I don't go to the cemetery anymore. When I feel the urge to step foot in that gray place, I write a letter to each one of my girls instead. Because there are all different ways to remember.
I sit at Esme's old writing desk, the one that now lives in our bedroom.
This morning you cried for an hour when I told you that you will, in fact, never get to be older than your sister. And while I know it won't, I hope that this proves to be the gravest tragedy of your young life. You are my little ray of sunshine and my storm cloud. My girly girl and my tomboy. And I know you won't always be five years old. I know your life won't always be so simple and carefree. I know I'll have to see you stumble, fall even, as you navigate the changing tides of growing up. I'll have to step back and let you make your own mistakes. And hopefully you'll know that your father and I are here. Hopefully you'll never doubt how much we love you. Our wild girl. You wear your heart on your sleeve and I pray that you'll stay this open and honest forever.
Harper crawls up into my lap just as I'm setting the pen down. "Mama, why does Grandpa call me Mockingbird?"
I tap the tip of her nose. "Because you love to sing and mockingbirds are very special." I don't have the heart to tell her that it started because she copies everything her sister does.
"Tell me the story about the mockingbird book again?"
"The mockingbird book was one of my special books when I was just a girl."
"A girl like me?"
Not quite like you.
"A girl like me, Mama?"
"A girl like you."
"Mama, did you know it's a sin to kill a mockingbird?"
"Yes." I could eat her up.
"Because they make such pretty music."
"Maybe you should tell it, Harper."
She attempts to wiggle one of her front bottom teeth, the mockingbird story long forgotten. "Am I ever gonna lose a tooth, Mama?"
"If it were up to me, no. And you'd stay my baby forever." She makes a face. "But lucky for you, it's not up to me."
"I want to lose a tooth tomorrow."
I kiss her nose. "Always in such a hurry to grow up."
She slides off my lap and all I hear is the stomping of her little feet as she runs down the stairs, most likely to find and torment her sister. They bicker. They also take turns sneaking into each other's beds at night. They love each other and hate each other and are everything that sisters should be.
I tap my fingers over a fresh sheet of paper and I try to find the words.
You have been an old soul from the start. You have a quiet maturity about you. At the tender of age of six you are perfectly content to curl up with me on the couch with a book and read the day away. Sometimes I look at you and can't help but see a younger version of myself. While this scares me, it's also a comfort to know the thoughts that sit behind your eyes when you're quiet and serious. When you're prickly and stubborn. And when you laugh, we all laugh because it's the best sound. Maybe it's because you understand loss. Maybe it's because we both have two mothers. Whatever the reason, you're part of my soul. You're my little piece of Heaven.
All of that time I spent waiting for Hope to come home, I worried that Edward may not love her the way I did. Those thoughts seem foolish now. He loves her the way a father loves a daughter. The way my own father loved me. Charlie was the greatest gift that my mother ever gave me. He made up for everything she took. Even though we didn't share blood, and even though he knew it, I was his daughter. I still am.
Harper's raspy little girl voice echoes from downstairs, "Mama, I can't find Hope!"
I scoot the wobbly piano stool away from the desk, and go in search of my daughter. Peaking my head into the doorway of the little room, I find her sitting on her bed with a picture frame in both hands.
The photo of her birth mother lives on her bedside table. A surprise gift hidden in a pile of documents and medical records that arrived months after Edward brought her home. She stares at it sometimes. Today is one of those days.
Harper wanted to know when she could have a photo of her birth mother. She was none too pleased to find out that that person was me. And while I listened to her cry about how unfair it was, I couldn't help but smile.
I watch my daughter. Her long legs tucked up to her chin with the frame up to her nose, she stares and stares.
I give her a private moment, intercepting Harper on the stairs and soliciting her help in starting dinner. I put her to work peeling potatoes, even though we're not actually having potatoes for dinner. I listen to her endless chatter, lucky to get a word in edgewise.
The soft click of the front door goes beyond her notice.
"Because he's a boy," she tells me as she mangles the poor potato in her hands.
Edward's voice interrupts her jabbering. "Who's a boy?"
"Daddy!" She drops the half peeled potato on the counter and jumps down from her chair.
He leans down until he's at eye level. "What boy?"
"My friend who's a boy." She gives him a sideways mischief-ridden smile.
He raises his eyebrows. "But not a boyfriend." It's not a question.
"And what do you do with this boy?"
"But no hugging, right?"
"And no kissing, right?"
She falls to the floor in a fit of hysterics. "Nooooo, Daddy!"
"Because who are you allowed to kiss?"
"My family." She knows this game that isn't a game. Because my husband is the most overprotective father. And maybe I like it that way.
Edward kneels down in front of Harper, pointing to his cheek. She gives him a sloppy kiss filled with giggles. He points to the other cheek and just as she's about to blow him a raspberry he scoops her up screeching and shouting. With our daughter over his shoulder I get my own kiss.
"Upstairs. Having a quiet moment."
He kisses me again, before setting Harper down. "We'll talk about this boy later. You have potatoes to peel."
He takes the stairs slowly. I watch him disappear into the little room. The boy who loved me before I deserved it. The man who loves me still.
Harper and I finish up dinner and I try not to worry about my oldest and her inner thoughts.
She's so quiet behind me. I don't know she's there, until little warm arms wrap around my waist. I turn around and she presses her face against my stomach. "I love you, Hope."
She slides her hands into the pockets of my apron. "I love you like the ocean, Mama." And then she laughs. A face warming, belly rolling laugh. I hold her little gap toothed smile in my hands. She's Edward's daughter, Esme's granddaughter and when I look at her face and listen to the gentle rhythm of her voice I can't help but believe in something greater than this life.
I know of three kinds of change: the kind that jangles around in your pocket, the kind that happens slowly, every moment of every day, and the kind that blows you away in an instant.
After all this time, there is one thing that I know for sure: fast or slow, piercing or silent, change is everything.
Thank you for letting me keep you.