She was a scruffy little thing when they handed her to me. Fingers in mouth. Brushy black hair worn off in back from scrubbing her head back and forth on the crib mattress. Skinny legs kicking wildly below a little sleeveless purple-and-white striped number.
We first laid eyes on each other in a stuffy room in an office building 6,824 miles from Minneapolis. It was suffocatingly hot that summer and we were both sweaty. For one second, as I held my arms out to her and she looked at me for the first time, she screwed up her face to cry.
“Don’t cry, don’t cry,” I said in Chinese, desperate to soothe her. “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to have so much fun. I promise you.”
She stared at me and listened, her face still twisted in fear and confusion. Then she took the fingers out of her mouth and gave me a huge smile, a smile that made her entire body wiggle.
Later that day, when we were alone in the hotel room, I laid her down on my stomach in her diaper. She stared at me with her deep dark eyes and wiggled and smiled. She took her fingers out of her mouth, stuck them back in. I played peek a boo and she laughed a throaty little chuckle of a laugh.
When I had to get up to go to the bathroom I put her in her crib and her dark, dark eyes followed me across the room.
In a restaurant a few days later, four waitresses took turns holding her. When they realized I spoke Chinese they beckoned me to a corner and, unsmiling, told me that I had to tell her something when she got older.
Tell her she was wanted, they said. Explain to her about the one-child policy. Tell her about us, here in this restaurant, and how we thought she was beautiful and funny. No matter what anyone ever says, don’t ever let her think she wasn’t wanted.
On the flight to Minneapolis she slept and stared out the window and sucked down bottle after bottle and wiggled her legs and laughed. The pilot gave her some plastic wings and she stuck them in her mouth.
6,824 miles later, at midnight, we landed.
There have been many miles since.
How many trips we have been on together, her riding shotgun, me driving. Through the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains and the White Mountains. Down south, hugging the Mississippi and then venturing east to the southern wilds of the Florida panhandle.
Driving west from Minneapolis, feeling the earth swell and rise beneath the car, all the way to Idaho and then heading north to the Canadian Rockies. Most recently down the Pacific Coast Highway in the rain and clouds, Big Sur in the mist, stopping to listen to the sea lions on the rocks.
Hundreds, thousands of miles. She is my road warrior daughter. Dozens of playlists masterminded by her: one perfect song after another. She long ago stopped sticking those two fingers in her mouth, but her dark, dark eyes are as observant as ever.
We play a game I think of as Sure. She points and asks, I answer.
Mom, can I have an elephant?
Mom, can we live there?
Mom, can I quit school and we’ll go on an around the world trip?
Once, a few years ago, we flew eastward, back over those same thousands of miles to the land she was born in. We hiked the Great Wall in 106 degree heat, ate dumplings, melted into the middle of crowds to cross the terrifying streets.
She weighed almost nothing in the beginning. She couldn’t sit up by herself and her big brother and sister liked to haul her around like a floppy stuffed animal. When she was little her main goal in life was to make them laugh, and she was very good at that task.
She didn’t walk until she was almost two but once she did, she was an unstoppable force of nature. She used to throw herself at the car windows if we passed a playground. She zipped around the block on her trike or scooter or rollerblades. She would shriek like a tiny madwoman if anyone tried to keep her off the slide or the swings.
Eighteen years went by.
Now she’s asleep upstairs, having just gotten home from the all-night high school graduation party. Her purple cap and purple gown are crumpled on the dining room table. Her dog waits patiently for her to wake up. When she does, she will pet him and then drink a mug of strong black coffee.
Come the end of August she will be living 1463 miles away from me, when in all these years since I met her she has never been farther than a few blocks.
Once she didn’t exist. Then she was born. Then I flew a long way to meet her, and we came home to a world that was new because we were new to each other, just getting to know each other, figuring each other out.
What am I trying to say here? Nothing that isn’t a cliche. A cliche about how the day you meet your baby, time slows down inside but speeds up outside. How the years whirl by until the night comes when you’re sitting in a huge auditorium while someone at a microphone is calling out name after name, and your daughter steps across the stage, smiling and shaking hand after hand.
You applaud and smile but inside you’re remembering that very first moment, when she looked at you and almost cried, but didn’t.
I still have the journal I kept about her all those years ago, tucked in a cardboard box with the tiny purple striped outfit, her original passport, the first photo I ever saw of her.
Now I look at the journal and think, She wasn’t even born yet when you began this thing. Strange. But that’s how babies begin. How parenthood begins. How works of art begin. You dream about something that doesn’t yet exist.
Miles to go before we sleep.