My mother died the month I turned five.
For most of my adult life, my perspective of the time we had together has been in flux. I was much too young. … I’m grateful I had any time with her. … What if I had just had a couple more years, years when my memories would have stuck? … If I had had a couple more years, I would have lost even more.
Five-year-olds, especially five-year-old girls, have often reminded me of the time I lost with her. Everything after that age was never shared with my mom, and 30 years of everything after is a lot of everything after.
Then my daughter was born six months ago, and time started doing weird, self-contradicting contortions. It has somersaulted, raced, oozed. There have been scores of sweet moments and extended stretches of boredom. The stay in the hospital seemed like it lasted months; meanwhile, sometimes it seems as if my daughter has grown three inches in the time it took for me to take a onesie out of the dresser.
Mostly, the five years I had with my mom have changed in my eyes. Five short years, yes, but also five whole years.
‘Suddenly the thought of five years is one of generous, expansive time.’
That’s longer than high school, and as long as I spent in college. That’s longer than I’ve been married to my husband. And if Tennyson’s J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life “with coffee spoons,” in baby time, days are measured with diapers and boogers and little laughs and littler socks (okay, fine, and with coffee spoons). Each day is its own world, and it’s hard to imagine her at nine months, at two years, at four. Suddenly the thought of five years is one of generous, expansive time.
“I like her, but I can’t yet say I love her,” I said early on about my daughter, half-serious. “I barely know her!” This has already shifted. My daughter is strong, alert, quick to smile. She is usually even-keeled — a trait she inherited from her father, not from me — and sweet. I am in awe of her personhood: focused and silly and social and, depending on her mood, as content to be snuggled as she is to wriggle off my lap.
Recently, a new “trick” of hers has given me an outsized comfort when I think about losing my mom when I was five. Sometimes now when my daughter sees me, she coos, grins, and flails around like a Muppet. She recognizes me. She’s excited! She’s known me by smell, and in stages, by sight. Now she also associates me with picking her up, with play. Just as I am learning her, she is learning me. Just as my mother learned who I was, I learned who she was.
Being a parent hasn’t all been pleasant, and a lot of it has been hard. My body feels wrecked and I can barely identify what feeds my soul these days, let alone do those things. Still, I am struck by how time has been simultaneously pulled apart and collapsed into a cocoon. These months with my daughter have been an eternity and have been — I can only hope — just the beginning. By five, if and when we get there, we will know each other so well.
“The days are long but the years are short,” my husband and I have been told repeatedly about this new chapter of our lives. Yes, but thankfully, today I can say about the time I had with my mom: the days were short but the years were long.
Julie Sugar is a writer living in Los Angeles.