Hot, wet darkness squeezed on her body. She heard cries of pain and excitement. Then suddenly--
Blinding light! She wailed, trying to cough the icky fluid stuck in her lungs. Someone’s big hands grasped her slimy body.
“It’s a girl!” someone shouted. She cried louder. Of course she was a girl! Didn’t they know? The light hurt her eyes--and the noise! These older humans were really very intolerably loud. She felt her body being handed to someone. Gentle, warm arms wrapped around her; it was mother. She just knew it.
“My precious little baby Maria,” Mother murmured gently. The baby began to quiet down and opened her eyes. Yes, this is who she wanted. Someone civil and warm. A man bent over and put his face very close to Maria’s. How dare he! She cried out in indignation. A chorus of laughter was heard. The baby scowled, then cried more. But Mother’s arms held her tighter.
Maria wanted food very badly. It was given to her presently. Warm milk flooded into her mouth, soothed her throat, and filled her starving little belly. After a while, she began to feel sleepy. It was very hard being born, and nobody seemed to appreciate the work babies put into being born. This world would be a hard place, but also a very delightful one at times, Maria reflected as her eyes closed, heavy with sleep.
It would be oh so delightful now that she was here.
Maria stared into the darkness. She clenched her teddy bear closer to her body and pulled her soft pink blanket over her face. Maria was only three years old now, and the world was still a big, wonderful place full of new, exquisite, amazing things. But nighttime always scared Maria. The darkness seemed to swallow her up. Everyone else was somewhere, Maria knew, but she couldn’t see them. What if they had left?
Maria shivered and kissed her teddy. Cocoa wouldn’t leave her. His soft felt nose brushed against her cheek as she snuggled closer to him. Cocoa was always there when she needed him most. He came into her life last summer when she broke her wrist. Maria, thinking she could fly, had jumped off the back of her grandma’s lounge and learned, to her dismay, that she could not fly. The nurse introduced her to Cocoa when Maria had her wrist casted at the hospital, and since that day, Cocoa never left her side--that is, when she was at home. Maria was a big girl now, so she knew that stuffed animals should never leave the house--not even Cocoa. But she knew that when she got home, Cocoa would be waiting for her, slouching against her bed pillows and gazing out of the window.
What did Cocoa dream about? Maria wondered that constantly. Did he dream about ice cream and pink marshmallows like she did? Or a new purple bike? Cocoa knew, of course, that people couldn’t fly. And Maria knew that too now. She was growing up. Of course humans couldn’t fly! The idea was silly. Maria had been a young baby two seasons ago. She was big now.
But what if humans could fly?
Wind whipped Maria’s long, golden-brown hair. Her legs ached and her feet throbbed. But she couldn’t stop now. Her breath came faster and faster. She was almost there… so close….
“Yes!” she shouted exuberantly. She had won! She beat the cloud. Take that! Maria thought happily, jumping up and down, waving her hands.
Daddy said that clouds were bigger than she could imagine and that they were faster than her. She had proven Daddy wrong. Maria was bigger than the great big cloud. What did clouds feel like, she wondered. They must feel like cotton. Daddy said angels walked on the tops of clouds and watched us and kept us safe. If so, didn’t that mean Maria could sit on the clouds too? Sit on them like Mary Poppins did?
Maria, still gasping for breath, hurried inside to tell Mommy what she’d done. Mommy laughed and congratulated her. Yes, Maria had done quite well for a grown girl of six years--six years, seven months, and five days, to be exact.
Maria’s throat burned as she chugged down icy cold water; it was the good kind of burn, the kind of burn that reminded her of cloud racing, jump roping, hop-scotching, and ice cream cones. Hop-scotching was her favorite summer activity. Sometimes she lost her balance and skinned her knees, but that wasn’t anything Daddy couldn’t take care of. Daddy and Cocoa fixed everything. Of course, Maria knew now that Cocoa didn’t dream like she did and he couldn’t think, but having him around felt better. Maria was grown up and didn’t think such things--the idea of stuffed animals being alive was farcical, Maria thought. Far too babyish for her six years, seven months, and five days.
Maria was quite a grown-up, cloud racing, hop-scotching champion. Even the angels couldn’t keep their eyes off of her. One day, she’d touch the clouds.
