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Just breathe

She used to reach for me in the pre-dawn hours when I arrived to rescue her from her dreams or her diaper. She would cling so tightly, pressing her little face into my neck or her cheek against mine. And I would hold on, just as securely, for as long as she did, never quite sure who was rescuing whom.

When our big fluffy cat slipped by her on the carpet where she sat with her toys, she would quickly stretch her arms upward, silently begging to be lifted swiftly and high, frightened by this animated animal that was nearly as big as she.

So I would swing her up into my arms and hold on tight, spinning and swaying in a simple little dance to the hum on my lips. Then we would admire the pretty kitty together as she learned to appreciate him from afar.

As soon as she could stand, she learned to cling to my leg, at first just for balance and later, whenever a stranger came to the door, just to be sure. And I would rest my hand on her head just so she knew she was safe. And because it felt so good to have her there.

Once she learned to walk, I learned to slow down so we could walk together, her small hand tucked inside mine as we crossed the street. And I would caress the back of her hand with my thumb as we walked because it felt so soft and so small and so sweet.

Sometimes she would break free and run ahead, and I would worry that today was the day she broke the rule and forgot to stop at the curb. But she always remembered, creating a big display of her obedience by making her last step a hop to the edge. And then she would turn, flash a gleeful smile, and run back to me, slipping that silky little hand back into mine.

The first time I took her to a play group, she clung to my leg, grabbed my hand, stretched her arms to be lifted up, and cried. So I stayed with her. I just couldn’t bear the thought of her feeling so lost and abandoned. Besides, I would have felt sad all day.

The first time I took her to preschool, I lifted her out of her car seat, shut the door with my hip, and turned to carry her into the building.

"Put me down," she said.

"Why? You wanted me to carry you to the car."

"That was at home," she said. "Not here. Not in front of the other kids."

It was just a hairline fracture, but I was certain my heart would never be sturdy again.

"Can I hold your hand?" I asked.

The little fingers curling around mine were like a balm to my bruise.

A few months later, she clambered into the car, tossed her Hello Kitty lunchbox onto the seat, buckled her own harness, and said, "I think it’s time to call you Mom."

"What happened to Mommy?"

"That’s for babies," she said. "I like Mom better."

The fracture had become a fissure, and I was becoming certain I wasn’t up to such loss, the kind that happens in small but definite measure, the kind that slips away like a rose left on the vine.

And then one day it happened, seemingly all at once, like the moment a spent blossom actually drops to the ground. It was the first day of kindergarten, the moment when I was being forced to release my child to the influences and insecurities of a much larger world.

She opened her own car door, slid off the seat and onto the street by herself, picked up her Hannah Montana lunchbox, and with a snap of her hip bumped the door shut. She held my hand for the briefest of moments, and I found myself falling into the security of that subtle thumb caress, until she spotted a friend.

Her fingers slipped from mine as she rushed into a sea of school children, and I knew the current was too strong and too swift to pull her back. Just the same, I called to her. She turned, flashed that same silly smile I’d seen at the curb so many times before. And then, with no more than a quick toss of her hand, she disappeared into her life.