Independent Hand

Yesterday, while Kate was sleeping after an all-night shift, Piper and I took the car out of the way of the street cleaners and went up at Fort Tryon Park for a bit. It was just about 70 degrees, partly cloudy, and the park smelled absolutely and stereotypically Autumnal - dry leaves, fallen acorns, hobo urine: the works - so we decided to go for a walk.

For months, now, Piper’s been getting physical therapy to make sure her gross motor skills keep relatively on track with the rest of her. (She could identify ducks and squirrels and dogs and trucks early on, knew the ASL signs for them, and damn near had her Masters degree in fruit-specific botany terms before she deigned to try walking on her own.)

For a long time she insisted on having an adult finger in both hands when trucking around on the playground, and it took a little while to get her down to walking with just one hand clutching ours. But in the last several weeks, her confidence and balance have come roaring to the fore, and as of a few days ago, she’d made the switch from “default to crawling” to “default to walking,” with all the congratulations and hubbub from her parents and grandparents that you might imagine.

So when she and I got to the park yesterday, I unbuckled her from her car seat, lifted her out, reflexively swept the seat for pretzels and cereal, set her down on the ground, and reached out my hand so we could start strolling.

Instead, she took off without me.

For the next hour, I mainly let her take the lead and set our pace. We stopped to snack and shoo squirrels and make beelines for other parents who might have more interesting food, but mostly she toddled and explored, reaching for my hand only when she needed to go up or down stairs, or take an off road trip into the bushes or back paths. She would occasionally (and very carefully) bend at the waist to pick up acorns or particularly sparkly rocks, usually managing to stay on her feet.

Coming down a set of stone steps, she demanded my hand at the top and immediately released it at the bottom, having seen a particularly alluring acorn, and I found myself, just for a second, momentarily and ridiculously … sad.

“But sad for what?", I asked myself. Sad that the hand-holding rituals of a whopping two months were changing? Sad that this little person is discovering and exploring her independence? Or sad to find myself one eensy bit less necessary in this one aspect of her life? I knew rationally that all of these are cause for celebration, but surprised myself by still feeling a minute sliver of loss when she didn’t grab my hand again.

I think that’s what surprised me: that in 15 months, the biological imperative To Protect And Serve could have already been grooved so deep into my brain that Piper’s polite “thanks, but no thanks” could leave me for a moment wondering what I’m supposed to do with my hands when I go walking now.

(Do all parents meet their kids’ increasing independence with this same mix of 19 parts joy and 1 part mourning the moments just passed? More worryingly, does this put me at risk for mawkish wistfulness for the “simpler” days of infancy, when “all we had to worry about” was getting enough sleep to let us remember to move the oatmeal out from under our faces before we passed out on the dining room table? Lordy, I hope not.)

For better or worse, I felt necessary again about 20 seconds later, as Piper cussed me out for my stubborn insistence on walking between her and the curb, beyond which rolled the cars in the parking lot. “What a jerk you are, Abba,” she said (paraphrased) as she tried vainly to get around me and go give the Escalade a big hug. “Ah, yes,” I thought to myself, intercepting her. “Those familiar twin feelings of Being Needed and Being Yelled At: we’re not done with them quite yet.”

I scooped her up, buckled her into her car seat, handed her the raccoon trap filled with dried fruit and cereal and pretzel twigs, and we headed home.