Mom and Dad were so dumb. They didn’t know anything. Maria flopped onto her bed and hugged Cocoa. Surely she was right. Mom and Dad just didn’t understand. Maria knew that it was fine for her to eat all her Halloween candy. Mom and Dad just wanted to ruin her fun. She was a mature ten year old now. She knew the world like the back of her hand. Maria was grown up. She had learned that day in school that clouds weren’t made of cotton, and that she couldn’t actually sit on them like Mary Poppins. They were made out of billions upon billions of teeny-tiny ice crystals.
Maria wasn’t a child any longer. She knew how clouds were made. She was grown up. It was time to dispose of childish ideas like cotton clouds and teddy bears. Maria looked at Cocoa. Why was she still hugging him like a baby? It was time for her to finally grow up. She threw Cocoa away from her. He landed face-down in a pile of dirty laundry on her floor--the same dirty laundry Mom had told her to clean up that morning.
Ugh, Mom and Dad were so annoying. Maria slid off her bed and onto the floor. She didn’t need them. She was all grown up.
Life was very cruel. Boys were horrible--all of them! Maria was the only reasonable human on the planet. She ran crying to her room. She flung her heavy backpack off her shoulders and onto the bedroom floor. Maria didn’t care anymore if she failed high school--she didn’t care anymore if she failed life! She had been embarrassed beyond compare. Patrick had told her that day that he wanted to break up with her. Oh, the horrors of being sixteen! Patrick was a fool. Of course she didn’t need him. But he said it in front of all his friends! Maria cried harder into her pillow.
She felt a hand stroke her back consolingly. It was Mom’s. She was here to comfort her. Mom was always here for her. Maria remembered the time when she had foolishly thought her parents were dumb and that she didn’t need them. How immature she was! Now she was mature. She had gone through heartbreak. Maria knew the bitterness of life, she thought rebelliously. She was prepared now. The world was a cruel place.
Maria felt something soft against her cheek. She looked up. It was Cocoa! Mom had saved Cocoa since the day Maria had wanted to give him away! Maria clasped Cocoa against her chest. He could help her feel better. He’d help her get through this mean world.
Waiting. More waiting. Just a little more waiting. Maria was so annoyed that she could’ve started singing the Jeopardy theme song out loud. Why on earth did DMV’s exist?! Adulting was hard. Driving was hard. Money was hard. Maria had experienced her first car crash and was not overjoyed, to say the least. Well, she had learned her lesson. Humans were idiots. In all of her long twenty-one years, she had never seen it so clearly.
When she finally got home, Maria slouched onto the couch and groaned. Adulting was very hard. Too hard, it seemed at times. But she must keep on going. Her bachelor’s degree didn’t get itself. She wanted Mom. Or Dad. Actually, she wanted both. But no, they were both several hours away, living the sweet solitude of retired life. Maria aspired to be like her parents. Her father had worked hard and lovingly to make a good living for his wife and child. He had saved enough money to retire early and take care of his ailing wife. After Maria had been born, her mother became chronically ill, making it impossible to give Maria siblings.
Maria sighed. This world was complicated. She wanted Mom to stroke her back and her Dad to sing her You Are My Sunshine like he always did every night. She wanted to be a little kid again. Maria chuckled. How foolish she had been, thinking she was grown up. Well, she wasn’t. She still had a lot of learning to do.
Maria never thought happiness like that was ever possible. Her parents had that kind of happiness, but she never thought she could experience it. But yet, here she was, looking into the eyes of the man she loved most. He looked into her eyes. He’d give anything for her. He’d give his own life for her.
Love was truly amazing. Maria’s heart could hardly hold it all. She loved Luke with all her heart and soul. Nothing would come that they couldn’t handle. They would walk, sometimes tripping, through life together.
Maria smiled. She was only twenty-six; she had so much more to live! She couldn’t wait to see what else life would bring her.
Some say through pain comes happiness. Maria could attest to that. After twenty hours of almost unbearable pain, she brought her first child into the world. She looked into her child’s big brown eyes and was amazed. How could such a tiny, beautiful little bundle of joy make such a loud noise? Maria looked at Luke. He was amazed too. He held his firstborn son in his arms and looked at Maria. Maria laughed at the bewildered look on his face. Babies were so amazing and beautiful.
