I breathe her in as she sits on my lap. Her hair is smoky with ghosts of last night’s fireworks and her breath is still as sweet as a baby’s even though she’ll be 11 this year.
“Hey Avery! Next year you’ll be 12!” I say in my best kindergarten teacher/hostage negotiator voice, trying to distract her with my favorite New Year’s game that always makes everyone feel super old. I’ve got bags o’ distraction tricks and I’m desperate to drag her from the pout she’s been in since I picked her up from her dad’s. It was just going to be a quick, fun overnight visit at Grandma’s before I left to go home: black-eyed peas and cabbage with the family, playing outside with her cousins, visiting with all of the family. But her aunt has been gone for hours, the novelty of the cousins has worn off, and the comfort of Grandma’s room lends itself to nostalgia and eventually tears.
“It’s not fair!” she wails. I rest my cheek against her forehead and feel the warmth of her grief, consuming her wholly. I reflexively rock her on my lap and she gives in to the tears.
I want to make her feel better. I try reminding her that she has 5 more days to enjoy here in Texas, but I know 5 is a small number compared to the larger one that will go on her whiteboard at home. The girls keep a constant “Days Until We See Dad” countdown in their room. It’s a cheerful endeavor with bubble letters and bright colors. Like the time Allie wrote her first curse word in her diary and doodled hearts and flowers around it. But it’s much more fun with the numbers are getting smaller. Plus this time, I don’t even know the exact number they’ll be able to put up. Whatever it is, it will be written with the stoicism of a prisoner etching tally marks on his cell wall.
I mentally shake out my trusty tricks bag and find a gleaming quarter of an “Authentic Coping Strategy” from the therapist, instead of my tarnished pennies of “Look! Squirrel!” I remind her of everything she loves about Indiana: her friends, her school, her awesome Girl Scout troop, her teachers, her art classes, snow, kittens, the ability to buy vodka at CVS at 10pm on a school night. She finally cracks a smile.
“You know where home really is?” I ask.
“Where the heart is,” she replies with a flat eye-roll, disappointed that I’m trying to pull a cliche out of my bag.
“Nope. It’s right here on my lap. In my arms. Stuck with me. I’ll always make sure you’re safe. I’ll always make sure you can see and talk to your dad as much as possible. And I promise we can always talk, even if it doesn’t help.”
She quiets and curls into me, finally believing me. I keep kissing and rocking and hoping that I’m telling her the truth.