Image: my niece (photo courtesy of her mother, Amy, 2016)
Permission to post this story has been granted by my niece’s parents and my niece. In my motherland tongue, my niece’s real name means “Star.” There are 130 dialects in my Motherland, so I’ll let you guess which one.
I’ve decided to post a little-girl-power post. This post is not at all meant to minimize our tragedies and trauma that have been posted all over social media today as I know it takes tremendous guts to come forward and say we have survived (and I speak as a survivor myself), but I wanted this post to amplify that we rise, are strong, and are capable of healing. It’s something innately within us since being little girls.
And if you can handle meteorites shooting through the night sky with blinding fireball force, then you can handle an image of Star’s starry knees 4 days after the fall featured at the end of this story.
“Though she be but little, she is fierce!” – William Shakespeare
“Courage, sacrifice, determination, commitment, toughness, heart, talent, guts. That’s what little girls are made of.” – Bethany Hamilton
Star, the only girl among a sea of brothers and boy neighbors, would be the rough-and-tough little girl who’d unknowingly prove her competitive worth to her male counterparts by running around the neighborhood, shooting hoops, racing her bike down the street, aiming with her bow and arrow, and getting soaked while relentlessly shooting in water gun fights.
One evening, I had been assigned to watch Star and her two little brothers, five and two, while their mother, my sister, would attend Easter Vigil Mass with their father. Father and eldest son were scheduled to be baptized into the Catholic Church that very evening and were already being prepped for the long ceremony ahead. It was to be a momentous occasion, but too long of a service, three hours to be exact, to demand the patience of small children whose attention-span was known to be very limited and whose irritability could explode into full-on meltdown when usual bedtime schedules were not strictly kept.
I was not a mother yet. It would be the first time I supervised three small children alone. My sister had managed five. I wondered if I could even manage one. Though Star was old enough to bear a three-hour late-night Church service, my sister decided it was best to leave Star behind to help me with the two younger boys. Star was an expert on bedtime ritual – bath time, brushing and flossing teeth, changing into pajamas, and tucking in. She probably could’ve babysat them herself if we were back in colonial times.
It had been ten minutes before my sister was planning to leave when Star, while playing tag with her two little brothers and the neighbor boy in front of their house, would take a rough tumble on the sidewalk after tripping over her flip-flops.
I didn’t see her fall as a parked sedan across the street would block my view of the beautiful girl with dark long wavy hair hitting the pavement. I’d hear her laughing and screaming in delight when the sudden thud of her body against pavement would bring the joy to a halt and I’d see her body disappear behind the parked car, but I wouldn’t know exactly which body part hit the ground. I rushed across the street to find Star on her knees. The neighbor boy also dropped down to his knees and asked if she was okay.
Earlier that day, Star and I amused ourselves in a silly game that involved my fingers as imaginary spiders tickling her flawless knees. She found the spiders delightful and had wanted me to tickle her knees over and over again while we watched movies on the sofa. Now, as I helped her to her feet, the first thing I saw was her tear-stained face staring at the pink flesh exposed on her knees which quickly gathered tiny red dots. Those dots would flow very soon. I wanted to carry her into the house as she cried, but instead, I led her by the hand and together we walked home. Just then, I remembered my own childhood of scraped knees. I’d remember Star’s own mother at ten-years-old who had fallen off her bike while doing daredevil stunts. She had managed to scrape her elbows and run home to our mother who didn’t seem concerned how badly my sister had gotten hurt.
Most of the time, my sister and I, free-spirited, thrill-seeking daughters of the neighborhood, were too much for our mother to handle, that when we came home bruised, bleeding, and scraped, we tended to our own wounds having learned the drill from the school nurse who handled our playground injuries with a rough hand. It’s not that our mother didn’t care. She just didn’t soothe. One would think it came naturally with motherhood, but it doesn’t necessarily happen that way. In my mother’s time and culture, children were taught to suck it up. Children were seen as little adults, and still are in many parts of the world. Anything otherwise was regarded as unnecessary coddling. Culturally. Generationally. My sister learned to soothe from the absence of it.
The neighbor boy accompanied me and Star into the house. A ten-year-old gentleman. I sensed his concern and guilt as he sat on the living room floor with Star’s eleven-month-old brother whom my sister had placed on the floor while tending to Star’s wounds in the bathroom. My sister would respond differently to Star’s injuries than our mother had done toward our own. She would personally tend to Star’s wounds with extra care and comfort as Star screamed and screamed and screamed. I’d help by blowing on her knees while her mother applied antibiotic cream and bandages. The screams of the eleven-month-old and Star ping-ponged up and down the hallway between bathroom and living room, but the baby boy’s desperate cries for his mother were no match to Star’s piercing screams that demanded an end to human suffering.
