When I Heard a Child Speak and Imagined It Was My Daughter


Yesterday I was the woman who walked into Target looking tired and rushed, placed her child in the shopping cart seat and, seemingly for no reason at all, began crying.

Thankfully, I was also the woman who didn’t put on makeup that morning, so I wasn’t the woman who walked around the store with streaks of mascara running down her face.

What wasn’t clear yesterday, if you were the man watching me (but trying to look as if you weren’t watching me) and wondering what was wrong, was the tiny voice I heard that brought tears to my eyes.

Ok, wait.

Let’s back up.

I was running late yesterday morning.

I find myself running late a whole lot of the time these days. I suppose I’m finally making amends for having spent the vast majority of my life being chronically (and impatiently) 15 minutes early for everything.

I’d slept far less than I should have. There was barely time for one cup of coffee. And I needed to stop for diapers for my daughter, Esmé. Because there were like three left. And that, my friends, is a recipe for disaster.

So we left early for swimming therapy. We had just enough time to pop into Target.

Pulling out a red shopping cart, I said, “OK, Ez, here we go.” I lifted her into the shopping cart seat while struggling with her legs, which are far too thin again after her recent illnesses, as they moved haphazardly every which way other than into the leg holes.

As I was doing this, I heard the tiny little voice of a child at the cash register talking to the attendant. I couldn’t see this child; she was hidden from my view by the counter and the laws of perspective. But I could hear her. She said proudly and clear as a bell, “I am 5 years old.”

And my heart shattered into a million pieces right then and there, because I heard this child, and for just a moment, I imagined it was Esmé speaking. She is, after all, 5.

For a moment, I allowed myself to imagine what it would be like to hear my daughter speak. The kind of fluid, weird, stream-of-consciousness exchanges that characterize the speech of many 5-year-olds. Not just an exchange of information, but the sound of her little voice forming the words — such a simple thing.

And yet, such a complicated thing: The muscles, the coordination and the motor planning involved are nothing short of astounding when you stop and think about it.

So, I stood there in Target and let that sadness wash over me until it passed. It’s a thing I just have to do sometimes. And when it passed, Esmé and I just went about our business. Frankly, I sort of forgot about the whole thing until the next morning.

Hillary Savoie and her daughter, Esmé
Hillary and her daughter, Esmé.

The next morning, I was packed and ready to head out on a short overnight trip. I was so pleased that Esmé woke up a few minutes before I had to leave, so I could kiss her and remind her she would see me again soon. She was still looking pretty sleepy when her father carried her out of her room to say goodbye, but she turned in his arms and looked at me. I could tell she was taking in the fact that I was dressed to leave — with hair and makeup done. She put her hands up in my direction and said in the littlest, sweetest voice I have ever heard, “Aye, Mum mum.” Hi, Mama.

“Hi, Mama,” I repeated back to her, to acknowledge her words. “Hi, Mama. Hi, Esmé.”

I felt those tears working their way up again — my heart shattered again. And I wondered how I could have ever imagined her words any other way. Because if those are the only words she ever speaks, they will be more than enough.

Follow this journey on The Cute Syndrome.

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