The Heartbreaking Day My Daughter Didn’t Need Me


I’ve never been more stressed than I was watching my daughter’s 4th grade spelling bee.

It seems like a strange thing to be stressed about, admittedly, but with my daughter it’s never “just” a test, or “just” a speech, or “just” a spelling bee. As a gifted child for whom nearly everything in life has come easily, her bar for success is high, with her self-assessment typically being not “what did I accomplish” but “what did I fall short on?”

If there’s a chance to advance in a competition, she does not imagine any outcome that does not include her doing so. Hers is a life lived in the constant tension between soaring self-confidence and a devastating fear of failure.

My daughter was an early and avid reader, and as a child who lives cloaked in endless words, she is a naturally excellent speller. She can spell any word I give her, knowing as she writes it down if it looks correct or not, knowing intuitively how to fix it if it doesn’t. But spelling bees don’t afford the benefit of writing words down to see. You have to be able to spell the words aloud. No revisions allowed.

No mistakes forgiven.

I sat perched on the small, blue plastic chairs in her elementary school library, surrounded by bright primary colors and hand-cut paper snowflakes hanging from the windows. The contestants filed in, and my daughter ran to me immediately, wrapping her arms around my shoulders and touching her forehead lightly to mine. What a gift, these years when they’re still young enough to love their parents wholly and unabashedly in front of their peers.

She pulled back to look at me, her hazel eyes belying her nerves, and she waited. Waited for me to say the right thing, to be the voice of courage in her head, the show her the way forward, to lead her through this moment.

“Hey,” I told her with a twinkle in my eye that completely masked my own churning nerves. “Just spell one word right. Just one! Anything after that is bonus.”

She smiled back, relieved. I had given her the plan, showed her the steps to success, calmed her nerves, and boosted her courage. I had fulfilled my parental job.

The contestants filled their seats, some prim and still, some slouched and picking at their jeans, some nervously looking around, some relaxed and grinning.

I leaned over to my friend who was sitting next to me, who also had a daughter competing. “I just hope that they all go out on a really hard word that they legitimately misspell,” I whispered.

And then the bee began.

The first few rounds were easy to build the contestants’ confidence. Some kids spouted their words off quickly, skipping through the letters with breezy confidence. My daughter took her time, each time asking for the word to be used in a sentence like we’d practiced.

In the third round, the first child misspelled a word, and the rest of the group stilled, looking nervously and furtively around. The contestant who had missed his word left the group and seemed confused about where to go. His father called him over, and the boy went and sat at his dad’s feet, quiet and a little dazed. His dad patted his shoulder and told him he’d done a good job.

The contestants’ smiles faded a few shades and they began to spell the words more slowly. The words got harder.








One by one, contestants missed a letter, swapped the vowel order, mixed up sounds. One by one, they were eliminated and asked to sit down. One by one, my daughter took her words, and slowly, painstakingly spelled them aloud, finger writing them into her palm as she went.

With each “that is correct” at the end of her turn, she would break into a relieved sigh and smile and sit back down into her chair, looking at me and mirroring my “good job, kiddo!” wink. I smiled for her so big and hard my cheeks cramped, as if I could will my confidence, my support, my love into her from afar like wrapping her in a big blanket of security.

We began round ten and her word was “pad Thai.” She laughed. She loves to eat pad Thai. This one would be easy. She asked if she had to specify that it was two words when she spelled it, and if she had to say which letter is a capital. She didn’t have to do either. She just had to spell it.

“P-A-D” she began, finger writing the words on the table in front of her, confident, sure, comfortable. “T-H-ah—–A-I.”

The “ah” was whatever sound the first quarter of the letter “i” sounds like. She didn’t say the entire letter “i,” but she had started to, stopped herself, and corrected.

I didn’t even have time to catch my breath.

“I’m sorry, that is incorrect,” the judge responded.

My daughter stood there, thunderstruck. My heart began falling, falling, falling.

“It’s T-H-A-I,” the judge explained.

“That’s what I said,” my daughter shot back.

“You said the ‘I’ first,” said the judge, and at that point I stopped listening. I was watching my daughter closely, willing her to feel me, to feel my arms and my love and my comfort.

She sat down and glowered. Her face turned bright red and she brought her fists up around her ears as the last contestant spelled his word correctly and the round ended and she was asked to rejoin the audience.

