Birds in Flight
It's ok if you fall.
Swirls of drifting snow danced across the glistening surface of the frozen pond, wispy angels spinning on their toes, pirouetting to the tune of the howling wind. Adam held onto her father’s arm as they shuffled across the ice. She wanted so badly to glide over the smooth surface, but she wasn’t quite ready to let go.
“It’s ok if you fall,” her father said. “I’m here to help you up.”
There had been a few months where she wondered if her relationship with her father would ever be the same again. When she’d told him her truth, he had gone quiet and remained quiet for months afterward. Lying in bed one night, she had overheard her parents arguing. Her mother kept saying “Just talk to him.” Her father’s reply had hurt more than any physical pain Adam had ever experienced.
“I don’t know how,” he had said.
It wasn’t that he had completely shut her out. He still spoke to her, said good morning, goodnight, asked her how school was going. But there was a silence behind his words, an awkward muteness, a screaming omission.
In spring, Adam’s mom and dad had signed her up for baseball. She had never shown any interest in sports. Being forced to participate felt like an injustice, yet she still went to every game. She went because that was what was expected of her. Before the final game of the season, Adam had caught the tail end of a softball game. Watching the girls out on the field, she wondered why they didn’t play baseball. She often wondered why girls were meant to do one thing and boys were meant to do another. It had never made much sense to her. She remembered being six years old, playing with a Barbie doll, and overhearing her uncle say that boys playing with dolls was just unnatural. Thinking back on it, she didn’t understand how playing with a toy, no matter what it was, could be unnatural. Fun was fun and that was all there was to it.
“I’ll only let go when you’re ready,” her father said.
It was early morning and there was no one else on the ice. In a few hours, there would be dozens of kids shooting across the pond, laughing as they danced across the ice. In years before, Adam’s father had offered to teach her how to ice skate. Adam had always said no, pretending as though she was uninterested. The truth was that she wanted to be out on the ice like the other kids, but she was afraid; afraid of falling, afraid of looking stupid. When her father had come to her the night before with the bright pink skates, she had initially played the same game of pretending she wasn’t interested. But it had been the first time in months that she hadn’t felt his silence. Then he had said something that made her abandon the false disinterest.
“It always felt like I was flying,” he had said. “I know you probably think that’s dumb, but when I would lace up and get on the ice, I felt just like a bird, like gravity was only a minor inconvenience.”
Reflecting on her father’s words, Adam’s legs grew steady beneath her. The fear was gone and she felt like it was time.
“I’m ready to let go,” she said.
“You’re sure?” her father asked.
“I’m sure,” she said.
“Go for it,” he said.
She pushed off of him, sliding across the ice a few feet. Her legs scissored and she almost fell to the ice, but she soon regained her balance.
“Just slide your feet back and forth,” her father said.
She did what he said and soon found herself gliding toward the far bank. She leaned to one side, turning in a wide circle until she was racing back toward her father. Even though he still seemed a little nervous, he had one hand raised in triumph and a smile painted on his face. Adam soon understood what he had meant as she gained speed. Her forward movement was unimpeded and she felt just like a bird cutting across the sky. She let loose a surprised laugh. Then her knees buckled. The entire world turned sideways. The cold of the ice stung her cheek as her body careened across the surface of the pond. Her father was next to her in a moment, dropping to his knees beside her prone form. Adam looked up at him, tears forming in her eyes.
“Are you hurt?” her father asked.
“No,” she said.
The tears were now rolling down her cheeks. Her father placed a hand on her shoulder as she began to sob.
“I fell my first time,” he said. “My second time, too. It was actually about five times before I learned how to stay upright.”
“Do you hate me?” Adam asked.
Her father leaned back on his haunches; mouth open in disbelief. He started to say something, but the words died in his throat. Adam rolled to the side and sat up. She pulled her knees to her chest, trying to control the tears. There was no stopping them, though. She had been holding them back for a long time, ever since the day she realized she was different from the other kids.
“You do,” she said. “I can tell.”
Her father moved in beside her, draping an arm across her shoulders.
“You know,” he began, then took a moment to consider his next words. “One of my colleagues at the university just had a baby. Said when he first held her, it was the greatest, most fulfilling moment of his life. When I first held you, the only thing I felt was fear.”
Adam looked over at him, her cheek resting on her knee.
“Yeah,” he said. “I was holding this new life in my hands and I just became overwhelmed with terror. That’s what happens when you find yourself loving another person more than you love yourself. I always thought I would be prepared for it, for the day I welcomed my son into the world, but there is really nothing that can prepare you for that reality. All your careful plans just die right there on the birthing room floor.”
Adam covered her face with her hands. She wanted the tears to stop, but they just kept coming.
“I never wanted you to be hurt by this world,” he said. “As unrealistic as it sounds, I wanted to keep you safe from everything.”
“I didn’t choose this,” Adam said, her voice muffled by her bright red mittens.
“I know,” her father said. “We don’t choose who we are. I’m sorry I didn’t respond to you in the way you wanted. I’m sorry I shut down.”
“Why did you?” she asked.
“It was that fear again,” he said. “I know how cruel the world is. I know that even though things are getting better, there are still going to be people that hate you for who you are. But I’m not one of those people.”
Adam dropped her hands, letting him see the agony written on her face. Her father began to stand but quickly lost his footing, falling flat on his butt again. Adam laughed a big, honking laugh. A small snot bubble formed in her nose.
“I’m going to try that again,” her father said.
He rose to his feet slowly, extending his arms for balance. Once on his feet, he rocked a few times until he was sure of his footing. He reached a hand down to Adam.
“Want to try again?” he asked.
Adam took his hand, letting him pull her to her feet. Once she was steady, he wrapped his arms around her and planted a kiss on the top of her head.
“I do have a question,” he said.
“Are you going to change your name?”
Adam shook her head and said, “No, I like my name.”
“Okay,” her father said. “Let’s try this together.”
He took her hand in his own and began skating, pulling her along behind him at first. She giggled as she fumbled forward. Before long, they were both gliding across the ice, sailing smoothly from one bank of the frozen pond to the other, feeling like a pair of birds in flight.