Breathe and Matthew, the doll I loved as a child

The earliest toy I remember loving was a doll named Matthew.

This doll was tall; he had curly red hair. He had a cassette player in his back and, when activated, Matthew would talk (it was early 80s; this was high tech). I remember making him talk sometimes, but I don’t remember what he said. I didn’t love him because he talked. I loved him because he was like a little boy. He came everywhere with me. Then, one day, my mother, who had a job cleaning houses, took us with her to the home she was cleaning. One of the rooms was a little girl’s room and the little girl had a baby doll with blonde hair. Come to find out, she was called Little Sister; I would receive one of my own soon, and she and Matthew were my world. My love of baby dolls stayed with me into high school; I remember bringing a lifelike doll with me to school during my 11th grade year and freaking some teachers out accidentally. There was a porcelain doll with curly blonde hair in a frilly dress holding a broken teddy bear with a tear coming down her cheek that I absolutely adored. I couldn’t play with her because she was porcelain, but she sat in my room and moved with me everywhere we went. Dolls are the only toys I vividly remember playing with.

As I grew older, I wrote lists down of names for my future children. Lots of kids do this, I suppose, but I’d vividly imagine holding the babies and caring for them. Their names would be Storeigh Alizabeth and Awaken Isaiah (although I wavered on this because Isaiah and Michael because Michael is my all-time favorite name for a little boy; I just couldn’t stand the idea of it being shortened to “Mike”). Beyond their names, though, I didn’t imagine being a mother. It wasn’t something I gave a lot of thought to because I was young and naïve; it wasn’t really a dream so much as a given. I would be a mother, I just didn’t know when.

I was engaged. I bought a wedding dress (that I ultimately ended up using to tell Princess stories to at sleepovers, but that’s a different story), paid for a venue. Life was headed down the path I’d always assumed I’d take—and then life happened. Even though we were having some hiccups—he didn’t seem to pay attention when I spoke, I had trouble intimately trusting him and usually wound up in tears, that wedding date became elusive, continuously being pushed back for one reason or another. Still, before all of the inconsistencies became apparent, one beautiful day…. I just knew. I still don’t know how I knew because I was way, way early; but I felt differently. A pregnancy test confirmed it: I was twenty-two years old and pregnant.

The changes in me started instantly. The Tiffini who was terrified of eating, who had gone for years only eating bird-like portions and those only on the weekends, suddenly couldn’t have cared less. Eating was simply non-negotiable anymore; a baby, a real one, depended on me taking care of myself. If I was hungry, I ate. I didn’t even stop to think, wow, this is weird. Instead, I felt free and happy for the first time in my entire life. The changes didn’t stop with the eating, though.

Since I was a little girl, the name Storeigh was set in stone. Stories had saved my life. I could give you a dozen examples of times when I truly don’t think I would have survived a full 24 hours without my characters, without writing. I remember the midnight hour rolling by when I was super young and feeling a great panic until I turned my bedroom light on and started writing. The first fairy tale I remember being told, the first one that captured my imagination and ignited a spark within me for storytelling was Rapunzel, and I still remember the “real world” fading away as I got lost in that fairy tale. The imagery of the prince, blinded by the thorns, wandering lost in the woods, and finding his way by the sound of Rapunzel singing sparked a lifelong love of stories. I couldn’t have been more than four years old, but I could have listened to that story for ages. So, stories were special. And yet.. all of a sudden, as this baby grew within me, the only thing I could think of was, She’s not a story; she’s real. As precious as stories were to me… this joy, this hope, this miracle was more powerful than a story, more special, more. So, Storeigh wasn’t the name of this baby.

Driving down a curvy road one day, the word breathe as a name struck me like a bolt of lightning. It seriously made goosebumps race along my arms and I was so excited, so profoundly excited, because I knew that that was this little girl’s name. The little girl that would make me a mama. It was — it is — perfect for so many reasons. Life requires breath. When you breathe, you are alive. God breathed life into Adam. Similarly, even though she wasn’t even here yet, I knew that my world was about to explode in a kaleidoscope of colors and that I would never be the same again. The Tiffini that lived in isolation, the Tiffini that was failing miserably at everything, she suddenly had a purpose. For some reason, I’d been gifted a baby. She wasn’t really mine, she was really God’s, but He was entrusting her care to me. And, in so doing, breathing life where there was only pain.

From the moment Breathe was born, the world expanded. I didn’t heal overnight. Memories and nightmares still dog me to this day, and probably always will. I’m still deeply flawed. I struggle mightily with legitimately trusting others. I’d rather be alone than abandoned any day of the week. No one will ever say I’m “good” at physical intimacy. And there will always be demons from my past; triggers are all over the place. But my ‘happily ever after’ came in the form of play, and teaching and intentionality. Everything I did with Breathe was intentional. No coloring books until she was school-aged because I didn’t want her to think that drawing outside the lines was “wrong.” See, I wanted her to be free. Draw on the walls; they are just walls. Get mad at me, please, because that’s honest. How many activities can we cram into a day?

Three years later, still engaged to the wrong man, still living apart, I knew again. This time, super duper early. So early that the doctors told me I shouldn’t have known I was pregnant. But I did. I loved being pregnant. I’d listen to her heartbeat at night; I started writing her letters. I’d actively prayed for this baby, and for her to be a little girl, because I wanted Breathe to know a sister. More than that, though, I think God knew I needed another little girl. I had all of these lists again of names but I kept coming back to the world light. See, I grew up with a lot of darkness. Instability, abuse, chaos, violence, loneliness. Trauma colors my world–it always has, and likely always will. I’ve come to recognize the miracles that can co-exist with trauma and that’s helped me make peace with it… but this little girl, this little girl who wasn’t even born yet, literally lit up my world. Happiness exploded when I thought of her and my arms ached to hold her. I wanted her to remember how much joy she brought with her, and to see the world in lit up. When the word alight came to me, it felt perfect. Because it means to descend softly from the air and settle. God was sending this child, so she was descending and her life would add so much light.

