The playground was a place I had once avoided on my running route after my daughter, Laila, had died.
Seeing happy children made me miserable. So much life reminded me of her sudden and unexplained death. I would pick up my running pace and turn up the volume in my headphones.
But now, I take my second daughter there, Ashanti.
It takes too much of my energy to dress her wiggly body and strap her into the jogger stroller. But I manage and head to the playground before it gets too hot.
It’s nearing the end of July but cool enough so I can jog over. I moved with one hand pushing as Ashanti kicked her feet with excitement. We head down the ramp to the Schuylkill River Trail, which I consider the city’s most beautiful part.
The polluted water shimmered beneath us on the trail’s mile-long boardwalk. I remember how distance running was part of my identity before Ashanti. Will she love running as I do? Miles provided me with a means of survival after Laila’s stillbirth: my perfect girl who was born asleep. It felt like a long time ago that I had time, and enough rest, to run marathons.
At fifteen months old, Ashanti still doesn’t like sleeping at night.
She didn’t inherit my love for sleep. Before her, in those years I waited for her, I burrowed myself in my blankets, and if I had trouble sleeping, I’d run marathons until I did.
Many parents have told me the opposite, what great sleepers their kids are through the night, and I smile back, bearing my coffee-stained teeth like a wolf to such responses.
My husband is admirable. He doesn’t know how to tune out her grumbles as I do. He’s up often with her at night, so I take the early morning shift to let him sleep.
A small terrier with a jogging owner breezed by us on the trail.
“Doggy!” Ashanti exclaimed with her as her feet wiggled in delight. One of her few words besides Daddy and Mommy. She loved saying doggy because of our lab mix, the dog we rescued days after Laila died. She pointed to any dog that passed by and waved.
I headed over the bridge and arrived at the toddler playground behind the dog park.
It’s strange to go from an outsider to a mother who fits in. And it’s odd to admit this, but the playground that once triggered hell for me, now reminds me of heaven. In the early hours, the place is peaceful with a few kids enjoying the fresh air.
At first, Ashanti takes in the scenery.
A smaller purple slide works nicely as a bench, although her legs dangle off the edge. Her shoe fell off instantly, and I crouched down and placed back on her bulky, arch-less, adorable foot.
Ashanti is wearing a wrinkled yellow romper, receiving compliments from other parents. She had already outgrown Laila’s hand-me-downs. I had clothes from Laila for up to one year, as a friend advised me not to buy newborn clothes and purchase older ones instead because they outgrow them so fast. I was left with a box of her clothes when she died. It was surreal when Ashanti kept outgrowing those clothes, unlike her sister, whose memories remain stuck in time. I washed and stored the clothes Ashanti had worn back into Laila’s memory box.
A few other parents also took the morning shift, except they were smarter and brought iced coffee.
I didn’t have such foresight, although Ashanti has a cooler of options: milk, water, and a yogurt pouch. Some talk to me and are friendly; others speak to their kids aloud in sing-song voices and act like no one else is there. I don’t mind either, but the latter is hilarious to observe.
My daughter goes down the bigger slide. She hiked up the ladder with a piece of chalk in her hand. She summoned me with a mumble to join her. Minutes later, she craved her independence and moved my hands off her. She tossed the chalk down the slide with ooo-ahh. The next victim was her water bottle that she held hostage. Up the ladder and down the slide with a thundering roll. The pink bottle barrelled down the slide first, to her delight. She goes next with my arms behind her, guiding her down.
She ran from the bottom of the slide and emitted a battle cry to the teeter-totter, making other parents laugh. She paused and pointed to the birds, trying to eat the rest of her waffle jammed into the stroller. I still don’t know how parents can keep strollers clean and stain-free.
She saw a friend from daycare, and they screamed over who gets to play with the wheel. When I first signed her up for daycare, I had provided my name and information to get onto the waitlist.
“We have your information already. Your daughter is Laila, right?” the principal had asked enthusiastically.
My stomach dropped. I didn’t remember looking at that daycare for Laila all those years ago, but I must have somewhere in the process.
“Unfortunately, Laila died. This is Ashanti, her younger sister.”
Ashanti loses interest in the wheel when she sees the two infant swings. The sun peeked from behind the cloud, and the heat intensified. It’ll be time to go soon.
“How old?” a father asked me as I plopped Ashanti into the swing.
“Wait until she talks more.” a father said as he pushed his daughter. “What do the birdies say?” he asked his daughter. “Tweet tweet?” He pried.
“Tweet tweet!” The girl exclaimed.
I imagined Ashanti talking about Laila when she’s older. The thought begins to give me chest pain.
My grief will become her grief.
It’s hot enough to head home now. I move as fast as I can. And back at home, my girl finally slept. With her eyes closed, she looks like her big sister. Something she won’t know until she’s older.