Have you ever seen ballerinas dance en pointe? They buy special shoes, flat at the tips, with a little round space for balancing on; and then they dance and dance and dance, feet impossibly straight, legs impossibly curved, until their toenails are cracked and bruised, and their smallest toes sprained or broken, and their soles bloodied.
Have you ever seen Naomi walk barefoot? She is always en pointe. The second her shoes come off, her heels rise (seemingly of their own accord) from the ground, lifting her strong white form until, legs arched, clean muscular lines of her body highlighted, she fairly floats from one activity to the next.
She dances in front of the television with perfect grace, leaping from one foot to another in the same spot so rapidly her edges are blurred, never moving more than an inch in either direction; she races across the slick kitchen floor, the back of the couch, the windowsills, feet impossibly straight, legs impossibly curved, as if she were an unusually creative gymnast, who uses household furniture as a series of ascending-difficulty balance beams; she stands in one place, almost imperceptibly swaying, imbued with unnatural balance, as she switches from foot to foot in an almost motionless dance of frightening stamina—how long can a child of 3 hold herself, on tiptoe, as she lets the weight of her solid, powerful frame shift her one crawling millimetre at a time?
I wonder what she thinks of me, this large, clumsy creature, who couldn’t ride a bike without training wheels until she was nearly 8, who smashes a dish nearly every time she does the washing-up, who sometimes falls over while standing still. If Naomi has made walking an art form, then I have made it into a perpetual slapstick performance. When I look up from another trip, another spill, another pratfall, and I see her looking back, the only emotion visible a kind of detached bewilderment—why does that one keep throwing itself onto the floor—my hands and face and shins are fine; but my soul is bloodied.
More often than not, though, my falling over elicits something far more precious from her. More often than not, my slapstick performance is treated as exactly that. At the sound of my surprised squeak, my unintentional upturn, my stumbling journey to the floor, Naomi, silent and solemn, looks up from whichever solitary pursuit occupies her today—and her so seldom used voice gurgles up, in what can only be described as the most sincere of belly laughs. Not a belly laugh as you’re imagining it, but one that’s even better.
Imagine a belly laugh that you don’t even try to contain, that bubbles from your mouth like a fast-flowing river; imagine it as a river that overruns its banks on both sides, washing away any hurts and tears and imagined slights, leaving behind it only the sight of a mother’s adoring smile, and the sound of a 3-year-old’s uncontrollable hiccups. Which, incidentally, also make her laugh. Which makes her hiccup again, which leads to more laughter, which becomes a loop of gleeful hysterics that can take the best part of an hour to unwind.
Her laughter is my cue to relax and join in, and how I do. You might think there would be a fine thread of hysteria running through my laugh, indeed, underneath any laugh that goes on for as long as mine does; there is not. There’s only relief, and contentment, and the inexpressible joy of knowing that, for now, though I cannot ask her and she cannot tell me, she is happy.
Knowing she’s happy, I can easily laugh for the entire hour. Sometimes, that’s the only hour in a day when neither of us cries.
And so we dance this strange ballet, with Naomi always leading, and me always stumbling along behind, never sure of where we’re going, but always letting her take me wherever she chooses. As long as we are together, we won’t fall.
There is more than one kind of grace—and Naomi has more than enough of both, for each of us.