A NUMBERS GAME
by Ash Krafton
“I was always seventeen,” I liked to say. “Right up until the moment she crowned. Then blammo! Twenty-six.” My daughter was ten the first time she heard me say that. “I wore a crown?”
I knew she wasn’t entirely clear on the whole where-babies-come-from issue and at that particular moment I didn’t feel like giving an anatomy lesson. “You sure did, princess,” was all I said. I didn’t add that it hurt. I figured getting one’s head stuck in someone’s pelvis had to hurt the baby as much as it did the mother--the mother just remembered it better.
My daughter made me ageless. The moment she announced herself was a harbinger of maturity to come. We couldn’t both be kids. One of us had to grow up. I just didn’t think it would happen in a single desperate moment of panic. Nothing feels like a baby’s head emerging from your body. Nothing makes you grow up as quickly, either.
But then, twenty-six wasn’t so bad, either. I couldn’t figure out why I had avoided it for so long. And seventeen wasn’t all that great of a year, either, to be perfectly honest. I had my heart broken at least six different times and at least half of them were my own doing. But still, seventeen had a magic--that last year before adulthood announced itself. Eighteen meant a lot of changes. Voting. College. Independence. Responsibility. Maybe that’s why I stayed seventeen for so long. Hindsight made it more attractive.
Twenty-six was a lot of work, to be sure, but twenty-six was the last year I stopped counting. My son arrived two years later, completing my quest for immortality. Every parent gets a shot at a second childhood while their kids are young. While I didn’t regress all the way back to preschool, I did recapture a lot of the free-spiritedness I’d lost when I “grew up”.
In return, I didn’t treat my children like babies. We spoke with adult words and adult ideas. I explained things with science and truth, not myth and evasion. My kids suspected the tooth fairy might be me and that babies were made with biology, stork-free. We found a youthful in-between where we all fit, where we all operated on the same level, where we connected easily and naturally. It was the right place for all of us, and I stopped counting years.
I wished she did, too. Fifteen was a nightmare, and sixteen came with almost daily reminders of what year it was. Every life decision (which friend to hang out with, which boy to smile at, what color to wear) was made based on a special code of unwritten laws that began, “We, the sixteen-year-olds…” I couldn’t believe I’d survived my own sixteen. I highly doubted I’d survive hers.
Nothing, however, could have prepared us for becoming seventeen.
She’d grown tall and lithe, a slender stream of willow grace and blonde hair and freckles that spattered her nose. My daughter had morphed into a curious combination of woman and child. The charybdis of adolescence was stilling, claiming victims in its vortex of despair less and less often. She was looking at colleges and learning how to drive and had an amazing laugh that sounded nothing like the delighted squeal of a four-year-old.
I looked at her one day and didn’t recognize her. I didn’t recognize myself. How did I get so old? Me? Forty three? But I swear, I was just seventeen. Where did all the time go? I felt like a mother who lost sight of her child in a crowded mall. I just let go of her hand for a minute, I swear, and she’s gone. Where did she go? That can’t be her, can it? She’s not a child. She’s a grown-up.
I couldn’t remember what my own mom went through when I let for college; I only remember her saying, “I can’t believe you’re leaving, just when I started liking you again.” I’d torn away with a joyful and careless sound, eager to fly off into the world. Why had I held onto seventeen?
It was a child’s age.
I almost resigned myself to letting her go when she came into my room late one night. I couldn’t get used to her being up late, even though 7:30 bedtimes were long in the past. I set down my book and my reading glasses when she sat on the corner of my bed.
When she began to cry, I knew: her heart had been broken. Even before the piteous tale spilled out on a flood of tears, I knew. She was seventeen. It had to be. My daughter, who had never been treated like a child, revealed her pain in a heart-rending tale of eloquence and innocence, a mix of philosophical maturity and a child’s insistence that love given should be love returned and how can she possibly ever love again?
And because she was my daughter and fully one-half me I understood, I sympathized, and I remembered. I held her and murmured all the comforting, optimistic things a mother must murmur in a crisis such as this. I tugged her as close to my lap as her seventeen-year-old body would allow and I rocked her as if she were two, or four, or ten years old again. She was my child, struggling with the growing pains of an adult’s tragedy.
Eventually, her tears stopped, a weak smile emerged, and she thanked me with a voice muffled by a swollen nose. Good night, Mom. Thanks for listening. She went to bed, and I listened to the sounds of her nightly routine. Only after she was settled did I turn out my own light, reaching first for a tissue. For a moment, I had been seventeen again. I never would have thought I’d ever again feel that familiar pain. I hoped I never did again.
Sometimes, age is just a number.
Sometimes, it’s the whole game.
Ash Krafton earned a number of distinctions in various national competitions for essay, poetry, and novel-length fiction. Her paranormal romance Bleeding Hearts was a finalist in several contests, including those sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers, Maryland Writers Association, and Houston Writers Guild. Some of her work appears in Poe Little Thing, Literary Magic, and Niteblade. Contact Ash.