writing apple pie

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She writes all the time these days.

When we ask her to help us set the table, Lucy only looks up for a moment from the placemat we bought her on which she can practice writing her letters. “Mama, I’m writing.” Most of the time, we ask her to stop so she can help with her chores, so we can eat. Sometimes, we set the table around her. I’m not sure she even hears the clink of the plates settling on the table, the forks in their places. Her eyes are so focused on the ink emerging from her pen that she cannot hear anything else. “Lucy, it’s time to eat,” we say. She sighs, and pushes the sketchbook and washable markers aside. She eats, cheerfully. But I can see her studying the lines and curves from the side of her eyes.

“Mama, look at how I know how to write an X!” she shouts, delighted. I come over to the table and watch her cross two straight lines, then pick up her pen, then lift her eyes to mine. Her smile is so wide I can see the giggles inside. I pat her on the shoulder and point to the N. Can you do that one? She lowers her head and clutches the pen in her fingers, ready to write another letter.

I remember the long days and months after her surgery, when she was 9 months old, wondering when she would ever be the same. Before that 9-hour surgery on her skull, she had been talking, babbling words at everything she saw. Even as I walked her down a long hallway to the OR, holding her close, she looked up at everything she saw, wide-eyed. “Gai-gai!” she said, as we passed under light after light above us. She always noticed the light, even when she couldn’t pronounce it. (I have no idea how light became gai-gai. How did she know there is a g in it?) For weeks after the surgery, when she recovered slowly and forgot how to sleep for months, she didn’t talk at all. For months, we hardly heard her babble. Danny and I worried, and never said it out loud to each other for making it true, that perhaps that surgery damaged her. Maybe she wouldn’t talk again.

We were wrong, of course. It turns out our girl is a studier. When she finally started talking again, it was in complete sentences with complex vocabulary. She listens to everything. She waits before talking. She takes in what you say, even if she’s playing on the other side of the room with a friend. She observes, quietly, then bursts out with happy chatter, responding to what she has heard. She has a memory like a mule. And every smell reminds her of something else. This morning, as she was helping us clean the bathroom —— one of her weekly chores —— she said, “The smell of this toilet bowl cleaner reminds me of the soda I once drank at Charlotte’s house. And why does toothpaste smell like the mint plant outside?”

If you ask her what she wants to do when she grows up, she will tell you, immediately, “I want to be a baker.” But she says, as though it is the understanding beneath all else, “I am a writer, like my mama.”

(My entire life, I wanted to be something different, and then write about. Baseball player, veterinarian, pediatric oncologist, high school teacher —— they were all fully absorbing endeavors that would produce stories. I still can’t believe I now have a life in which I get to write about it.)

The day before Thanksgiving, she asked if she could write out a menu. She started with apple pie.

Every evening, after dinner, we clear away the plates to the kitchen, wipe down the table, and set the napkins on the washing machine. And then we take out a sketchbook. She grabs her favorite colored pen of the moment. And then Danny and I ask her about her day. “What’s something that made you laugh today? What was your favorite bite of food today? Who did you hug today? What was your favorite part of the day?” She tells us her stories, and then we pick out the key word in the sentence. She asks us to spell it. I spell “circle time” or “peanut butter sandwich” or “Charlotte” or “swimming” for her, waiting for her to finish each letter. And she writes all her words, her story, her daily decompression. She looks up at me, eager for the next letter, then bends her head again toward the page.

These are my favorite moments of the day, just me and Danny and Lu, the darkness outside drawing closer, the candle on the table flickering, and my girl writing out her story, eager to understand the letters with her fingers so they can be all her own.