Of All the Things I Cannot Do

My neighbor, Willow, lights up when she sees me. Her face explodes into a wide grin, her eyes squinch up, and she ducks her chin into her roly-poly neck. She waddles over, twines her fat fingers into the wire fence, sticks her bare foot through one of the gaps, and wiggles it to say hello since her hands are otherwise occupied. She looks back to her mother, disengages one of her hands to point to a latch, and squeals gay! gay! Gate! Gate! She wants the barrier between us to dissolve.

Willow is 18 months old. I’ve known her for a little less than a year, when she and her parents moved in next door, but a year is a long time in baby time. I’ve seen her go from a babe-in-arms to a proficient crawler to a walking machine. I’ve heard her laugh and cry, listened as her babble has evolved into a semblance of words with nuance and inflection and meaning. She is one of the most good-natured children I have ever met. If I happen to be outside and hear her beginning to fuss, I shout Willow?! and she stops in her tracks, radars her head to find me. She laughs with delight at my presence. 

As soon as I met her I wanted to hold her, and she graciously allowed me to do so. She perched on my hip—her body so compact, so dense—and examined my lips, inquired about my earrings, clapped her fists together in approval. She wanted down after a minute, but since then every time she spies me in my driveway or yard, or hears my voice in the carport, she toddles over to find me. She crouches down to find every peephole. We have conversations about all the important things: dogs, cats, feet, teeth, noses, balls, mamas, sky. 

But now I must converse with her from afar. I can’t casually walk over and shake that foot, say how do you do? I can’t touch eyes, ears, nose, and lips—naming each as I go along, watch her get hypnotized by the path of my fingertip. I can’t hoist her up by the armpits and feel her growing weight, the way it settles onto my own body—the heft of a baby becoming a full-grown person. 

Of all the things I cannot do, in this time of social distancing, this is the one thing that bothers me the most. Yes, I wish I could hug my mother again, comfort her with my arms notched onto her small shoulders. I wish I could eat a meal with friends around my battered dining table. I’d love to get a haircut, take my dog to the groomer, go into a store without flinching. But Willow—her body is changing every day, she won’t be the same person when this is all over. I can no longer respond to those raised arms, smell the sweetness of her hair, feel the way her body seems to make mine more grounded. I will have missed something—the way a child becomes herself, a fact so tangible and yet so elusive. 

And I wonder—what does this girl comprehend about my sudden distance? What do any of the children we encounter these days think of our weird postures: the reaching toward but holding back, the strained smiles, the air hugs? We say with false gaiety, Watch out, honey, I don’t want you to get sick! I wonder if they’ll internalize some sense of being wrong, untouchable by anyone outside their own families. Or if they’ll begin to see each person they encounter as a potential danger. To me, this would be the greatest tragedy: a generation of children subtly traumatized by a few months of stay away. 

For now, Willow presses her whole face into the fence mesh and puffs out her lips, waits for me to laugh, and I do. She rattles the fence and squeals, points out her dogs to me once more, once more asks about opening the gate. I say bye bye, bye bye! as I back away, and only when I’m out of sight do I hear her response, ba ba! ba ba! We bounce our farewells across the yard, growing fainter, until we both go back inside our separate homes. 

Photo Credit: Rashad Khan from Pixabay

About the author

Brenda Miller is the author of five essay collections, including An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books, 2016), which received the Washington State Book Award for Memoir. She also co-authored Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction (Third Edition published 2019) and The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Her poetry has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Fusion, Sweet, Bellevue Literary Review, and Psaltery & Lyre. Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes. She is a Professor of English at Western Washington University, and associate faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her website is www.brendamillerwriter.com

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