can keep anything sad and upsetting from her, then maybe she could grow up to be happy. But that’s not real, it wouldn’t even help. It would only leave her unprepared for how to face life’s challenges. And no matter what I could say, nothing could explain away why her friend was no longer there, holding her hand.
When I broke out of my reverie, again, I watched as another kid got onto the carousel. Sarah was so happy and carefree that she smiled at this new girl. The girl walked right up to her, and Sarah offered her a seat on the horse next to her. In no time, they were both laughing. The shared interest of carousels was enough and the connection was instant. And after twenty more minutes, they both ran up to their respective mothers and we looked at each other, smiles widening, as we nodded yes.
And with their relentless pleading, all four of us hopped onto the carousel for one last ride. It felt as though we had all known one another for ages, the way we were all so easy with each other. I looked at my daughter. She was okay. She was more than okay. She was great. She was as she should be, free of burden, free of worries, free of caretaking - a child. It wasn’t too late for her. I could let go. And suddenly, we were whirring by, the world was a blur of mayhem, but we were clear as day in our little circle. Everything lifted, and I started laughing. Sarah looked back at me with the biggest smile I had seen in some time. And together, we laughed and laughed and laughed. I realized that I couldn’t protect her from all the worries and pains in the world, but I could enjoy this moment with her of pure freedom and joy and everything being okay, and that I did.