When I first found out I was pregnant with Daphne, I imagined lots of things. A little hand circling my thumb. A teddy bear best friend. Saturday morning cartoons with cherry poptarts. The first day of preschool with two missing front teeth. Homemade Halloween costumes and a pillowcase full of candy.
But I only got one of those.
When I held her for the first time, my hand found hers and it may have been my imagination, but her little fingers seemed to softly squeeze my thumb. And in that moment, it was just us. Me and my little girl. Daphne. The nurses became quick flashes of blue. The doctors faded into background noise. And her father, the guy who was probably halfway across the country by now, didn’t even matter. Because my little girl had my thick, dark hair. My light skin. My nose. And her own gorgeous brown eyes. Even though we were alone, we were going to take on this world together.
I held on for eight months. Eight blissful months of having a person in my life who meant more to me than myself, but also eight months of not knowing how to pay the bills, how to keep ourselves fed, how to keep a job with a newborn at home. So it was no surprise when child protective services sent someone out to take her away from me. I understood that it was for the best. I understood that I could not be the parent that she deserved, the parent who could buy her a teddy bear, afford cherry poptarts, shop for a first-day-of-school outfit, have time to make a Halloween costume. I understood what had to happen. It still hurt though.
“Ms. Jackson?” asked the lady at the front door. She looked like she had her life together. A neat blue pant suit paired with blue heels. Blonde hair tucked away at the nape of her neck. Not a smudge of mascara or lipstick. She was someone who probably spent a little too much time at her job, but at least she had a job.
“Hi,” I replied quietly and in my arms, Daphne murmured something too. Suddenly I realized that her first word will be one of the many firsts I would miss.
“Hi,” the lady said kindly. “Dear, I’m here for Daphne.” She kept on talking, introducing herself and where she and Daphne would be going, but I stopped paying attention. I knew this all would be temporary. I was going to get my life together. Until then, I showed the lady where Daphne’s bag was and held on tight for the remaining time we had together. The bag was pathetically light but the lady said she would go put it in the car and come back for Daphne afterwards.
As she slowly walked to the car, I looked at my baby girl. Her hair was beginning to curl, and she would definitely need to get it cut soon. Her eyes were just beginning to reflect her smiles and I wanted nothing more than to rock in the rocking chair next to her crib and stare into them until they closed in peaceful sleep. But the lady was already heading back to the house.
“I’m not giving up on you, baby girl,” I whispered. “So don’t give up on me yet. We’re going to pull through this. I love you, baby doll.”
The lady appeared on the doorstep and I put Daphne into her arms. I couldn’t watch as they left so I imagined her carefully placing my baby in an expensive car seat I can’t afford, checking all the straps, and then driving off to the new family. Despite being a family of hope and promises, there was something they didn’t have. Me. And so I let myself cry for only five minutes before I wiped my tears away and got ready for my shift.
I worked hard. I saved money. I was frugal. I went to rehab. But it’s harder than it sounds, especially when there was a new dark, deep pit in my stomach. And the way I saw it, only two things could fill it. One was living across town in a beautiful house with her own room and teddy bear. The other was a more temporary fix, but I only had to go to the corner and strike a deal with Joe. So yeah, rehab wasn’t going so well. But every three months I’d pull myself together and walk to Burger King where I’d have an hour with Daphne and some lady who wore blue sneakers and smelled overwhelmingly like lilac. She was nice enough but I didn’t pay much attention to her because it took away time from my baby girl. The only time I paid attention was when she showed me pictures of Daphne with her other family. On Halloween they dressed her up as a pumpkin and the oldest girl took her trick or treating. On her first birthday they ordered her a cookie cake and surrounded her with presents. In the corner, you could see mine, the one with the raggedy bow and the messy wrapping. In most of the pictures she’s either laughing or smiling and I can’t help but wonder who’s behind the camera. But in every picture, there’s a light purple beanie baby at her side.
“Who’s this?” I asked at our first meeting. She didn’t say anything, only shyly looked up at me and hugged the beanie baby even tighter. I wasn’t expecting any words yet, but it was clear that I had missed a lot. Her hair was shorter than when she lived with me, her eyes lighter, and her smile bigger. That first meeting was the hardest as I realized that she was becoming her own little person and I was missing it.
“The family says they won it at a carnival a couple years ago and it’s just been lying around the house until Daphne found it,” the lady says.
On the inside I grinned. My girl’s surrounded by wealth and she picks the bear that no one cares about to be her best friend. It gave me hope that she’s going to pick me over that other family at the end of all this.
It took a couple years, but I pulled myself together. I reconnected with my dad who I introduced to Daphne, and although we never had much in common in the past, we suddenly agreed that Daphne needed to come home and be a part of this new family. He helped me get a better job, he found me a better rehab program, and more than anything, he let me find myself again. I was the same daddy’s girl, but he also helped me become a mother too. So shortly after Daphne’s fourth birthday, she came back to us.
Dad and I waited on the front steps. It’s been seven years since we’ve sat so close to each other, when I stormed out of the house and he didn’t follow me. I didn’t delete his number in my phone in case he called but he never did. Now as he sat besides me, it’s clear that the years have been unkind to us both. His smile doesn’t reach his eyes anymore, and there’s a subtle sadness in the pair of them. It’s the kind of sadness that builds up with years of TV dinners eaten alone, a silent telephone line, and birthdays without birthday cake. His blonde hair turned gray a long time ago, and his clothes hung loose on his tall frame. Even though we had the same slump in our shoulders, we looked almost nothing alike, and yet with every car that passed the house, our eyebrows lifted up in the exact same look of anticipation. If anything could pull our shattered relationship together, it would be Daphne, my first child and his first grandchild.
Just like she did four years ago, that lady in the blue pant suit pulled her car up next to the curb. Except this time she brought good news. Daphne sat in the back seat, jumping up and down in her car seat. I ran down the steps, my dad close behind.
“Ms. Jackson?” she asked with a smile, clearly a lot happier than the last time I saw her.
“That’s me!” I replied, but I stopped listening after that because I only wanted to answer to one name today.
“Mommy!” Daphne screamed. Her hair formed a curly halo around her head, her smile was bright and sunny, and her eyes shone with a happiness my dad and I could only hope for. She was our little angel and she was here to stay.
“Hey, baby girl,” I whispered, my arms tight around my kid.
“I like this day so much more,” the lady in blue said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. I finally pulled back, looking at Daphne, my kid. Her arms were tight around me too, and I realized that she was still gripping that purple beanie baby in one of her tiny hands. “Me too.”