I keep her home from school that day to recover from the tail end of a fever and stomach upset she’d had the day before. But she’s been getting back to normal all morning and, if we don’t go to the dress rehearsal tonight, she’ll be out of the show on Friday as well. The show she’s been practicing for since her tryout a month ago. So we dress in the late afternoon, discarding the pajamas she’s been wearing all day for leggings and a velveteen dress. She wants satin bows in her hair.
In the auditorium she lines up against the wall to stage right with the other children performing in the first act. I take a seat in the third row, center stage. Other parents around me chat together or gaze, hypnotized, into tiny digital screens. I watch my girl. Some of the other children greet her. Friends from school. She responds, but quietly. Meekly.
I am surprised, as I always am, when I glimpse this side of her. She comes by it honestly, my mother always says, and I know what she means. I was the shy one once. Reserved. Hesitant. But Millie has always been more socially attuned. She revels in the company of other children, thrives on the attention of her peers where I would once have wilted. Sometimes, though, that genetic disposition reasserts itself and I see myself in her after all. My heart aches. Yes, I am in there, aren’t I? We are not so different at heart. But, please, baby, don’t be afraid! Don’t be nervous! You’ve got this! You’re amazing! You’re you!
She’s not sure what’s expected of her. That tends to be when this side of her (my side of her? Oy.) shows itself. Of course she’s performed before. But her recitals have been intimate affairs. Her teacher and five or six of her teacher’s other students. Their families. In a sunlit chapel in the afternoon, light streaming in through large windows. Called from her seat by name to play when it’s her turn. This time she is one performer in over a hundred. One of the smallest too. The show coordinator doesn’t know how to pronounce her name, but she is looking for her in line.
“Is M- V…V…V-mumble, mumble here? The violin?” She peers down the line of chatty, bouncing students, scans the auditorium. “Anyone?”
Millie recognizes her name, mangled as it is, and raises her hand, eyes wide, posture tentative. Around her students laugh, call to one another, shift around in waves of restlessness and pent up energy.
“M-?” The coordinator looks down at her clipboard and back up.
I am not far. I speak up and point to Millie, still quietly raising her hand. “Yes, she’s there!”
The coordinator checks off her name, nodding, and moves on down the list, but Millie does not realize she’s been counted. I can see her chest begin to heave as she takes deep breaths. She reaches her hand higher, willing herself to be seen in the crowd. Her eyes are still wide, and now a little red, as she blinks back tears. But she does blink them back. Waves her hand. And remains very small and goes unnoticed. Of course the show must go on. There are other children who need to be checked in. The world does not revolve around her. Well, that’s not entirely true. In that moment mine does. I sneak out of my seat and go to her.
“They got you, Millie, you’re good!”
She’s still panicky. “But I don’t know what to do!”
“Just wait here, honey; they’ll tell you what to do when it’s your turn. Listen for your name when they call you and then speak up. Okay?”
She nods, still tense, but her breathing is not quite so heavy, and I head back to my seat.
Finally, the rehearsal begins. The second performance features two boys with a comedy routine. “Why did the boy put candles on the toilet seat?” one of the boys asks the other. “I don’t know. Why?” “Because he wanted to have a birthday potty!”
I glance over at Millie. This is just her style. Sure enough, she claps a hand over her mouth, laughing. I relax. She’ll be fine. She applauds happily, eyes bright and admiring, after a friend dances an Irish jig. She is lulled back to her bubbly self as she witnesses the performances of the other students. As each one is called up, she relaxes, getting a feel for how it’s done, what’s expected. Nonetheless, I can see her bubble beginning to contract a little and she shrinks in on herself as she gets closer and closer to being next up. Then she is next up but one and there is a hitch.
The stage is empty. The girl who will be singing is having a microphone attached but it is taking longer than expected. She is pulled backstage for adjustments. The parent volunteer standing with the students waiting to go on disappears backstage as well. Millie hovers near the edge of the stage. She looks around anxiously. She is wondering what she should do. Is it her turn? Is she supposed to just wait? Was she supposed to follow the parent volunteer? She half steps up to the stage and then steps down again. She leans forward, trying to peer around the curtain for some direction. Will she miss her cue? Then she relaxes. The parent volunteer returns to her place and, when the young vocalist takes her place on stage, Millie is ushered back into the wings to take up her place waiting to go on.
I sit in my seat and my heart pounds. I am taken back to my own childhood. I am waiting to perform myself. There is a buzz in my head and my heart is racing. My body has never felt so very full of blood. Blood pounding, blood rushing, hastening here and there, to this limb, then that one– has it always made this kind of racket as it pulses through my veins? How can I play over this kind of percussion? The tempo isn’t right besides; it’s going to throw me off!
But, no. It’s not me this time. It’s my girl. I wonder if she’s nervous back in the wings. Nervous like I would have been. Nervous about performing or simply about knowing when to go on, where to stand. If they were clear about that, maybe she won’t be anxious. Maybe her heart isn’t pounding as hard as mine.
And then she is walking onto the stage. She is tentative still, but not afraid. She looks around for a moment as the spotlight finds her, just shy of center stage. She tears her eyes away from her audience, scattered clusters of parents and students sitting below her in the huge auditorium, and she raises her violin and begins to play. And by some miracle I can hear her just fine over the drum of my heart. As easily, I suppose, as she is playing over the drum of her own. She’s got it. She’s amazing. She’s herself.
And I am so proud, and my heart pounds still. But this time it is different. In such a very good way.