This morning you come prancing into our bedroom like you always do at 7 a.m. We are on the east coast instead of our usual west, yet your little body has quickly adjusted to its typical circadian rhythm: no matter what time you go to bed – and there have been some late nights because we are with cousins, because we are on vacation and the steady light of summer doesn’t fade away at bedtime – you still wake at the same hour.
“It’s my birthday! I’m four!” you announce and I smile in my half sleep even though I’m tired tired tired because I went to bed late hoping against hope that maybe just maybe you’ll sleep in. Don’t four-year-olds sometimes sleep in? Nope, of course not, what was I thinking? You are only four – wow, I can’t believe you’re four! – and there is no stopping you in the morning.
I realize that this is the first year you are fully aware of your age and that it is your birthday. What else do you know? You know how to count to thirty-nine as long as I’m counting with you, my eyes locked on yours, willing the next number to roll off your tongue. Occasionally you skip fourteen or seventeen and thirty is often twenty-ten. You love to hold up your fingers in different combinations and add them together. “This is seven, right mama?” you say, holding up a full hand of five and two on your other hand. “Yes, that’s right. That’s seven,” I say, smiling, wondering at your brain and how it clicks and whirs. You count book pages and puzzle pieces, the smooth, tumbled rocks collecting in your palm as we walk slowly from the boardwalk to the beach.
You count your miniature princesses, the ones that come in those rigid, clip-on dresses that break too easily. You love princesses, all of them, and I have no problem with this although the current parenting culture tells me your self-esteem may be in peril from being exposed to too many damsels in distress and too much pink and frilly. I’m not worried. You rough and tumble with your much bigger sisters; you play Hero Princesses with your friends where Elsa’s ice wand prevents an avalanche and Merida’s bow and arrow brings down a bushel of apples just in time for snack. You love to dress up in flowing gowns but mostly wear sweatpants, t-shirts and your black Nike sneakers, reminding me of a small-time, New Jersey crime boss more than a prissy lady in waiting. You are as thrilled with your new kite and set of Matchbox cars and as you are with Rapunzel or Cinderella. You are more Princess Smartypants than Sleeping Beauty.
With your birthday deep in the summer, we are often vacationing on your big day. This year, we are at the beach. You run back and forth from the shore to the frothy waves, ferrying wet sand heavy as cement from the waters edge to the castle you’re building. You often tell me how you love your “whole big family” and you have me and your dad, one of two sets of grandparents, an aunt and uncle, three of your nine cousins and both your sisters around you now. You wave for our attention, call us over to see your progress, ask us to join in for a bit, race off down the beach just to the edge of my vision, then whip back around again as if you know my limits exactly – and perhaps you do. I’m willing to let your line out a little further at this age than I ever did with your older siblings. You are lucky, sweet girl, to have the benefit of my experience.
When I found out I was pregnant, we were not expecting you. Now I know you arrived right on time. Through you I appreciate my motherhood in ways I didn’t know how to when your sisters were little. The demands, chaos and sheer volume that comes with a family of five rattles my nerves most days, but you have a way of centering me in the moment while also opening up the past in such a powerful way. After all these years, I find myself once again perched on the edge of the red and blue gym mats, easily the oldest mom in the room, watching you in your tumbling class. Coach Nicole shows you how to crouch down, place your hands, tuck your chin and do a somersault. You pop up with a huge look-at-me-mom grin on your face. I grin back, flooded with pride in this moment of triumph and also transported back to a years-ago-moment when I watched your oldest sister, now 13, master that same move. I am caught up in the emotional magnitude of this double-whammy. Eyes brimming, heart bursting, I am so grateful to experience it all again. Every moment counts.
This afternoon I will bake you a cake to order like I do for everyone in our family on their birthday. It’s a little trickier this year since we’re staying at a rental house ill equipped for serious baking: there is no mixer, one flimsy oversized metal bowl and a too-small whisk. You’ve requested vanilla cake with chocolate-strawberry icing.
“How many candles will we put on your cake?” I ask as I round up the ingredients.
“Twenty-five,” you answer without missing a beat.
“Twenty-five? Wow, I didn’t know you were 25 today!” I say my eyes raised in mock surprise.
“Yep,” you say. “And then I’ll be 26.”
Yes you will, little one. Just like that.