After a long light we turn right and head west through another neighborhood. She's usually quiet here, munching apple slices, making whatever mental transition she needs from home life to school life. I don't disturb her. A squat apartment complex sits on the left, three floors, set back from the street by its parking lot, couched between a church and a grocery store. Every day in a third-floor apartment dingy gray curtains are open enough to divide the window into even vertical thirds. In the middle leans a dingy old woman, pale skin dripping from her tiny arm bones, fuzzy gray hair blending into pale face and pale nightshirt and pale curtains, bookends on her pale existence. She's too far to see clearly but I wonder if it's been a long time since anybody's seen her clearly. Each day we pass she leans on her elbows watching the world go by and I watch her to the crisp crunch munch of my rosy-cheeked child snacking on the fruit of the tree of life.
We turn left again, cutting across a park, and here the questions usually start. Mama, so what happened to that man at your work? She saw him again last night at the bus stop in front of daycare when she accompanied me to get her siblings. He troubles her because she doesn't understand impairment. I tell her what I've always told her: that I don't know exactly what's wrong, but I think that when he was still in his mama's tummy his brain didn't finish growing exactly the way it should have. I remind her that he works in my building, that I know that he is kind, that he should not scare her. I give her new vocabulary: first, what is a 'phrase.' And then: 'mental retardation.' What mental is, and retardation, and how and how not to use certain words. And because she is ever-bigger I add a new truth to this conversation along with the vocab lesson: "mostly, you know what I think when I see him?"
"How lucky I am to have you. How lucky I was to have easy math: three healthy pregnancies, three healthy babies." And immediately I regret my words, not because they aren't true, but because I don't want to say anything else. I don't want to explain how that man's life has inherent worth but I'm grateful she's not impaired like him, or how not every pregnancy ends in a healthy baby, or how we feared for a while that her brother, still growing inside me, might not be okay. Viable. Quality of life. Those are phrases for you. How I would have had a sister, but 'incompatibilities' and I don't. My mom's too-pale face against her then-dark hair, the wood-paneled basement where we stayed far past normal playdate's end, my mama didn't come home for a few days. The name they had picked out for her, a girl, the one I hear called out in the elementary school halls.
We turn again. Final segment. We pass a tree stump. It's wide, smooth, worn. It was the proverbial mighty oak, once, but for some undoubtedly drearily practical reason it was "removed." What a euphemism. But out of the stump edge stands a sapling. It's maybe a foot tall, 18", too young to be unswayed by breeze, too large to be ignored. We pass it every day, just beyond a bus stop, and every day it makes me think of the old lady in the window two miles back. I don't know what that means, really, but I notice them both each day.
I don't know what anything means, really.
Questions are forming. I see her wide gray-blue eyes lose focus; she's concentrating on her inner world. She doesn't know yet how many gifts she has, to be healthy and smart and loved by two parents in a healthy relationship in a house with climate control and adequate fresh food and and and and. She's thinking just what to ask, or how to ask it, or maybe ordering her questions for a complex interrogation because the world is too big to comprehend at all
but I've eased onto the brake and hit the unlock button and the friendly carpool lane guy is opening the door, offering her a hand, lifting out her backpack with his other and "good morning, how are you today?" and she answers respectfully, a little quietly, good and I know her mind is swirling but it's locker, unpack, Pledge of Allegiance for her and so I say just "have a good day, sweet girl" and "I love you" and I drive away. Quickly, I turn up the radio.