She raced furiously through the room, skipping over kids who were sitting on the floor, and launched herself into my arms.

“They’re wrong they’re wrong they’re wrong they’re wrong” she whispered into my chest, curled up on my lap like she’d done so many hundreds of times throughout her childhood when she was hurting or lost or falling, curled into me as far as she could to hide from the hurt. “Tell them they’re wrong,” she begged.

I whispered “Shhhhhhh, shhhhhhhh” while I stroked her hair and tried to get my heart to push out of my chest and into hers, so that she would be saved from this moment, from this hurt. “I can’t,” I whispered.

I can’t. A statement of what was possible (nothing) and a description of my own parental impotence. This moment, this pain, this hurt, I could do nothing about.

“It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair” she chanted to herself as her small body shook with fury and tears.

“Shhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhh,” I whispered into her hair, her ear, her heart.

“They’re wrong, I didn’t say ‘i,’ I said ‘a-i,’ they’re wrong, it isn’t fair, they’re wrong,” over and over and over and over.

I murmured into her ear what I could as the spelling bee continued on in front of us, my lips pressed tightly against her ear so that she could hear that I was so sorry, that I loved her so much, that there was nothing we could do, nothing we could do, nothing we could do.

She had friends who had come to watch her compete who came by to check on her between rounds as the spelling bee went on, and she hid her face from them, trying to crawl back into my body, and if I could have cracked my rib cage open to give her a place to hide, I would have.

She wept and raged as silently as she could while I whispered into her ear about small sounds that can sound like letters, about mistakes that are made, that I knew, I knew she knows how to spell “pad Thai,” but that she had just let that one sound slip out, that quarter of an “i,” and of course had corrected it immediately, but that one little sound was what the judges heard first, and that was it.

I held her tiny body as she learned the painful lesson that sometimes one tiny mistake is all it takes, that sometimes you don’t get a chance to fix things, that sometimes mistakes mean the end. I held her and I took on her pain and I told her “I know, I know, I know,” because I didn’t know what else to say.

There was nothing else to say.

I couldn’t do or say anything to fix it, so I held her and we fell down, down, down together. We sat and we curled into each other and we felt all the pain of that moment.

I don’t know how much time passed. None at all and forever. The spelling bee ended, and we applauded the winner. Somehow she found the strength to get up and smile for a group picture, the boy to her right sporting a shining gold medal around his neck.

She asked if I would come into the girls’ bathroom with her so that she could cry in private, and I told her I could do even better.

We walked straight out the front of the school together, and I took her to lunch.

We were quiet as we drove. There was nothing I could think of to say that would make this better for her, that would take away the pain of this moment. No reassurances, no life lessons, no positive spin or silver lining. False platitudes would do nothing. We drove in silence for a minute or two, the time punctuated only by small gulping breaths and sniffles from the back seat.

And then, “What am I going to do when Daddy asks how it went?”

What I heard was so much bigger than that. “What do I do with this hurt, Momma? What do I do with this failure? How can I face this shame?”

I blinked my own tears back and had no easy words, no solution, no path forward for her. The only thing I could do was to take the shame of mistakes and failure away, to show her that sometimes we just sit there with our bruised and bleeding hearts and we show them to the world without sugar coating or silver linings or spin. That sometimes the world just fucking sucks.

“We tell him that you did great, and then you made a tiny misstep, a stumble, and that you were knocked out in the absolutely most brutal way possible. Because that’s the truth. This? This is brutal.”

“It is,” she agreed from behind me.

We drove on in silence for a few more minutes, and I relived the moment over and over, the stumble, the quarter of a letter that slipped out accidentally, the split second I wish I could have thrown my body over like it was a grenade, absorbing the impact, the sound, so that no one else would have heard it and my girl could have moved on in the bee, to be knocked out eventually, I’m sure, by something truly difficult, by a word that bested her rather than a moment that tripped her.

And as I drove through town, reliving that moment, feeling the hurt again and again and again, wondering how she could possibly survive this experience unscathed, I heard “I can’t believe I have to wait a whole year before I get a shot at redemption.”

A shot at . . . redemption?

Imagine you are a parent, and that you’ve fallen down a deep, dark pit with your child, and that you are both broken at the bottom and unable to stand. You have no fix. You have no solution. So you curl yourself around them and succumb to the darkness of the rocky floor. And then you hear something, and you look down and you realize you aren’t curled around your child anymore. Your child has somehow extricated themselves, has somehow stood up on their own.

