Birdy, my 7-year-old daughter, was sitting on my lap in yet another doctor's office, cracking herself up about a recent Halloween party. "Remember that kid dressed up as a corpse?" she asked. "I thought he was going to look like trail mix. But when I saw him in those gross sheets, I realized I was thinking of gorp!" Her loony, snorting laugh echoed throughout the waiting room.
A few months earlier, while slathering Birdy with sunscreen, I'd discovered a lump on her torso. And so began a marathon diagnostic relay as Birdy was handed off from this specialist to that pediatric expert like a pigtailed baton. On medical charts, the lump was described as a "mass in the chest wall," and I felt like I had one, too—my heart knotted in preemptive grief. There were X-rays, ultrasounds, and a harrowing MRI, all to determine the substance and intentions of this mass. Bone? Soft tissue? Benign cyst? Malignant tumor? My fear of losing Birdy was like a deafening drumbeat that drowned out everything, including reason.
Then, sitting in that doctor's office, I heard her laugh, and somehow her cheer rang through, reminding me: There is this. There's really only ever this.
In that moment, I realized I could terrify myself, imagining a future with no Birdy, or I could pine for the carefree, lump-free Birdy of the past—or I could be present for the real girl who was right in front of me and pay attention as her cheerfully unraveling braids bobbed against me and her little body shook with mirth. There were the hands that pet our cat as gently as you'd touch a soap bubble; there was the gap-toothed smile that made her look like a strangely radiant old man. When I promised her an ice cream cone after yet another sonogram, she couldn't believe her good fortune. Her energy reminded me that life isn't about avoiding trouble; it's about being present, even through the hard stuff, so you don't miss the very thing you're trying not to lose.
After two more months of loony, snorting laughter in waiting rooms—reading Amos & Boris
together, me looking into her pink-cheeked little face—the doctors decided that Birdy's lump was just an enthusiastic growth of cartilage. Can you imagine the relief? Of course you can. You've had dark, scary times, too—the times you were sure you were losing your job, your friend, your love, your mind. And maybe through it all, you already knew that this moment is all we have. Me? I needed to learn it from Birdy.
—Catherine Newman is the author of the memoir Waiting for Birdy (Penguin).