As she stopped to catch her breath, she turned and looked back. Her golden curls bouncing down to her shoulder and then back up to tickle her jaw. Delicate giggles slipped through her thin pink lips. And her small hands held on to the elegant ruffles of her summer dress.
It was painful to hear her.
I pulled the hot cardboard mug to my mouth and closed my eyes as the velvety liquid slipped down my throat. Swimming in heavy sadness, I willed my eyes to swallow back the tears. Somehow they did. And I felt the weight of my worries drip down into the hollow hole that was my heart.
It was painful to watch her.
How do you say goodbye to someone you’ve never met?
I scanned the crowd of parents and found her. Sitting across the way. She knew I was watching. She lowered her head, gesturing to me. Letting me know it was okay. And I saw her look away as we both stood. I took a deep breath and saw her rub her eyes as she watched me.
I think it was painful for her to watch me.
“Ann, honey, can you stop swinging for just a moment? I want you to meet a friend of mine,” she said to the little girl.
“But, mommy, I’m so high!” She yelled back, giggling as each thrust of her little legs brought her to new heights.
And I remembered what it had felt like, hovering and feeling weightless just before you plummeted back down. That tiny tickle that formed in your belly.
“Ann,” her mother said again, her tone more serious, “you can swing again later.”
Ann. I was so happy they’d given her that name. So happy they’d given her this life.
The little girl dragged her shoes along the sandy playground, bringing herself to a stop. She hopped off the swing and tentatively approached her mother and me – the stranger.
“Ann, honey, this is a friend of mine. She shares your name.”
She extended her hand and I could see the indentations of the chain in her flesh. “Hi,” she said.
I placed my hand in hers and squeezed ever so lightly, “Hi,” I said back.
I looked at her mother for help. For guidance. For something. But the little girl helped instead.
“Your necklace is pretty,” she said, fidgeting again with those ruffles.
My hand made its way to my neck and my fingers roamed along the bumpy surface of the locket. Traced along the ridges of the etched floral engraving. I unclasped the chain and kneeled down to her, “May I?” I asked, both her mother and her.
Again, her mother nodded to me and I saw the redness which now lined her soggy eyes.
“Really?” Ann squealed in delight as I moved forward and placed it around her neck.
The dimples in her cheeks deepened as she brought the locket up to her eyes and then smiled at me. “Thank you,” she said.
“You are very welcome.” I smiled back.
“Mommy, look!” Leaning forward, she placed her hands on either side of my face, her soft touch roaming over the indentations in my own cheeks. “We share these too!”
I was happy my hair – what was left of it – was tucked away under my hat. And happy that my eyes weren’t as bright as they used to be. So she wouldn’t notice what else we shared.
She wrapped her hands around my neck and hugged me. And I took a deep breath – powder and flowers – and wanted to remember that scent for how many ever days I had left.
Her mother’s chest heaved in sorrow and she dabbed at her eyes with her sleeve. But I managed to keep mine dry. I cried secretly inside.
I mouthed “thank you,” to her mother before releasing my own grip. “It was nice to meet you, Ann,” I said, my voice cracking as I did.
“Don’t go,” she looked at me, then at her mother, and then back down at her locket.
“I have to go. But I’m glad I got to meet you.”
She pouted, leaning into her mother’s leg. And for a moment longer, I let her image soak into my memory, before I turned and walked away.
I let the tears come this time. I let my shoulders slump forward. Let my hands wander to my belly where I’d carried her before I’d had to give her away. Before the reality of my sickness had set in. They’d told me I wouldn’t make it 6 months. But I’d lived in tortured agony for 6 years.
But all of it no longer mattered. My time was here. And I finally got my chance. I closed the gate to the playground and waved from afar. And as I turned the corner, I whispered under my breath as I wept, “Goodbye and… I love you.”