Your child, who has always needed you to help them stand when they’re broken, stood up on their own.

That look that would be on your face, as you gazed not down but up at your child, who helped themselves up, from broken to standing, without you, that was the look on my face as I looked at my daughter in the rear view mirror that day.

She was gazing out the window, eyes calm, mind fixed on some future point when she’d throw herself into that dreadful, anxious fray again, determined to achieve a different outcome.

What I realized in that moment is that there will come a time in your child’s life when you can’t pick them up. You can’t fix a hurt, you can’t find a solution, you can’t save them. And maybe, just maybe, it’s when you can’t pick them up that they learn how to pick themselves up.

Maybe it wasn’t a failure on my part that I couldn’t take away her pain that day. Maybe all I had to do was curl up with her in her pain and sit in it with her, without prodding or pulling or cajoling her to leave it behind.

Maybe what she needed was a companion for her injured heart and the space and time to pick herself up and dust herself off when she was ready.

Maybe my job as a parent isn’t to protect my children from pain and failure, but to walk beside them as they learn that hurt is inevitable and justified, and that they have the strength within themselves to stand up when they’re ready and move on.

Maybe that heartbreaking day turned out to be pretty damn incredible. How can anyone learn strength without getting knocked down first? How can anyone discover their own fortitude without being left to stand alone?

My daughter and I had a quiet, happy lunch together that day. I noticed the next day that her spelling bee study list had been moved from the counter to her desk shelf rather than the trash can. Maybe next year she will have forgotten the spelling bee and we won’t walk into this particular arena again. I think it’s more likely that she will remember, and she will suit up and try again. Because this girl of mine has a warrior’s heart.

And my role as her mom is to feed her fire, and hold her when it hurts, and give her space as she learns to get back up on her own and try again.

Hate and Uncle Joe

(My daughter is my favorite author. She is nine years old and has more talent in her tiny little fingers that fly over the keyboard, trying to keep up with the voice in her head, than I do in all my writerly brain and years of experience. She wrote this realistic fiction short story for a school project. The assignment was to write an essay, poem, or short story about “Which has a greater impact on society: Love or Hate?” While most of her classmates wrote essays, she came up with this. This is untouched by me–not the words, not the grammar, not the punctuation or pacing or content. She. is. nine. If you are touched by her words, she’d be absolutely thrilled to read a comment from you. Enjoy.)


Momma says love has a bigger impact on society, and nobody cares about hate so it might as well have a nonexistent impact, but I don’t know about that. Because if love had a bigger impact, maybe my great-uncle Joe would be here today.

I’m just a kid, so I can’t pretend to be some big expert on worldwide societal change and impact. But I do know that Uncle Joe only stayed a soldier way past retirement age because he was afraid people might hate him if he quit, and the president hated the leader of France, which caused a war. And Uncle Joe died in the war.

I don’t want to cry. Uncle Joe was my friend, and so when I grow up, I’m going to be in the army too. To honor him. And brave, strong soldiers like Uncle Joe–like me–don’t cry.

Well, that’s what I tell myself. But it doesn’t stop me from blinking hard, fast, trying to keep back the tears. And then they’re really falling, if silently, and my chest is shaking, and I’m full of pain. I don’t want to be crying, I don’t want to be feeling this pain, but I can’t help it. Strong soldiers don’t cry, at least I think they don’t–I never ever saw Uncle Joe cry–but here I am, crying and crying and crying like the world is burning down around me. If I could decide, and believe me, I wish I could, I would be standing here, stoic and strong. Comforting those around me and mourning in peace. But I’m not. I’m standing here and I’m crying. It’s a little embarrassing.

Momma notices. She leans over and whispers, “Let it out, Ellie, you’ll feel so much better once you get it out of your system.”

So I do. Even though I’m not proud of it, I stop trying to hold back the rushing tears. I just cry.

And, when I’m done having my good long cry, I think a little bit about what I was thinking earlier, back when I was bitter and stoic and not-crying (Momma was right, now that I have it out of my system I’m feeling much better.)

