A Memoir of Courage After a Life-Changing Accident

Lilly, the dulcet angel, was born in less than four hours of a labor untouched by drama or trauma. Her English teacher recently described Lilly as resembling one of the daughters in Little Women. "She looks like she should be coming to class in ringlets and a hoopskirt," he observed. She does have an old-fashioned beauty about her. With her midnight blue eyes, corn-flax blond hair, and fair complexion, she resembles her grandmother Maria who grew up in a little Alpine village in Switzerland. I sometimes think that we should have named her Heidi. Lilly also has the gentility and careful bearing of another era. I have watched so many adults try to connect with her only to find themselves stymied by her reticence. Once, we were introduced to a famous movie star, all extroverted glow and glare. He tried to charm her, telling amusing anecdotes in an increasingly animated fashion. She stared at him, placid, inscrutable, until he eventually gave up.

Yet while soft-­spoken and reserved with adults, she is all giggles and chatter with her girlfriends. Her pack of friends has circled her around for years. In kindergarten, her friend Daisy stood at the classroom doorway nearly every morning waiting for Lilly. When Lilly would arrive, clinging to me, anxious, Daisy would grab her and pull her through the door into the classroom and, I always felt, into her life. Nowadays, the girls lock themselves in Lilly's room for hours without needing me or anyone else. Through the door, I hear snippets of conversation, laughing, the computer, music from High School Musical, the girls singing along. For eleven years, raising Benjamin and Lilly provided the central rhythm of my life, one that generally permitted the private and public to coexist in harmony. My domestic, professional, and social worlds flowed together and in and out of each other. Before my children were born, this had not been the case. For a few years, my work had briefly demanded all of me. I had mistakenly wandered into a soul­killing career as a lawyer while in my twenties. I hadn't known what I wanted to do with my life, so my father had urged that law school would provide a "backup plan." I could "graduate last" in my class, if I wanted, "but just graduate." This career progressed in fits and starts without balance, and I fluctuated between intense periods of around-the-clock work as a lawyer and no work at all. These hiccups of on-again, off-again work culminated in my initially returning to work after Benjamin's birth but then lasting only three weeks at the job. I had a visceral reaction to leaving Benjamin; it felt untenable to continue working when at home nestled that soft, delicious bundle of a baby, and so I quit without discussion, planning, or thinking, this time for good.

Two years of full-time mothering ensued. Benjamin and I had an easy routine, our days structured by playgroup, music class, a nap, and the playground. Perfectly content to continue this lifestyle indefinitely, if our money didn't run out, I meandered into a poetry class on a whim—Dickinson, Yeats, and Auden—in the third year of mothering. I found what would prove to be my vocation. This audited class led to further literature classes, and as my passion grew, so, too, did the intensity of my studies. I worked harder than I ever had before, the drive and ambition fueled purely by love of the subject matter, and eventually completed a Ph.D. in English literature.

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