God Bless the Child

My daughter and I couldn't be any more different and that makes me love her even more

Photograph by Getty Images/Imagezoo

I am reading the re-evaluation report from Jessica’s school, and thinking how much I hate these reports. How much I hate IEP meetings, and discussions about my daughter’s intellectual capability, or lack thereof. The report says her intellectual ability falls in the 0.5 percentile. No, not the 50th percentile. The one-half percentile. The less-than-one percentile. The place where there is no pretense that she just needs a little coaching to catch up with her peers.Before my daughter was born, I thought she would be like me: smart, quick-witted, good in a fight. If she turned out not to be a word person, then she would be a math person. She would go into physics and discover the unified field theory. And if she proved to be unexceptional in math and in words, then she would excel at sports. She would take martial arts lessons alongside me and one day earn her black belt, too. Or she would ride horses to victory, or swim faster than anyone else. We would hike trails together, and read aloud from Shakespeare, and go to the ballet.

There is nowhere to hide from the data, and I am a person who respects data. The data is what I pay attention to, not the touchy-feely teacher’s report: “She gets along with the other students so well!”

I cannot say that being smart has made me particularly happy, but it is a virtue I prize; it is a thing I perceive as a virtue. “She is so intelligent!” is my highest praise. I am a person for whom achievement has always been a measure of worth: a PhD, a black belt, a slew of published books, any number of impressive job titles, all meant to reaffirm my sense of self.

It is the kind of irony that only Socrates would appreciate, that the universe would make my daughter this way, and give her to me, the mother least capable of understanding a child so different. In the fifteen years since her birth, I have had to unmake my entire worldview.

It is not an easy task, and some days it is harder than I can bear. The high school she attends sends home notices about college representatives visiting the campus, and I look at them and think, I would have sent her anywhere. I would have found the money for Stanford or Harvard or Yale; I would have found it somewhere.

I had dreams for my daughter. I would have given her every advantage. But she never needed what I was prepared to give her — the tutors and the money for graduate school and the unflagging support of her academic goals.

What she needed was for me to learn all the words to the mockingbird song and sing it to her every night for fifteen years. To teach her how to count the number of fireflies on a summer evening. To recite the phases of the moon and to define them with every single moonrise because she can never remember. To attend Disney movies instead of scholarly lectures. To buy flowers instead of books.

We have learned to live together amicably. She does not begrudge me my stacks of books and I don’t begrudge her the piles of princess dolls.

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And so I plan a trip to London over Christmas break, and I tell her we will go see "Shrek: the Musical" for her, and we will go to see "Twelfth Night" with Mark Rylance at the Apollo Theatre for me. It is how the long years together have taught us to accommodate our differences.

We arrive at the theatre, and take our seats. Good ones in the dress circle; I have spared no expense. Jessica would be just as happy with terrible seats, but at least she is uncomplaining. Tonight I have promised her dinner at the Rainforest Cafe in Shaftesbury Avenue, and she settles in to await it.

The actors have gathered on the stage in their long shirts, as the helpers get them into their makeup and costumes. It feels like something that would have happened in Shakespeare’s time. We watch the players transform into Orsini and Sebastian, Olivia and Viola.

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“That is a boy,” Jessica says. “In that dress.”

“Sure. That’s how they did it in Shakespeare’s time.”

“I love that dress. That is a dress like a princess.”

“Yes,” I say, and I smile. They have caught Jessica’s attention. “Now, remember,” I remind her, “this is Shakespeare, and the language will be unfamiliar to you. But we’re in a theatre, not at home watching a movie, so you can’t ask me a lot of questions, OK? That will bother the people around us.”

She nods but she is ignoring me. The players are drifting off the stage until only the fool is left, and the stage hands are moving some scenery about.

The house lights dim. The stage is lit by candles. Already, I am thrilled. The music begins, and I hope Jessica will remember to be quiet. Sometimes she hisses questions at me and gets upset when I make her stop. I’m in London — I’m watching Shakespeare in London — a thing I have wanted to do for thirty years, and I just hope she takes a little nap. With luck, she will not snore.

“If music be the food of love,” the duke sighs, and I sigh, too. I am here. Finally, finally here.

The play unfolds. I have forgotten that as enjoyable as Shakespeare is on the page, these are plays; they are meant to be acted, to be seen. The players make a world on the barebones stage, and I am caught up in it.

Jessica stares, transfixed, at the stage. I wonder what she sees, what she hears; she cannot possibly understand what the players are saying to each other. And yet the beauty of Shakespeare on the stage, when played by Shakespearean actors who were born to it, is that you need not understand the words to grasp the meaning.

Olivia is tugging at her ring to give it to Malvolio, saying that Cesario has left it behind.

And I hear Jessica laughing out loud. I turn in astonishment to look at her. Her face is lit up with joy. Later she will tell me, still laughing, “That was ridiculous.”

Right now, my daughter is sitting next to me, watching a Shakespeare comedy, and laughing so hard that tears have sprung into her eyes. I will never forget this, I think. And it doesn’t matter about Yale, or the one-half percentile. For a moment, we understand each other completely.