Emmeline and I were sitting in the lazy afternoon sunshine, almost directly behind the left field foul pole, and I was telling her about the end of The Natural, pointing up to the stadium scoreboard and the light stands, waving my arms and telling her about the lightning and the bat, about Roy Hobbs and one epic home run — great shards of broken glass falling like fireworks and how the air must have smelled of filament and sulphur and something electric.
She tilted her head toward the enormous bank of lights above us, and I paused for a moment, trying to decipher whatever dilemma she was working over behind those eyes. A vendor hawking peanuts screamed, “Hot salty nuts!” A few brave seagulls circled overhead, ready to pounce on abandoned hot dog buns. At home plate, a player ripped a ball into right field. The crack made its way to our seats a second later. And still the girl stared, aiming a furrowed brow at perfectly intact light banks and watching what I imagined must be an invisible spectacle of fireworks, popping and falling just for her.
“Like cosmic rays,” she finally whispered.
“You mean the falling glass?”
“Uh huh, cosmic rays — like fairy dust!”
Everything comes down to fairy dust.
Through the eyes of a four year old, everything is laced with magic — the impossibility of flight made possible by the invisible, by belief.
I had told her just a few days earlier about cosmic rays, and sitting there in the sunshine, the muted sounds of a ball game surrounding us, I smiled quietly at the path of her thoughts.
For fun, I attend planetarium lectures, and at the latest one, the astrophysicist gave a talk about cosmic rays, these invisible particles that wheel through space and collide with our atmosphere, creating proton showers that fall on our shoulders nearly every second. No one really knows where these galactic rockets come from — maybe the remnants of super novae, or the magnetic ebb and flow of black holes; the lecturer said she was trying to figure it out — but somehow these tiny particles accelerate too fast for their own galaxies and shoot toward our own. When that one infinitesimal particle collides with just one particle in Earth’s upper atmosphere, some strange dark magic occurs and billions of points of light are created. The lecturer was explaining how those particles fall in wide, sparkling showers and I’m sitting in my chair, my head tilted toward her presentation, and I’m thinking of a little girl back at home in bed, probably dreaming about the exact same thing.
“Like fairy dust,” she whispered the next day, when I told her what I had learned. We were walking home from preschool, edging along the balance beam of sidewalk gutter, when she stopped and tilted her head toward the blue sky. She tentatively put a hand out, palm up, as if to catch a ray. Suddenly she jumped.
“Ooooh!” she squeaked, “I caught one!”
For the next few blocks, she stopped every couple of steps. A smile would escape her lips and her eyes would light up like fireworks themselves. She’d grab my arm or thrust a hand out, as if to stop my progress.
“Did you feel that?” she’d whisper, taking a few more steps, “Did you feel that?”
So it didn’t surprise me when, after my story at the ballpark, she suddenly put her hand out and began to feel again for the rays and the fairy dust. Pretty soon, she was making a show of catching the falling space particles and sprinkling them over her head, as if she was seasoning herself with invisible salt.
“When I get enough,” she told me, her eyes suddenly wide and unblinking, “I can fly!”
I looked at the detritus of food at her feet, peanut shells and a hot dug bun smeared with congealed ketchup, and I turned to see her lips colored blue by cotton candy chemicals — her eyes wild by sugar and the notion of flight, and I wanted to say, “I think you’re high enough as it is.” Instead I smiled and nodded, asking where she might go when she gathers enough dust.
For the next inning, she filled me in on her travel plans while I tried to watch the action on the field. Occasionally I’d catch words like “Pegasus” or “Neverland” and I’d nod or steal glances at her hands as they pretended to fly.
“Daddy did you hear me?” she said suddenly.
“Sister,” she repeated.
Emme had never sat through an entire baseball game before, and I must have grown too comfortable in the sun and the seat. A year ago, she would have demanded a trip to the ballpark slides — huge metal tubes slicing through an enormous Coke bottle just beyond the left field bleachers — or maybe a chance to hit a Whiffle ball in the Tot Lot every other inning. But this year, she was content to sit for long stretches and pretend to fly, while I zoned out and apparently caught an afternoon cat nap. I swiped a hand over my mouth, checking it for drool, and then I sat up straight in my seat, wondering how long she’d been repeating the question.
“Daddy did you hear me?” she asked again, “When am I going to have a sister?”
“I don’t know, kiddo,” I told her, “One of these days.”
“Yeah, but when?”
I turned my attention to the sea beyond the stadium. We were sitting so high up that you could see the bridges lacing the horizon and the container ships lugging into port.
“I don’t know,” I told her again, and there was probably too much of something heavy and unidentifiable in my voice that she stopped asking and instead contemplated the water with me.
If you had told me four years ago that I’d ever want another baby, I never would have believed you. I remember sitting in her nursery in those first brutal weeks, listening to her wail, and it pained me to think we might have made a mistake. It was not supposed to be like that. But days passed, weeks. Full years went by, and this kid grew up and learned to roll over, smile. She learned to talk. We celebrated birthdays, felt joy in her achievements, sorrow for her pain and shame for some of the things she’s done. But this kid. Some days I want to scream for all her ceaseless jibber jabber and whine-on-a-dime tantrums. And some days I want to wrap her body in my arms and never let her go.
This feels like a sorrow for the selfish. We have one incredible baby already — shouldn’t I just be happy for what we have?
But I look at her sometimes and know what’s possible. I think of all the times I wake her up, her face dreamy and unclouded by worry. I think of every evening when I brush her hair after bath. She fools around with a toothbrush, mostly humming, and then we trade brushes. Just the other day, after I finished with her teeth, I waited until she sipped water to rinse and then I honked like a goose in her ear. She spit water on the mirror and I could see water gushing out of her nose, and we crumpled into a heap of laughter, our arms holding each other up. The next day she bleated like a sheep, and we collapsed into each other again at the sight of milk running out of my nose.
Sometimes when she’s at school, I turn to tell her something and have to swallow the words. When she gets home, we curl into her chair and plow through a chapter book, her tiny body curled into my own, her breath warm on my fingers holding the book. One day I had to send a quick email after we got home, and I came downstairs to see her curled up in a new chair my mom had gotten for her — a child-sized rocker to fit right next to my own reading chair. She held a book upside down, her finger tracing the words.
“Just like daddy,” she smiled, her face so proud.
My life now. It’s so full of magic.
And yet, we’ve been trying to have another baby for so long now, and I never realized I would ache like this, feel this horrible, guilt-soaked longing to have again what is already so great. It can make you crazy. I want to pick up every baby I see and I want to stay away at the same time. Picking them up would feel wonderful. Giving them back would be hell.
“When am I going to have a sister?” she wanted to know.
And I tell her I’d like to know.
From the water, she turned her gaze to the lights again and then to the sky beyond. In the distance, fog rolled over the southern edge of the city but the sky was blue and warm and comfortable above us. She tilted her head back and peered into the vault, scanning the horizon for celestial wrack banging against the stratosphere. Then she turned her gaze toward me again.
“Are they falling right now?” she asked.
“They are,” I nodded.
She smiled and leaned her head back and opened her mouth. She waited a moment and then jumped in her seat.
“Did you feel that?” she giggled.
I nodded again, careful not to let her see my eyes.
“Did you feel that?” she asked, “Did you feel that?”
And I watched her for another long moment before I closed my eyes and tilted my head back, too, as if to share in her tiny drops of magic.