Star screamed and screamed and screamed. I worried her screams would invite neighbors to call Child Protective Services. I wondered if I ever screamed like that as a child. I remember tears but otherwise, I had swallowed the searing pain, gritting my teeth in silence as the alcohol was applied to my own open wounds.
I took strange delight and fascination toward Star’s scream, the kind of raging, impudent, bloodcurdling scream that annihilated the air with machete blows, as if screaming, “Screw you!” to everything inside and outside of her.
There was absolute power in her scream. If the whole world screamed like that, I wondered whether the world would actually pause, listen, and stop attacking each other with their fists, guns, and knives.
Wounds cleaned and four bandages later, Star took her place on the sofa, hiccupping and continuing to wail her pain.
“Take deep breaths,” her mother advised. “Together now.” I joined them in taking deep breaths too to calm myself down.
My sister was running late for the momentous baptismal Mass but she did not rush out the door. She continued to take long deep breaths with Star, and me, until Star finally calmed down and stopped wailing.
The neighbor boy continued to patiently wait on the living room floor, pretending to play with the baby, when he seemed to be waiting for, what he thought, a much-deserved scolding. After all, he had been the one who chased Star until she tripped over her flip-flops. He was a boy of ten, but the way he sat in the living room that evening while listening to Star’s piercing screams, he may as well have been a man awaiting his sentence.
“Kids fall. That’s what they do,” my sister calmly reassured Star. She would gently tell the neighbor boy to come back tomorrow for the Easter egg hunt and egg dyeing project in the afternoon. “Star will be fine and in tip-top shape tomorrow,” she reassured him.
Star’s mother slung the eleven-month-old to her chest and finally left for Mass.
“It’s good you fell,” I tell Star.
She looks at me like I am crazy.
“Your mom and I were always falling down and scraping our knees and elbows. I’m afraid children don’t fall these days. We’re living in a different time with cell phones and video games where children don’t seem to play outside anymore like you still do. I’m betting by the time you grow up, you won’t meet a lot of people who had fallen as kids. So it’s good you fell.”
She still looks at me like I am crazy. My words fail to provide comfort or any logic for that matter. Even I can’t think of the right words sometimes.
She couldn’t help but writhe in pain as she tried to snuggle next to me on the sofa. I had put on a movie, her favorite, The Boxtrolls, to try and distract her away from the pain. It doesn’t work.
Star’s two little brothers, also snuggled next to me on my right, would remain unphased and incognizant of their big sister’s injuries as they were fully engrossed in the movie.
She writhed and writhed next to me until I couldn’t take it anymore. I knelt down to her level, placed my hands on her shoulders, and looked her dead in the eye.
“What do you want me to do to stop the pain?” I asked. Her sad, teary eyes were beautiful. I wanted her to be okay again. I wanted her to smile and laugh and to never, ever be in pain ever again, but I know these wishes are impossible in life.
“I don’t know,” she said choked up in her tears. Of course she didn’t know. She was seven. How could she know? I gathered her in my arms as she buried the whole of herself into my chest.
“Do you want me to kiss it?” I asked.
I bent down and slowly kissed the perfect skin above and below her knees, feeling her tingling warmth under my lips. The blood continued to soak up her bandages while I gave her long kisses, knowing somehow that they were magical and sure. I looked up, and she finally smiled.
After the kisses, she requested the imaginary spiders to tickle her knees once more. She giggled as my fingertips lightly raced around the areas where her skin would grow stronger, carrying the battle scars of a childhood that her mother and I shared nearly thirty years before.
My brother-in-law, Star’s dad, rather assiduously coaxed me to go with my original plan of including an image of Star’s diabolical knees, which are far from being starry as the title suggests. Deciding not to post it stemmed from the possibility of its removal for being too graphic. The innocent rawness of my niece’s knees makes me reflect on another image that had been taken down for being considered too “graphic” and “obscene” – Rupi Kaur’s now infamous Instagram pic of a young woman in bed, her period leaking through her sweat pants. Instagram was quick to remove the photo.
Why do we shun and overreact over such natural things of a girl’s body?
My first reaction when my sister texted me the picture of Star’s knees was pride and awe. That this little girl could fall hard, and yet it is nothing, not meaningless nothing, but nothing but a battle scar, a childhood badge of honor, of “I fell, hard, got up, screamed my rage, and now I’m running and laughing again, maybe a little more cautiously with more appropriate footwear, but I’m still in the game, having fun, running, and taking a break when I can.” Isn’t that what women are made of? what we’re all made of?
Thank you, Star’s dad, for your assiduous coaxing, and thank you, Star’s mom, for the impeccable documentation of the starry and diabolical knees.