From the moment I held her, I knew she completed me, and our small, little family. Three years later, their dad’s and my relationship officially ended, but the girls and my bond tightened. Being a mother was what gave me joy and purpose and a lot of healing. I remember when Breathe was five, she was running through the house and, as she went by me, I thought I had to have been five once. Such a simple thought but it was life-changing for me because Breathe was totally innocent. If I was five once, I had to have been innocent, too. I had so much guilt and so much shame for the abuse I’d lived through. Shame for letting it happen. Shame for not telling. Shame for being bad. But Breathe and Alight could have burned the house down and it would have been an accident. They still wouldn’t deserve sexual abuse. Isn’t it amazing what children can tell us just by being children?

Over the last eighteen years, we’ve built some amazing memories. Too many adventures to count. We’ve visited California, South Carolina, the Bahamas, Florida, Georgia and more. We’ve been hang gliding and white water rafting. Alight loved My Little Pony like I looked books, so we trekked to the My Little Pony convention for her to buy $500 worth of pony memorabilia — and I’d do it again tomorrow. Breathe lights up at the ocean and the memory of her standing on the beach in Santa Monica is one I will forever cherish; the first time she went into a recording studio to sing melted my heart because it, too, was a dream that mattered to her. When one of them told me, “my insides hurt,” and spoke about really hard things for a mama to hear, about a crushing sense of being overwhelmed and needing some help, I was devastated that she was hurting… but proud of her for telling me. When one of them suffered severe anxiety, to the point of being lethargic and unable to do anything but cry for days, it was the scariest thing I’d ever seen, and yet I was proud of her for clinging to us until she felt better. You see, the life we’ve built hasn’t been free from adversity–in fact, we’ve struggled mightily. But we’ve never let go of us. We’ve clung to our faith and to our family traditions and to the knowledge that, no matter what, there is an unbroken circle of unconditional acceptance and love between us that can withstand anything.

I’m stronger, and emotionally much healthier, because of these two precious people. Every waking moment, I actively seek out ways to help them see the world in shades as bright as what they’ve helped me see. There’s green leaves… and then there’s verdant fields the shade of emerald green. There’s blue sky … and then there’s the sapphire blanket above us. There are clouds and then there are mermaids floating in the sky. Age tends to dull imagination. Life gets in the way–fears of the future, bills, health scares, loneliness and any number of other things can steal the wander that seems so vibrant when you’re little. But what my girls have taught me is that just because it might be harder to see doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Today, on Mother’s Day, I received my two very favorite gifts: cards on which they’d each written me a note. Alight said, “your stories and memories will forever be a keepsake in our hearts. Thank you for always putting us first” and Breathe wrote “you are my best friend and my heart will always cherish you.” These aren’t just words written on a card. These sentiments reveal what they think and what matters to them. They remind me that love moves mountains. That, despite every mistake I’ve made, despite every hardship we’ve gone through as a family, they feel prioritized and loved and that that love supersedes the hardships. I truly believe that words matter. I truly believe they can change a life. I truly believe that one person can change someone else’s world. I’m living proof. The truth is: I’m not deserving of their words. The truth is: I’m just a mother who, like so many other mothers, love their kids. But I am overwhelmed at the gratitude I feel towards being given the opportunity to watch these girls grow into young ladies.

Naomi Judd took her life recently. Teenagers who are suicidal are sleeping in emergency rooms as they wait on inpatient treatment centers to have beds available. I like to say that I would never have been one of them, that I wouldn’t have actually done it. I never had a plan, after all, never seriously thought about it. But I did harm myself and, without these babies, I might never have told my story. If I had never told my story, I honestly don’t think I could have survived as long as I have. When I say that becoming a mother helped heal me, I mean it gave me something bigger than myself to focus on. It gave me a purpose to get up until, one day, getting up was easier and took less thought. People say that parenthood is hard: for me, the hardest thing about it is fearing that something I’ve done will hurt them long after they’ve become adults. For me, the hardest part of motherhood is the fear of failing them, of not having been able to give them a solid foundation that they deserve and that they need to weather the storms that life will throw at them. Sometimes this fear is heavy. Sometimes providing is hard and no one has to tell me that I’m not a fairy Godmother and the idea of not being enough for them is a devastating thought.

But then…

Something like today happens, where I receive two hand written cards that make my whole year. Some people say that love isn’t enough. But when I was a little girl, that doll Matthew, he was enough. And just knowing that I was pregnant was enough to make me eat. In the past year, when anxiety and health and being overwhelmed were enough to make it hard to breathe, I stayed focused and kept putting one foot in front of the other because they relied on me to do so. Love has helped them become stronger than me: they tell me when they are hurting and when they need something because they feel safe enough to do so. That open line of communication is a byproduct of unconditional acceptance and love. Prayer gives us strength and love moves the mountains.

You know….

I still love stories. I still rely on them. I still dream of them. I still get giddy when someone asks me to sign a book. Writing is still necessary for me to stay healthy and at peace. Rapunzel will always be one of my favorite stories because it was the first one that I remember losing myself in; I told my sister that story at night to help her go to sleep. Today, though, I don’t really think my favorite story is one of the princess stories at all. I think my favorite story is Winnie the Pooh. I recently read the entire book to my six-year-old niece. Winnie the Pooh sees life very simply and yet it’s that simplicity that is often the most profound:

“Pooh, how do you spell love?”

“You don’t spell love, Piglet. You feel it.”