“Don’t say ‘transsexual’ anymore, Mom. It’s outdated — it’s too … clinical. Use ‘transgender’ instead. Gender is an internal process, you know,” my 15-year-old daughter chastised me in the car on the way home from school. I had been telling her about a show I was watching on television when she interrupted, eagerly.
“All right, I’m sorry,” I responded simply, because I am used to being on the receiving end of her lectures. She has an expert opinion on everything.
“It’s no big deal. I just wanted you to know.” She seemed genuinely pleased to have helped me out, to have saved me from imminent embarrassment. At the stoplight, I turned to look at my oldest child. Her hair, dyed black and cut to her chin, was falling down over her face as she hunched over her phone. “I want to look like Clara Bow,” she had said when we picked out the box color at the drugstore.
“Who are you texting?” I asked from the driver’s seat, straining to see the words at the top of the message screen. All I saw were three heart emoji after an indiscernible name.
“No one.” She slipped her phone into her backpack.
“Ah.” I smiled. “No one. She sounds nice.”
My daughter smiled back at me.
In the decade and a half since I had this daughter, I have spent the days and years vacillating in wonder and frustration, exasperation and pride. I have talked her off dangerous ledges, marveled at her brilliant schemes, followed the beat of her drum. Always, I have been impressed by her confidence, her self-awareness. And terrified by it all, too. It seems as though this child of mine is constantly hovering on the brink of something amazing or horrible. But always, always teetering on the edge of something big.
I was only 22 when I had her, and I learned to unravel the truths about life and children and parenting in one thick and knotted ball of yarn. I did not know my daughter was a particularly verbal baby until I had her brother, who was not. I did not know she was advanced, far beyond her age, until I signed her up for preschool at age 3 and learned she was the only one in the class who could read.
Preschool lasted for 3 weeks before they asked me into the office. “She’s very smart. She just doesn’t seem ready for school quite yet.” The administrator was smiling, but firm, offering to return my money for the next month’s tuition. My daughter was waiting for me in the hallway, holding a teacher’s hand and wearing only one shoe. There was a bite mark on her arm. I was almost afraid to ask.
“We’re going to look in your ears, now,” the doctor said to my daughter a few years later, at her physical before kindergarten. “See this little light?”
“Yes. I see it. That’s an otoscope,” my daughter replied, not unkindly. The doctor looked at me. I shrugged. She had been reading children’s medical encyclopedias for a year. Otoscope was just one word in her repertoire of medical jargon. Uvula. Syncope. Urethra. I heard her sounding out words in her bedroom in the evenings.
In kindergarten, they sent her to the second-grade room to read. In first grade, they had her help the struggling students with math. In second grade, she wrote a play about the Pilgrims for Thanksgiving. Her class performed it for the parents. She wrote herself only one line; she assigned herself the part of the Mayflower. The actual ship.
“If only we could find America,” the captain, a toothless 8-year-old boy named Jonathon stated upon seeing Plymouth Rock in the first act.
“Hark! It is pure land!” Shouted my daughter, as she lay on the classroom floor, floating the Pilgrims on the ship — on her — to safety.
I hid in the back of the classroom, proud. And embarrassed.
“We have to find a way to challenge her,” the teacher said, pulling me aside after Christmas break. “Yes, she is … quite a challenge,” I said, not even sure what I meant.
They tested her IQ and found that it hovered in the 99th percentile. “Am I very smart?” she asked me, without an ounce of pride, after I read the results when they came in the mail.
“Smart enough, my love,” I told her, folding the paperwork back up. Remember now, smart is as smart does, I told her every morning before she left for school. I wasn’t really sure what that meant, either.
But she seemed to understand.
Our little district had no way to challenge her. They suggested that she skip fifth grade. No one had skipped a grade in the district for more than a decade, and I wasn’t sure if I should let her. But I had to let her, I was starting to realize. She was sailing off, wildly, in her own direction, and I could only steer her blindly and hold my breath.
She taught herself the piano, the trumpet, the French horn. She drew schematics of escape routes from our house, labeled “In case of fire.” She built a spaceship out of a refrigerator box and tried to rocket her little brother down the staircase. She made up games that sounded dangerous and macabre. Hostage Negotiations. Superheroes of the Underworld. The neighbors didn’t let their kids come to play.
She was a mess at sports, tripping and crying on the track, missing every shot in basketball. She tried out for cheerleading in seventh grade, and I laughed to imagine her doing jumps and a flip on the sidelines. “Are you going to be okay if you don’t make the team?” I asked her, quite certain that indeed, she would not make the team.
Instead, she came running home from school the next day, waving a piece of paper. “Welcome to the squad,” it said. She was the smallest girl on the team, younger than everyone by at least a year and way out of her league. “They’re going to make me a flier,” she said dreamily as she collapsed on the couch after practice one day. “Also, what’s a skank?”
As the years slipped steadily past, I began to realize I could chart no course for my daughter. That like the ship she wanted to be in second grade, this child went her own way. I could only look ahead across the water, at the map and at the weather, and stick my finger out to see which way the wind blew. I just hoped she would listen when I told her what I knew. Of course, she always asked me how I knew it. And why. And then went her own way in the end.
It is terrifying to parent a child who is born to spend every moment of her life floating away from you. There are times when, as a mother, you want to stop the waves of change from breaking. There are times when you want it to be easier, when you only want to hold that child back and fold her up beside you.
But this child, this wonder of mine, has always sailed alone. I made my peace with this a long time ago. Now I just hold my breath and hope, when she sets off on her adventures, that somehow she will always eventually find her way back to me.
Jankowski is a mom of four kids and two awesome step-kids, a divorcee and a writer. Read about her experiences with autism, addiction and awesomeness at www.momof4istired.com or on Facebook and Twitter.