Her feet dance over the cobblestones with the weightlessness only the young can possess, almost skimming the ground, pattering with the rhythm of life’s music that can only be felt, not heard. Blonde hair flutters in the cool breeze of her dance, fine strands of pale gold that will no doubt darken as the seasons pass. The same breeze has pinked her cheeks, giving her the look of a china doll, though not the fragility. She is radiantly beautiful, full of life, and even though I have a ton of errands to run, I can’t take my eyes from her.
She’s skipping now, her feet dancing higher, and her laugh tinkles with its own music, the lightest of wind chimes. I would give much to be able to dance like that again, to be free to fling my body with joy as the spirit moves within – but the years weigh heavily on us, we adults. The music of life is lost amongst all our self-inflicted pain and responsibility, and we forget. We need children to remind us that life is not quite as serious as we tend to believe.
Suddenly, her dance stops and she stands still, gaze fixed on something in the distance. I follow her eyes and chuckle under my breath as I see what has distracted her – one of the street vendors has parked his ice cream cart on the corner. Her hand lifts and slides wordlessly into the larger one at her shoulder level. He must be her father, I assume, from the trusting way she clings to his gentle grasp. He, too, has followed her stare and smiles indulgently. “Would you like an ice cream cone, honey?”
“Oh, yes please, Poppa.” Her eyes gaze up at him gratefully, and I can see that they are dark chocolate brown. The music of her voice matches her laugh, high and sweet.
The floating on air quality returns to her step as her father leads her over to the ice cream cart. I watch his walk intently as she frisks beside him. Does he still feel the throb of unheard music, as his daughter does? I suspect not. His feet seem as rooted to the earth as mine are. Why? Why do we lose touch with the children within ourselves?
His hair is dark, just beginning to gray at the temples, and fine lines crease the corners of his eyes. I guess him to be a few years younger than me, but he reminds me of my father in his comforting solidity, in his interactions with his little girl. I hear the susurrus of the vendor’s low voice, and my attention shifts back to the girl. She takes her time looking at all the flavors, choosing carefully, as if this will be the only ice cream cone she ever eats. Finally, she extends a finger, and the ice cream man scoops out her selected flavor, presses it into a cone, and hands it to her.
How careful her walk is now! She’s still light on her feet, but much slower, mindful of keeping the cone upright. With a light touch on her shoulder, her father guides her to a nearby low wall and lifts her until she’s seated on the wide brick. I can see that she’s chosen chocolate chip – creamy vanilla with shards of chocolate flecked throughout – my favorite flavor, too. She savors the ice cream slowly, with small, kittenish licks, wholly engrossed in the moment. I long to ask her to share her secret of being completely who she is and where she is at any point in time, but I refrain and stay where I am, briefly glancing away to hide my stare. Her father would probably not welcome such an approach, and the girl herself would either be frightened or gaze at me in wide-eyed disbelief. It would probably be a wasted question, anyway. I was that girl, once – why can’t I answer that myself?
Her father strokes her hair lovingly as she catches drips down the side of the cone, his tender hand wiping her mouth gently with a napkin. Again, I’m reminded of my own father, and surprise myself with a pang of regret for my own childlessness. I have always accepted my lack of children as the way things turned out, as God knowing more about what I needed in life than I did. Besides, what kind of mother would I have been? Yet as I regard at the father and daughter wistfully, I can only wonder what my daughter might have been like. I can imagine her small hand in mine, skipping beside me, blonde hair alight and cheeks pink with the wind, deep brown eyes pleading for an ice cream cone. Together we might have repeated the same ritual, with me looking at her and knowing that just as my father saw part of himself in me, so I would with her, and she years later with her son or daughter. All the pleasures of raising children – reading them a story, brushing their hair, feeling their small warmth cuddled up against me – these are things I will never know. At the same time, I will never have the pain of feeling their anger, seeing them hurt, the worry of waiting up late into the night for them to come home, of fearing I will lose them. I’m not sure which is better.
I hear the girl’s tinkling laugh again, and my eyes refocus to see her crumbling the end bits of her cone and scattering them to the sparrows. She dusts off her hands and holds her arms out to her father. I turn my face away, fighting the sharp sting of tears and the throbbing ache of a womb not only empty, but no longer there, all chances of motherhood swept away like the wind sweeps away the crumbs of the cone. When I look back, the girl and her father are headed away from me, the father’s steps solid and deliberate, hers still dancing over the cobblestones as she watches the sparrows chasing the wind-blown bits of cone. We each have our own dance, and she is fully engrossed in hers, unconcerned with where she has been or where she’s going – just intensely living where she is right now. With the weight of my life on my shoulders and in my heart, I’ve forgotten my dance.
I approach the ice cream seller and buy a cone for myself – chocolate chip. Eating it slowly, I smile at the sparrows that hop nearby, hoping for another windfall. When I’ve finished the ice cream, I don’t disappoint them, scattering the bits of leftover cone on the sidewalk. I can’t help laughing as they chase the pieces down, bickering with each other over who got a bigger piece.
In the end, I realize that part of the desire for children is a desire for a type of immortality, and that’s a lesson I can learn from the girl. Children of that age rarely worry about tomorrow – they’re too busy living today. I can see that I’ve been too chained by yesterday, too focused on tomorrow, to pay attention to today. And that’s really what I'm here for, isn’t it? Today.
I take my list of errands out of my pocket, let it float to the bottom of the nearest trash can, and go searching for my own dance.