Her face floats at the edge of my thoughts in that hazy spot where our most precious memories linger but are never truly put away. Every time my mind wanders, it finds its way to her. She’s always the same; two years old, with that sweet, little dimpled smile. I’ve watched the girls in my neighborhood who are the age she should be. If my observations are correct, she’d probably be in that stage where she’s finally getting a handle on doing her own hair, but wearing too much eye liner. No matter how much time I spend imagining, I can’t make her change. She’s frozen in time and in my mind. I am the mother of a daughter who will never grow up.
It was always my worst fear…losing a child. A symbiotic companion no one had prepared me would leech to the joy of holding each of my children for the first time. I did everything I knew to keep my kids safe, and still, every time I heard a story on the news, or from a friend about something horrific happening to a child, I’d whisper a desperate plea to God.
Please, not my babies. Please, never mine.
Elora Lyn was my fourth child, my second daughter. She was supposed to be a leap-year baby, but showed her stubborn streak by arriving two-hours late. She was quiet and curious. A dangerous combination. And from the moment she learned to crawl she was drawn to mischief.
My sister-in-law and I had an ongoing competition. We called each other nearly every day to see whose toddler had gotten into more trouble. Elora didn't always win, but she did on the day I found her clinging to the very top shelf of the pantry where the fruit snacks were stored. And, on the day she picked every single leaf off of my favorite house plant, leaving it a barren stick that never recovered. And she won again, on the day she ate all of the pink fluoride tablets out of the bottle and I had to call the poison control center.
She was a talented troublemaker, but there was one 'victory' that forever put her other mischief to shame.
Elora was two, and her older brothers were overdue for their summer haircuts, so I pulled out the clippers and set a stool in the middle of the kitchen floor.
I buzzed Caleb’s head first, then Walker’s and carried him to the shower. I was only gone two or three minutes, and had almost made it back from the bathroom to sweep up the kitchen floor, when Elora came running through the doorway smack into my legs. I wouldn’t have thought much of it except she looked up at me with that face that meant she’d been doing something she shouldn’t.
"What have you been up to little one?" I asked her in my best warning mom voice.
But she didn't answer. Just tipped her head down to avoid further eye contact. And that’s when I noticed her ponytailed hair looked a little funny, like she’d snagged the hair at the front of her head on something.
Intending to smooth it back out, I grasped the soft elastic band around one ponytail and pulled. Out it came--along with a thick portion of Elora's hair.
"What in the world . . ." And that's when I remembered the clippers. Sitting on the kitchen floor. Still plugged in.
I pulled out the other ponytail. More cut hair. Elora had shaved her long, gorgeous locks into a horrendous mullet. The cut sections of irreparable hair lay draped over my hand. I stared at them, trying to decide if I should cry? Laugh? Yell? Lecture?
Until I glanced at Elora.
She was quietly watching to see how I would react, fear clouding the sparkle in her big blue eyes. In that instant, a very clear thought entered my mind. A prompting from the God I was constantly begging to keep her safe.
She loves you. She trusts you. Don't ruin that.
I reached up and brushed my fingers over the fuzzy stubs of buzzed hair. With a sigh of resignation, I tipped her chin up and smiled to reassure her I wasn’t angry. Her face lit up under those ridiculous buzzed bangs into a wide-mouthed grin, and suddenly I was laughing, so hard I could barely breathe.
I pulled Elora into a hug, then did what any sensible woman would do: I called my mother.
When she answered the phone, I was still laughing too hard to talk.
Mom started to panic. "Are you laughing or crying?"
"Both!" I eeked out, then calmed down just enough to tell her about Elora's shaved head. “Mom, it soooo bad! What should I do?”
"It's simple" she replied. "Make sure you take lots of pictures."
So, I hung up the phone, put Elora's ponytails back in, led her by the hand into the kitchen, handed her the hair clippers, and took the most adorable pictures of my mischievous girl.
Laughter. It was the right decision.
Because not six months later, before her bangs had completely grown back in, Elora got sick. At first, I thought she had the flu, but when her body was hit with a series of seizures that left her comatose, my husband and I rushed her to the emergency room where she was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. The doctors fought with everything they had to keep her alive, but my little love died only 30 hours after that first seizure. I had run from my home with her unresponsive body cradled in my arms, and returned less than two-days later without her. A green-striped t-shirt with a spot of her blood on the right sleeve, and a plastic baggie of her ratted hair shaved during emergency surgery as proof that she had lived, that she had ever been mine.
My darkest nightmare had come true. And I fell. Into a black river of despair and grief that threatened to consume me, to drown me in its depths. For a moment, part of me hoped it would, so I wouldn’t have to feel anymore. But I’d seen people who were consumed by their grief. Sometimes they didn’t come back. And I didn’t want that. My husband and four other children needed me. And I needed them. But I was drowning, and I didn’t have the power to save myself.
But I knew God did. I thrust my arm into the air, and called out a two word prayer….Help Me!
In my mind I imagined him reach down, grasp my wrist, and hold me up. And I knew that if I didn’t let go, he would not let me drown.
God’s been teaching me for twelve years now how to swim the rivers of my grief. Either I've become stronger, or the waters have grown shallower, or both, but either way, today I stand on the bank opposite my worst fear. And because of God's help, it didn’t destroy me like I believed it would.