In the worst of it, when the clot lodged in our daughter's heart and her skin swelled to the brink of bursting and her lungs kept sending her into a free fall toward zero, my wife asked the doctor a question.
"Could she still go to kindergarten?" she asked. "Is there still a chance she could be a normal kid?"
He didn't know.
Through those long months in the hospital, Kelley clung to an image of a little girl holding her hand as they walked into class on the first day of school. She saw our daughter with her new backpack and sparkly shoes, trying to hide her nerves as she bounced on her toes.
Five years later, on this past Monday morning, Juniper could barely contain herself as we pulled up outside her new school. Completely on her own, she had chosen to wear her light-up high tops with the sparkles. She had her brand new backpack, stuffed with her new lunchbox and ferocious love notes from her parents, and also an old photo of her big brother Nat, standing with his backpack on his first day of kindergarten. Junebug had tucked it into the front pocket.
More and more, my days are filled with moments where the past and the present run together in a stream. I blink and remember Nat on that morning so long ago, standing outside his classroom door with his name safety-pinned to his shirt as I coaxed him to smile. I blink again, and there is Junebug, standing outside her own threshold.
As we walked into class, Kelley and I flanked her on either side, each holding her hand. Suddenly I was transported to the day she was born, when we reached into her incubator and she grabbed onto our fingertips with a samurai grip.
Junebug found her cubby and decorated it with a page of photos of her family and her best friends, her dog Muppet, her favorite chicken, Sesame. Around us, other kids were crying and clutching their parents' legs. Junebug calmly walked over to a whiteboard where the teacher had written a message asking the students to draw a face that showed how they felt about starting kindergarten. She picked up a marker.
She took her mother's hand again and walked over to a circle on the carpet and found her name written on a piece of tape and sat down. She looked a little anxious, but in a good way. When it was time for class to begin, the teacher rang a chime. Junebug gave us each a kiss and a high five and then settled into place, ready for all the years waiting to unfurl from inside that instant.
Kelley held it together, even though I could see her trembling. I still couldn't quite believe our daughter had made it to his day. As we left, I looked back at her on the carpet and saw the one-pound baby in the incubator, the 5-year-old she had defied the odds to become, the teenager she would turn into before we knew it.
Outside the door, the teacher had posted a quote:
The classroom that does not create its own legends has not traveled beneath the surface to where the living takes place.
A flood rose up inside me. Kelley and I had already traveled far beneath the surface to get our daughter. On the day she was born, we had been dropped into a long and seemingly endless tunnel, and in that darkness we had found our little girl and sung to her and read to her and held her until she was strong enough for us to carry her out into the sun. I could not count the number of times we had almost lost her.
She had created a legend of her own, even before she stepped into the room. Now she was finally here, sitting in the circle where she was meant to be.