Maria had the best thirty-third birthday she could’ve ever had. Her first child was born! What better things could life possibly bring? Maria asked herself that question again when she welcomed her second and third children into the world three years later. Twins! Who would’ve thought! Maria and Luke were so blessed with their happiness.
Maria remembered all the wonderful things her mother had done for her as she stood beside the casket. Nothing could ever make her forget. Tears streamed down Maria’s face. She grasped her father’s old, wrinkled hand and clenched her teeth to keep from sobbing. Mom wouldn’t want her to cry. She’d want them to be happy, even though they had to part for a while. But she would see them again, Maria’s mother had said. Little eight-year-old Peter held his mother’s hand and looked up at Maria.
“What’s the matter, Mommy?” he asked, concerned. Only once before had he seen Mommy cry, and that was when the twins were born. But that time, it had been tears of joy.
“Grandma went up to spend some time with the angels,” Maria responded, remembering what her father had told her long ago. “She’s still with us. She’s on top of the clouds, having fun.”
Peter smiled at this pleasantry. He knew Mommy was just trying to make him feel better. But knowing Grandma was happy made him feel better. Peter was grown up now, and he knew life was mean sometimes, but there was also joy. Maybe someday, he’d walk on clouds like the angels.
It was a sad day when the twins moved out to go to college. Maria and Luke tearfully waved them off and watched them drive down the road. The beginning of their journey to adulthood. Maria had taught them well. She knew that adulthood, try as it might, wouldn’t knock her children down.
Maria turned to go inside. She could hear the sweet phantom voices of when her children were young. Peter’s tricks on his twin sisters, and the twin’s jokes. She remembered the good and the bad. But somehow, the bad never seemed so bad when it was in the past. Maria had finally realized that it took both the good and the bad to make her who she was. She couldn’t have one without the other. Even though the bad had caused her pain, it wouldn’t have taught her lessons and given her strength.
Maria looked into Luke’s loving eyes. She fell into his strong embrace. She knew she could always count on him. Even when Maria’s father had taken ill and died last winter, Luke did not falter. Maria had been there for Luke, too. She always did everything she could for him. Her love for him was like a flame that never went out. Maria had been very blessed. Life had been very kind to her. She remembered the day long ago when she had won cloud racing. Life was like the cloud; sometimes it rained on her. Sometimes it protected her from the beating heat. Now all she had to do was finish the race. She knew she could win.
The lights were dim and the room was quiet. All three of Maria’s children stood around her. Luke held her hand and stroked it gently. After seventy-nine joyful years, Maria was finally at the end of the race. She had grown up. Maria looked around the room and smiled. She remembered all the good and the bad. All the happy and the sad. She looked at Luke. She owed him so much. He had helped her through life and brought her so much joy. Maria looked at Peter and the twins. Even though birthing them was painful, it was more than worth it. They brought so much joy into her life--and they hadn’t stopped as they grew. Peter had four little ones of his own; Julia, one of the twins, had two of her own, and Gianna, the other twin, had one little girl.
Maria knew her time had come, but she wasn’t sad. Don’t be sad, she had told Luke and the children. She had won the race. Not by gaining riches and fame, but by quiet love and perseverance. Maria looked out of her window and into the beautiful blue sky outside. Puffy white clouds floated in the sky. She could almost see the angels dancing on them.
“I’m going to go dance on the clouds,” she said quietly. She saw a tear roll down Luke’s cheek. Maria reached up and wiped it off gently. “Don’t be sad,” she whispered again. “Be happy. I’ve won the race, and soon, I’ll be dancing on the clouds.”
Maria smiled again. Her eyelids felt very heavy and breathing was very hard. Slowly, her eyes began to shut. She had a last glimpse of the people she loved most as her heartbeat began to fade.
Sweet, happy darkness enveloped her like a soft blanket. Maria could see the edge of the cloud’s shadow. She was almost there, just a little more running. Her legs ached but happiness filled her heart and urged her on.
Maria stopped. The edge of the cloud laid just before her. She finally made it. She finally won against the cloud. Smiling, Maria stepped over the cloud’s edge and into the brilliant light beyond.