Hate has other impacts, too. Kind actions, sure, people are happy about and they say it “makes their day,” but I know that I–and Momma, and Daddy, and my brothers Will and Mason–we all grab a mean word, a particularly nasty one–a hateful word–in our web of memories and hardly ever let it go. We carry hateful words with us for the rest of our lives, until we’re too old and frail to remember much of anything. And, if someone does something rude or mean, the person begins building a wall of hatred. And then, the second person does something mean to them. And the wall of hatred just keeps growing–complete with the stabilizer of hurt feelings and the mold of grudges–until it’s too high for either person to jump or even climb over. And then these two people who could’ve been good friends each think the other has to apologize to them. And then this potential friendship is ruined, and even though the wall of hatred may crumble a little here, break down a bit there, essentially erode a little over time, it will never be low enough for the people to get over it. And they hate each other for the rest of their lives, until, like I said, they’re too old and frail to remember anything, and maybe they’ll even hate each other then, without really even knowing why.

And now, hatred has ended my Uncle Joe’s life. No, it’s not just Uncle Joe–many, many soldiers lost their lives in that war. Today, many families around the country–and all the way in France, because soldiers died on the other side, too–grieve and mourn and celebrate for their family members. I remind myself that I’m very lucky. My dad and older cousin Howard both went to fight in that war with Uncle Joe, and they made it back to me and Momma and Will and Mason and Aunt Kari and Uncle Noah. And for one tiny moment, I’m just purely happy that Daddy and Howard made it back to us, even though Uncle Joe didn’t. But then I come crashing back down to earth, to the sad reality. Uncle Joe is gone. For the first time, that truly sinks in. He’s gone. I’ll never see him again.

My twelfth birthday is in a month, and he’ll never get to meet twelve-year-old me. He joked that as soon as I get my driver’s license, I’ll take him on rides, but I’ll never get to do that. He used to boast that when I’m all grown up–Major Ellie Hernandez-Thompson, a famous commander who led the U.S. Army to victory many times–he’ll be able to tell people that he remembers when I was smaller than the tubs of ice cream we share on Sundays, not caring if we stain our best church clothes, but he’ll never be able to do that, and we’ll never eat ice cream like that together again, either. I promised him he could be a senior groomsman in my wedding, when I’m in my twenties, freshly out of university college, but he won’t even be able to watch me fall in love, let alone be in my wedding. He’ll never sit at the table again, his face buried in the newspaper, shaking his head and saying some not-so-nice things about Trump. He will only ever meet eleven-year-old me. I’m eleven years old, and that’s all Uncle Joe ever got to see of me. He didn’t get to see Major Ellie Hernandez-Thompson, he didn’t get to meet Ellie the married woman, and he’ll never talk to Ellie the mom. He won’t even meet Ellie the teenager. He’ll only know Ellie the eleven-year-old. And I hate that.

And suddenly I’m filled with hate. I hate that he’ll never be able to meet any version of me older than eleven. I hate the man that shot him. I hate whoever’s that man’s boss even more. I hate that he insisted on going to war even though he’s well past retirement age. I hate that everyone’s just standing here instead of throwing the memorial party a man like him and a life like his deserves. I hate that Dad and my cousin Howard made it back and Uncle Joe didn’t. But then all the hate drains out of me, and I fall to the ground with an empty thump. I still resent the fact that Uncle Joe didn’t make it home. But mostly I’m thinking that Uncle Joe–and hundreds of others–lost their lives because of hate. And hate is a stupid thing to die because of. Sickness and old age and car crashes and stuff like that–those are all appropriate things to die of. But Uncle Joe and tons of others didn’t die the normal way, the way they should’ve–they died in a war. Because of hate. And that’s not only a stupid way to die, it’s unfair. And I know life isn’t fair, but this is unfair to the point that it’s wrong.

Today, as we mourn Uncle Joe and all the others that lost their lives in the French-American War, my bouncy, resilient red hair is a little duller, maybe copper, my bright blue-green eyes dimmed to a shade that’s maybe even just hazel. The greens on my army jacket–the one Uncle Joe gave me for my ninth birthday–are a little murkier, maybe more the color of pond scum or pea broth than appropriate camouflage. The colors of my world are dimmer, honoring the soldiers that lost their lives to hate.

Momma says love has a bigger impact on the world, but I think she’s just saying that because love and kindness are good. Because it doesn’t matter what kind of impact–good or bad. Love has a good impact on society, and hate has a bad impact. But, good or bad, hate has a bigger impact. Because, if not for hate, Uncle Joe would still be here today.

That last thought still lingering in my mind, I curl up into a little ball and have myself another good cry.