Childhood's Ever-Widening Circles

Sarah was only 2 the last time we went to the beach. Overwhelmed by her first sight of the rushing water and the crashing waves, she hung back, clinging tightly to my hand. After a few minutes, lulled by the soft hiss of a retreating wave, she took a few cautious steps forward, only to run back to my side as the water came rushing toward her.

Slowly, over the next half an hour, she ventured out again and again, each time going a little farther and waiting a little longer before rushing back for reassurance. Before long, she was playing happily in the surf on her own.

As the afternoon wore on, I noticed that the tide was going out. The waves continually rushed in, but each time they retreated a little farther, so gradually that only the increasing rows of rippled watermarks on the wet beach gave it away. Sarah occasionally smiled at me over the growing expanse of glistening sand, unconcerned that she was slowly getting farther and farther away.

* * * *

One evening last year, I was about to retire for the night when I spied something sticking out from under my bed. It was Rose, Sarah's favorite doll. From the beginning, Sarah loved Rose so much that she hardly let the doll out of her sight. Rose had been everywhere with us: the mall, Grandma's house, McDonald's, the library, the dentist's.

Over the years, Rose had been a fairy baby, a mermaid, a princess, and a papoose. She had explored the jungle in the backyard, been the honored guest at a hundred tea parties, and soaked up countless tears.

As I looked down at Rose's sweet, worn face, I suddenly realized that I could not remember the last time I had seen Sarah playing with her. Slowly, over the last year, Sarah had been reaching for her less and less. She was beginning to outgrow her beloved Rose. After all, Sarah was almost 7.

Six, going on 7. How in the world, I wondered, did my baby grow so fast? It didn't seem possible. So suddenly, it seemed, she could dress herself and zip up her own coat. She had lost her first tooth and learned how to whistle. She asked the librarian questions, ordered her own ice-cream cones, looked so tall, was so independent in a thousand new ways; and now, she was going off to first grade.

For the first time in her life, she would be spending a major part of her day in a world of her own, one that did not include me.

I felt the sudden sting of tears. ''I know just how you feel, Rose,'' I whispered. ''She's growing away from me, too.''

As I tried to fall asleep that night, the years seemed to race forward in my mind. Sarah's childhood was spinning away from me much too quickly. I wished I could hold fast to the present moment.

Around 2 a.m., I was awakened by a sleepy voice, ''Mom, have you seen Rose? I can't find her anywhere and I really need her. Can I get in bed with you? I had a bad dream.''

''Sure,'' I said, handing her Rose and making room beside me. As I watched Sarah's face relax into sleep, I smiled at Rose. ''It's okay,'' I whispered, ''she still needs us. She hasn't outgrown us yet.''

Fortunately, for us, our children do not grow straight away from us, but rather they wander out in ever-widening circles, always rushing back for reassurance before venturing out again; each time, going a little farther than before.

It is a gradual parting that goes unnoticed for the most part. But, like the beach at low tide, we are marked by their passage. Their first steps, their first words, their first day of school; every milestone leaves behind a ripple or recognition that they are slowly growing away from us, the tide is going out.

Someday, when she is grown, Sarah will smile at me across the glistening expanse of her childhood, ready to venture out for the last time. That day will come, slowly but surely, however I am in no hurry for it. For now, Rose and I can wait.

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