She bound into the living room sporting a mischievous smile; one brow arched up, the other curved down towards her cheek pressing her eye into a squint, I knew this look. The last time I saw it I had to pry a plastic cat out from under her tongue.
“Open your mouth,” I said, glancing up from the computer. I held out my hand. She protested for a brief moment, wiggling her backside like a duck after a morning swim.
“Open it,” I persisted.
She brought her nose to mine and dropped her jaw. I got a sudden whiff of latex. “Balloon.” I said. “Give me the balloon”
She sighed in disappointment and released the choking hazard, “But, Curious George eats balloons,” she moaned in protest. I slid back on the couch so she could take in my full frame- arms crossed, shoulders pulled back. I wanted her to see that I was serious. “But Curious George can not choke like you can. Curious George cannot accidentally block his airways and end up in the emergency room. Curious George is not real.”
My daughter reared back. Her eyes grew narrow and she scanned my face as if counting and re-counting each freckle and line. After several silent seconds she whispered, “Mommy are you real?”
Now my jaw dropped. “I’m real. Of course I’m real.”
I took her arms and brought her to my side on the couch. “I am real, and daddy is real, and you are real, and all the people you love are real. We’re all real.”
“Ok” she said flashing me a side-glance and sliding off the cushion. “Let’s dance”
I turned on They Might Be Giants and we jumped to a song about the elements. The moment quickly fell into the background and her brief existential crisis gave way to a game of chase and a grilled cheese sandwich.
But a few days later I founder her lying in bed staring up at the ceiling. “Sage” I said, “Is something the matter?”
“I’m worried,” she explained rocking her head against her pillow.
“What are you worried about?” I probed.
“Well…I can’t see my eyes. I look and I look and I can’t see my eyes.”
“No one can see their own eyes.” I explained.
“But I can see your eyes. Where are mine?” she persisted.
“That’s just it.” I said, “We can all see each others eyes. But we can’t see our own. Not unless we look in the mirror.”
“Mommy.” She stated as if she was about to inform me of something I did not know. “If you could turn my head all the way around I could see them. If you could take my head off and put it on in the back, I think I could see my eyes.”
“But I can’t… your head is attached. I can’t take it off, not ever.”
She pressed her hands against her forehead and pushed with all her might. She began to cry, “Why can’t I take my head off….why?”
I rocked her. I explained that it would hurt too much, that we all need our heads to breathe, and eat, and live. Eventually she calmed down and we read a story. After ten minutes her focus was back on puppets and plastic animals and blocks. Another existential crisis had passed.
But then four days later we were at the pool. We’d just gotten dressed after a swim and were watching the grownups paddle up and down the lane lines. Sage followed their movements with great interest. “Wow,” she remarked. Then she looked down at her own frame. “Mommy, if I pull off my fingernail will all the beads come out of my body?”
I tried to respond, like I had to all her other deep questions, but somehow this one launched me into a memory from my own childhood. I was sitting between my parents on the couch when all of a sudden it occurred to me that maybe they were robots, maybe they weren’t made of the same stuff that I was. Maybe they were made of metal, or clay, or beads…maybe I was the only one in the whole universe who had feelings and thoughts, maybe I was the only real human on earth.
I had to find out. It couldn’t wait. I kicked my mom in the leg.
I pressed my elbow into my dad’s side.
“Sweetie, that hurts.”
I had my confirmation. They were humans just like me. They felt things like I did. I was not alone.
But somehow, in that moment, I felt lonelier than ever. If they were real that meant they had thoughts. Thoughts I would never know. And if my parents had thoughts, that probably meant that everyone else had thoughts too – my teachers, the mailman, the woman in the checkout lane at the grocery store…and they were walking around thinking their thoughts…all the time.
And I would never know what they were thinking. Not really anyway. And they would never really know my thoughts either.
At the time, that realization was absolutely devastating.
When I shook off the memory and returned to the present moment my daughter had moved on from her worries about the human body. She had spotted some friends and was eagerly trying to wiggle free from my arms. I let her go and marked each prancing step as she disappeared down the hall. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by that same sadness I had had as a child.
Lately my daughter was having so many revelations, she was making so many mind-blowing discoveries. She was asking deep questions. She was hungry for answers. And though she was sharing so much of her inner monologue with me I’d never know it all. I’d never get to hear her thoughts like she does. I’d never be able to climb inside her head.
That space was hers alone.
As she played with her friends a few feet away from where I stood I felt like I was watching her from atop a mountain or across an ocean. She danced around a bench, she chased her buddies, she laughed. Then all at once she paused and looked up, her eyes went wide, one corner of her mouth lifted ever so slightly. I think she may have noticed something small and interesting on the ceiling.
I’ll never know.
It was stunning and heartbreaking all at once.