Maya had been a surprise. Not the fact of her—she’d known Nate had loved his daughter, known Maya would always come first, had been willing to accept that. But Brenda hadn’t expected to love her so much and so fiercely. It was every vomit-inducing cliché she hadn’t realized had a grain of truth to it.
She’d never wanted kids. She and Billy had made a pact about it, in fact: the Chenowith genes would die with them. The world didn’t need another generation of narcissists. But Maya was there, and a part of Nate, and she loved Nate. At least, that was what she told herself.
She hadn’t expected to be good at it, was the thing. She’d believed herself too self-absorbed, too prone to overanalyzing absolutely everything. Brenda wasn’t stupid. She couldn’t console herself by saying her parents were assholes and she’d do better—they had done the best they knew how, if maybe not the best they could. Brenda had no reason to believe she could or would do any better.
It turned out, though, that a surprising amount of motherhood had to do with faking it, and if there was one thing Brenda Chenowith could do, it was fake it. Until one day she looked at the little girl, who stared back at her with such intensity, as if Brenda were the source of all light and knowledge in the world.
Oh no, thought Brenda. It was weirdly like falling in love for the first time in high school had been, the joyous, terrible knowledge: I am so fucked. Though her taste had improved since then.
She wished she really were the source of all knowledge. Maybe she would know what to say to Maya, now.
“Did Daddy love you?”
After five years she still couldn’t answer that question for herself, much less put it in words a seven-year-old girl could understand. “Why do you ask that, Monkey?” Voice deliberately light, as if her daughter hadn’t just done a very convincing impersonation of the doubts that still plagued Brenda in the middle of the night.
“Uncle Billy called him a fucking bastard and said you never should have married him, and I tried to tell him that wasn’t very nice and it wasn’t true, and he said Daddy had done bad things to you and we don’t hurt the people we love so…”
Thanks a fucking lot, Billy. “Maya. Monkey. Don’t cry, okay? Come here, baby.” She held her daughter until Maya’s breathing slowly evened out. “Okay. Baby, you know how Uncle Billy gets sometimes…” No. That wouldn’t do it. She had always tried to be honest with the girls, no matter what.
“I think he loved me the very best he knew how,” she said, borrowing heavily from something Ruth had said, a long time ago. And I needed more. “And Maya? Whatever problems your father and I might have had when he died—and yes, we did have some, we might have worked them out or we might not—just know that it never for a moment meant we loved you any less, okay, Monkey? I promise.”
Maya’s voice still shook a little. “But if you shouldn’t have married him…”
“Monkey, marrying your daddy was the best thing that ever happened to me.” And the worst, but kids didn’t need to know all the truth at once. Or maybe in this case, ever. “You know why? Because he gave me the best gift ever, okay? He gave me you.” Brenda didn’t even feel awkward saying it, it was just true.
“Oh.” Maya considered this for a long moment. “Mommy? Please don’t call me Monkey.”
“Hi, Dr. Elberscheim,” crowed Willa, enthusiastic and proud, as the friendly young pediatrician bounced into the room.
The doctor, red-cheeked and round-faced in an aggressively non-threatening way, smiled. “Hello, there. Did your mommy tell you my name? I don’t think we’ve been introduced.”
Brenda liked how he looked at Wills, as if even though she was only 18 months old, she was a fully-formed person with thoughts and ideas of her own.
“She read your nametag,” Brenda explained, quiet. Matter-of-fact. Though she had to admit, the first thought that came to her mind is God, but Ruth is going to be so fucking smug.
Brenda liked the doctor even more when he at least pretended he believed her, when he smiled at Wills and told her she must have worked really hard, to have read his name. He knows a bit about gifted kids—tell her she works hard, not that she’s smart, or her self-esteem will suffer.
Willa wasn't impressed with the pediatrician’s grasp of the complex psychology of praise. “Your name’s easy.”
“Of course,” says the doctor, his smile widening. “My mistake.”
They moved on to the reason they came; Willa’s development, still behind in many ways for all her precocity. This is not unusual in premature babies, he explained; as if Brenda didn’t already fucking know that; as if she hadn’t read every book in existence on the subject, about dual exceptionalities and developmental disabilities and all the rest of it. Dr. Elberscheim of the easy name told Brenda a lot of nonsense that all boiled down to the same thing: we’ll wait and see. Wait and see whether Willa, her beautiful brilliant baby, would ever be able to function in the world at all.
She’d thought she was done worrying. She thought she’d accepted all of it. It was Ruth, surprisingly, who had helped her make peace with the fact that wasn't possible.
“You’ll never stop,” she’d said. “You’ll always worry that you made some mistake, somewhere along the line, that means they’ll never recover. You’ll never stop, until…unless…” She hadn’t been able to finish the sentence.
Wait and see, the doctor told her again, and Brenda’s hands curled into fists. She had been waiting for disaster all her life, and even after the worst has happened, more times than she could count, she still braced for it.
“You have a lovely little girl there,” said the doctor in the end. “A real fighter. And brilliant. You must be very proud.”
“I can’t take very much credit,” said Brenda tiredly. Though she felt she bore a good deal of the blame. She must have been the only mom around who actively hoped her kid wasn’t a genius. “Willa did that all by herself, didn’t you, Wills?”
Willa nodded, unaware that there could be any other possible answer.
“Really, Ms. Chenowith, you are to be commended for everything you’ve done for her. She’s responded so well to the early intervention.”
Maybe it wasn’t only kids the doctor knew how to praise properly; Brenda felt herself start to smile.
When they go out to the car, Maya was waiting anxiously for them. “Is Wills okay?”
Brenda didn't need any help with this answer. “She’s perfect, Monkey. But we knew that already, right?”
“Yes!” Wills half-shrieked, and Brenda knew it was true.