Scarlett’s getting thin again. Bathing suit season really throws it out there, too, the way that it did the year before. She’s healthy now, which lets me know that she’ll just always be smaller than other kids, but seeing her in a bathing suit this year doesn’t feel much different than seeing her in one last year did, just days before her Failure to Thrive was diagnosed in the sterile, frightening walls of a children’s hospital that cut summer short for all of us. She’s a year taller, a year chubbier, and a year more physically able, but as the layers of Osh’Gosh peel away in the heavy heat of summer, worry has made it’s way back to the pit of my stomach.
This year, she can step into the suit on her own. She holds onto my shoulder with one hand and dips her toes into the green, flower print Lycra stretched open between my hands. I pull it up easily even though she’s outgrowing the length and rest the straps over the bony rounds of her very small shoulders. The smallness of her shoulder have bothered me all of her life, save for when she was pumped of formula on a twelve hour automatic feed, and began to finally pudge out a little, in a way that she couldn’t manage to on her own. When that happened, her shoulder fat was one of the first things I celebrated; it felt almost like a victory, a beautiful sign of health. I thought of how many times I’ve cursed my own chubbiness there and I swore I’d never think badly on it again. I swore that when I saw that fat swelling at the top of my arms in a summertime reflection, walking past the mirror in my room, it would make me think of her, and I’d be happy for our combined health. I want her to learn never to be anything less than grateful for the shape her body takes when it is healthy. Ever since, I have. But as she walked away from me in her bathing suit this year, taking small, giddy steps toward her father in the pool, the smile I had on for her disappeared behind her back. I know that she’s healthy, but all I felt was worry.
Writing this down, it feels like a lot of dwelling for dramatic effect. But until recently, I couldn’t even bring myself to look at pictures of her from last year that show any real amount of skin, or her face. They literally, without embellishing at all, make me cringe. Some of them still clutch me to tears. She was so emaciated, she was so tired. Until the hospital intervened, she couldn’t manage the energy it took to laugh. So she just always wore a look of nonplus. It sobered me then, and it kills me now.
It was different before -- she was breastfeeding, so there was guesswork involved in deciphering how many calories she was actually ingesting from day to day. She has her picky days now (most unsettling is that she’ll refuse to eat if she’s even remotely unhappy, which always puts me into kind of a panic) but when she’s willing to show it off, she has an appetite that never ceases to make us proud. She sometimes has to kind of be force-fed the first bite of a new texture, but once she realizes that food doesn’t taste like poison just because it’s new, she clears her plate. She insists on feeding herself independently, picking from everyone else’s plate, and giving any random object she finds on the floor a taste - just to make sure it isn’t, by any chance, a piece of candy. She can still eat four servings of breakfast, easy. Fruit to her is better than ice cream. She loves fresh vegetables, discovering new tastes, and anything spicy. (She’ll even ask for Tabasco sauce! Crazy kid.) So it’s not like it was last year, we know that her being small now is just because of the build she has.
But I’m her mom, so as she makes her way into the water’s edge for the first time this season, I worry on.
In an instant, I’m lifted. Watching her take hold of this experience with no lack of energy, nothing to hold back her thrill or her volume, I’m reminded that it’s not like last year. This is a child radiating with health and happiness. This is a child who shines.
Last year in the water Scarlett laid limp in my arms the whole time, void of any reaction. It was rare for her to even lift her head from under the safe umbrella of my cheek over her light tufts of hair. She never flinched at the biting temperature change, she never tightened her grip as we lowered in, she never reached out to dip her hand in the intoxicating blue. And if we did it for her, she made no expression. She was too tired to be impressed. Too lethargic to have an opinion.
A year later, with screams of hysterical joy at the top of her voice, she gave herself into the experience, splashing around like a madwoman in every direction. She throws herself back and laughs from the deepest part of her belly when the cold water swallows her hair and licks at her cheeks. I hold her tightly at first, loving the way I can see all of her teeth when she laughs with a mouth wide open. Then I loosen my hold on her as she show me that she has no fear of the water getting into her mouth or her eyes - in fact, the girl loves it. She throws herself headfirst into the spangles of sun dancing on the surface, purposely drinking it in and then spitting it out. She dips her face halfway into it and makes bubbles with motorboat noises at her sister, who does it back, and then they laugh.
Scarlett’s second time in the pool, Spencer made the mistake of setting her on the concrete step to play for a second while he turned to watch Mary jump off of the diving board -- when with an almost soundless splash! Scarlett throws herself belly first off of the step and into three feet of shallow water that isn’t so shallow to a person so small. It takes a good three or four seconds for her head to reach air and she comes up with a gasping smile and wide, exhilarated eyes. She must have loved every second of almost drowning because her favorite thing to do now is throw herself in without even bracing for impact. She gets such a kick out of being lifted onto the edge of the pool where she can launch herself into the water again with someone there to catch her just under the surface. She is so sure of herself, she doesn’t even close her eyes.
If anything, she’s too reckless. If Matthew were this uninhibited, it would terrify me. But I need to see her living like nothing can stop her. I am flying right now, laughing out loud with my wet and wild daughter.
Anytime I hold her in the water now, she wrestles to get out of my hands, to be let go four or five feet deep. I’ve even done it a few times, letting her sink for a second, just to show her that she can’t float on her own yet. But her resolve is strong. She wants no part of being propped within a floatation device and when she’s “swimming”, arms nimbly manipulating the water in front of her and then out to the side… legs kicking up a fit of bubbles in the back… she needs to feel like you’re barely holding on. Or she will wrestle you away.
The girl wants to swim - without any mother’s fear to hold her back. I love that about her. May you never lose that, little swimmer. May you always be driven to dive in without even closing your eyes.