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The First of Many Lies You'll Tell Her

Kelly Sandoval lives in Seattle, where the weather is always happy to make staying in and writing seem like a good idea. She shares her home with her understanding husband, chaos tornado toddler, and increasingly irate cat. Her interactive novel, Runt of the Litter, is available from Choice of Games. Find her on twitter @kellymsandoval or visit her website at kellysandovalfiction.com.

When they first lay her in your arms, you will relearn what it means to fear. The softness of her skin, the fluttering delicacy of her breaths, the clarity of her guileless gaze. She will grasp your finger in her infant hand, and with that tiny, tenacious grip, she will break you. Every fear you've ever had, every worry about the engines, the navigation program, the damn air recycling system, will come back to you. You will know, as you've always known (but never quite like this), that you are sailing into forever. That you will not touch earth again. That she will never breathe fresh air or feel the sun warm her skin.
Will you long for me, then? Will you wish I could sit beside you, to chase away regrets, to tell you that you made the right decision? Perhaps not. It's been so long since you turned to me for guidance. This choice you made, to board that hastily built ship, you made it alone. And I? I could only watch you go. You and all the rest of them. Humanity's great, precarious hope.
I hope your husband understands. That the man you choose stands beside you in the dark of your fear. But if he's anything like your father, he'll see what he wants to see. When he recalls your daughter's birth, he'll speak fondly of the way you cried. Tears of joy, he'll say. And you will not correct him.
On that first night, when you are still learning to hold her, when you can't seem to put your hands right and she screams against your breast, starving and refusing to eat, you will be too busy, too exhausted, and too desperate to say much of anything. But as the night cycles into day, the lights brightening and warming to gold, she will sleep.
And you? You will brush the fine dark hair from her forehead and trace your fingers over the softness of her cheeks. You will lean in close to the perfect shell of her ear, and you will whisper to her, soft as a breath. You will tell her that you love her. And then, you will promise to keep her safe.
There will be so many other lies, over the years. Little ones, like "mama's cookie is yucky" or "I'll only be a moment." Those you'll hardly notice. But others, will mark the both of you. "Of course the other kids like you," you'll say. "If you try your hardest, that's all that matters," you'll promise her. You will tell her that Earth was nothing special, and you don't miss it. You will say the engines are running fine.
But that comes later. The first lie told, the first promise broken, is the one you whisper as she sleeps. You will mean it, in the moment. You'll be so sure that you could never let her come to harm.
And then, a month later, you'll doze off with her in your arms, and she will roll free of you, fall from the bed to the floor. You'll wake to the sound of it. The dull, reverberating thud of her head hitting the ground. A moment of inattention. A simple mistake.
The sound of her screaming at this sudden betrayal will cut you as no other cry has. You will hear it in your dreams. You will remember it each time you read a new report from engineering.
It will haunt you as she grows, and in so doing, inevitably grows away from you. I wish I could pretend otherwise, that I could imagine warmth and ease between the two of you. But what have I taught you of warmth, of simple affection?
Here's a truth, come much too late. One more fear laid on the pile. I feared you would blame me. That you would look out at this wreck of a world and wonder how I dared to offer so little. It made it difficult, to be soft with you, when I was always looking for the hate in your eyes.
Forgive yourself your decisions, daughter. We all do what we must.
I must wait here, as it all winds down; you must search the stars, in your rushed and improbable lifeboat.
And we must both forgive.
When, at last, the air grows thin (and it will grow thin), and you remember again, that first, inevitable betrayal, forgive that too. Let her pull you into her arms. Remember what it is to give, and take, comfort.
"It's fine, Mom," she'll say. "We're figuring it out."
It will be a lie, of course. But so too, will be your pretense at believing her.
Maybe then, at last, you will finally understand each other, forgiving all the small betrayals. Maybe, too, you'll understand me. How I couldn't meet your gaze, when we said our goodbyes. The break in my voice, when I said I'd be fine here, alone on this dying planet where the air grows thin. When I said I was sure that you'd be safe.
We tell these lies with love. They are all that keeps us going.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021

Author Comments

I wrote this about a year after my daughter's birth, after some mysterious sickness that came one day and left the next, with no explanation and nothing I could do. So much of parenting feels like that. You do what you can, but it's rain on the ocean. Children are so much more than their parents can contain or protect. In the end, that's a good thing. They need that unsheltered space. But it's hard, all the same.

- Kelly Sandoval
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