Leanne Sowul

Through the Mirror

My two-year-old daughter—wobble-kneed, shiny tap shoes clanking and pink backpack thumping against her bottom—toddles into the dance studio for her first class. The instructor lines up eight girls in leotards, tutus and skirts of pink, purple and black, all wearing shoes that make fun noises but occasionally slip surprisingly under their tiny feet. All of the girls are adorable, but I can’t take my eyes off my Eleanor, standing exactly where she was placed in the middle of the row, her pigtails swiveling from left to right as she takes in the scene: the other dancers, the mirrored wall, the wooden barre that’s just her height. She puts her little hands on her hips and wiggles them back and forth, her gauzy purple skirt lifting in the breeze she’s creating. Her smile is a technicolor rainbow. Behind the one-way mirror that allows parents to observe without distraction, my throat is contracting with a fierce emotion that I can’t release without attracting the attention of the other dance moms, chatting casually with babies hitched on their hips and coffee cups in hand.

One of my wedding photos captures the moment my father first saw me in my wedding dress. He’s embracing me. As his chin comes to rest on my bare right shoulder, his hands circling my white-satin waist, the camera zooms on his face. His eyes are hidden behind rectangular wire-framed bifocals, but no one need see his eyes to know that he’s holding back tears. His cheeks and forehead are deeply crinkled and creased under the strain of suppressed emotion. In the photo, the camera sees it all—glasses, creases, suppressed tears—while I, the bride, am shielded from the moment by my dad’s right shoulder. Just as the one-way mirror now shields me. 

Eleanor and the other girls are instructed to tap, tap, tap the floor to the beat of the music, then dig in their heels and “wave hello” with their toes. A few more minutes of tapping and they all run to change into their ballet slippers. Colorful scarves are handed out, and soon eight toddlers are scooting and twirling around the room to the ubiquitous strains of “Let it Go.” Eleanor throws her scarf into the air and laughs as it floats gauzily down on her head. She runs to the mirror and presses her face into the glass, then whirls around to follow another girl on her tiptoes. 

Only one year ago, at twenty months old, Eleanor wasn’t yet walking. Two years before that, when she was still in utero, a series of ultrasounds diagnosed her with an internal birth defect. Inside her abdomen, a set of extra tubes started in her kidneys and led nowhere, putting her at risk for multiple infections. At five months old, she had laparoscopic surgery to reimplant one tube; at fifteen months, a six-hour surgery slit open her belly and reconstructed her ureters and bladder. As the months went by without hitting her physical milestones, our pediatrician suggested blood tests, neurologists, physical therapy. My husband and I watched, despairing, as our daughter continued to crawl through life. Would she ever walk? Would she run? 

Finally, on her twenty-first month birthday, Eleanor took a shaky step into her big brother’s arms. It’s been less than a year since then, but watching her through the dance studio mirror, no one would ever imagine the stages—ultrasounds, diagnosis, anesthesia, belly scar, physical therapy—that led her here. 

I have stages, too, that sound similar in a list. It started with a thyroid cancer diagnosis when I was fourteen and laddered from there: throat surgery, infected lymph nodes, more surgeries, radioactive therapy. For four years, my parents watched, despairing, wondering whether I’d meet my milestones. Would I go to college? Would I marry? Would I have children of my own?

I watch my daughter tap, point and tumble, and I think about that photo of my dad and the moment of his emotion that was veiled from my view. Ten years after cancer, his daughter stood before him in a white dress, a girl becoming a woman. A milestone met. The past would have rushed up to meet him, choking his throat in the way mine is choked now. The list would have run through his head as it runs through mine: ultrasound, anesthesia, belly scar; cancer, surgery, throat scar.

My finger blots a tear my daughter will never see. Through the mirror, she twirls on. 

Leanne Sowul is an award-winning writer and music teacher. Her writing has appeared in Hippocampus, Confrontation, Hudson Valley Magazine, and other online and print journals; her live readings include Read 650’s “The Great Outdoors” in 2016. As an elementary band director, Leanne can play every woodwind, brass and percussion instrument (just don’t give her a cello). She is also a highly-sought private flute teacher. In 2017, Leanne won both the Scott Meyer Award for personal essay and the All-American Dream Champion Award for music teaching. Her novels are represented by Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary Agency. Leanne lives with her husband and two children in the Hudson Valley. Connect with Leanne at www.leannesowul.com, via Facebook at Words from the Sowul, and on Twitter @sowulwords.