A mother with her little girl, about Emma’s age stand patiently in line for the bathroom on our flight to Denver. Methodically her mother braids her daughter’s long, blonde hair, then places her arms around the child’s upper body. Her daughter puts her own hands on top of her mother’s, tilts her head up and smiles at her mother.
I marvel at how such a simple gesture, probably gone unnoticed by either of them, is utterly foreign to me. I long for such a simple exchange with Emma. I get them, but they are rare. When they do come, seemingly out of nowhere, I am usually caught off guard and brought to tears, tears of relief and joy and something else, something closer to grief.
I think of Emma, standing in a similar line, on this same airplane route flying from New York’s La Guardia to Denver several years ago.
“Potty?” Emma says, anxiety rising in her voice.
“Yes, we have to wait in line,” I say.
“Potty?!” Emma says again, her voice slightly louder, the anxiety has crept up a notch.
I count the number of people in front of us, there are four, but one’s a couple so maybe they don’t both have to go, perhaps they’re just keeping each other company I reason. Five minutes, tops, I think.
“We have to wait,” I say again, grim determination steeling into my tone. I take a breath when another person vacates the only bathroom, reducing our line to three. I look behind me at the two bathrooms at the back of the plane, the line snakes up the aisle, at least half a dozen are waiting.
“Have to use the potty,” Emma says now close to tears.
The woman in front of us turns to look at the whining child, my child. “She can go ahead of us,” she says kindly.
“No she can’t,” her husband, counters.
“Scott! Of course she can. Go on, go ahead of us,” she glares at her husband who is shaking his head in annoyance.
Grateful, I thank them, ignore the husband’s irritated glare and go to the head of the line, pulling Emma ahead of me. Anxiety, stress – will she wet her pants? Did I bring enough pairs of underwear and a full change of clothing if she does Embarrassment, humiliation… it’s all there.
I return my thoughts to the little girl with her mother behind me, looking for any sign that she might be uncomfortable. There are none – mother and daughter, utterly relaxed standing close to one another, as though this were the most natural thing in the world.
“Compare and despair,” a friend of mine once said to me. And it is true, though I cannot always help myself. Whenever we are with friends with small children, whenever we are at a playground, any time I see a child I find myself asking – did Emma do that when she was that age? Did Emma ever to do that? And then the inevitable follow up question, which serves to slam the door shut on all further questions – will she ever do that?
I am away for the next four days, yet my children and husband are here with me, everywhere I go. I find there’s great solace in that.