Fourteen

A and I jumping for joy last year at the beach.
A and I jumping for joy last year at the beach.

I always expected a lot out of you – for better or for worse. I expected you to not only learn to do for yourself as quickly as possible, but to learn to do for your brother (and later brothers) as well. It wasn’t fair at all to you, but it wasn’t entirely unfair. After all, this is our life, this is your life and truth be told – you rose to the challenge beautifully.

Even now, on your fourteenth birthday, I was not with you when you woke and was not with you most of the day because I brought your younger brother with me to visit our dear friends in the hospital in a city not to close to home. You were rather upset when I told you I was taking H – not you and H – with me for this quick, 24-hour-trip.

I want to see [our friends] too. You’re going to miss my birthday.

I felt exasperated, as I am unfortunately wont to do when you don’t react to a decision the way I hoped you would. I expected more out of you. I always have, and that’s not fair either. So, I reminded myself – she’s fourteen. She will feel this way.

And, I explain the decision your Baba and I made.

You were still sullen, but quiet, declaring in that way that teenagers declare when they are accepting of a decision but still upset about it – okay! I’m FINE.

So, I left you alone and went into the house, knowing the best thing to do was to let you work it out yourself.

And, you did.

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You are about 18 months old, starting to say some words, which delight us to no end. On one hand, I am constantly worried and stressed by your older brother’s autism diagnosis and keeping up with his school, therapies and struggles – so much so that I am not enjoying your baby and toddler years the way I should be.

I really should be, because you are simply the best baby. Beautiful, sweet, smiling. Growing and developing with barely any hiccups. You are just like your older brother in so many ways and vastly different in just as many ways. The words are starting to tumble out of your sweet lips with ease and lilt – Mamma, Baba – words that are a balmy salve to my motherly worry.

Then one day I return home exhausted with your brother from his thrice-weekly therapy in upstate New York, an hour’s drive outside of the city where we live. I am tired and rather upset over a new development in D’s verbal behavior therapy, feeling that I am making all the wrong decisions for him.

We walk into the apartment and your Dadabba (paternal grandfather) is supporting you as you stand on the window ledge, pointing your chubby finger to something you see outside:

Chand! Chand, you say. (Moon, moon!)

We are all floored and delighted by your excitement. You saw the moon outside, and you said the word for it in our Urdu language. It’s your first word in Urdu.

Don’t forget this moment, I tell myself. This is special. Her moments are special, too.

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I am driving down a California highway at night, the ocean looming dark to my left, and you are sleeping peacefully in the back seat. At the age of seven, you are I have traveled across the country for our first mother-daughter trip to visit one of my best friends from college and her new baby.

It feels so strange to be alone with you, without your brothers and the vast responsibilities they bring. You are so easy to travel with. Take tonight’s activities – we drive up the coast an hour to meet a friend and work colleague of mine for dinner. You go with the flow at every turn. As we drive home later in the dark, you are aware (as I tell you to go to sleep) that I am sleepy, too.

Mamma, I don’t want to leave you alone when you’re driving. You’re tired, too.

Even at the tender age of seven, you are looking out for me.

You drift off to sleep, though, and after awhile I pull off in an area where cars can stop and watch the waves crashing in from the ocean. It’s equally beautiful and frightening to me in the darkness of night. I want to wake you, so you can see it too and feel the strength and vastness of the ocean with me. Because I need you as much as you need me, even though I’m the mother and you’re the daughter.

But, you are sleeping peacefully, and I don’t want to disturb your slumber. So, I sit there for a while, then start the car and drive the rest of the way home.

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In a few weeks, you’ll be starting high school. I remember high school well. You are so different, so much more mature and tender and caring than I was at your age. I know it’s your innate nature. I also know it’s the life in which you are raised – where you are often asked to be the eldest child though you are not. Where you are often expected to handle and manage things so many of your peers are not.

Where you are still expected to do your homework (and do it well) even when your older brother may have loud meltdowns; where you are expected to keep your room locked so he doesn’t go in and mess things up, and if you forget to do so and he does go in and mess things up, you don’t get much sympathy from me because I’ve explained all this to you multiple times and you really should know by now.

Where you very rarely pull the reverse autism card on us (when you try and complain or guilt us into something because there are double standards between you and your older brother due to his autism), but when you do we pretty much don’t fall for it. Where for many years (and still now) the decision of what we could or could not do with you and for you (and your younger brother) was measured by the yardstick of what we could manage with your older brother’s needs.

Where you are growing up in a compassionate and inclusive environment, learning so early on the most important lessons of life – the unfairness, the love, the challenges, the joy in moments so many others miss.

Where you are the very embodiment of your name, and we are so grateful to have you as our daughter.

Happy birthday, A.

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