She is the girl scampering around the playground, that smile seeming permanently etched on her face. She looks like every other kid playing. She swings, she climbs, she slides - and then, halfway up or down, the illusion shatters. She stops, halting her progress to stare into space, looking at something I can't see.
A line forms behind her - other kids, impatient to continue their fun, not able to see what's holding them up. They wait. They grumble. Sometimes they roll their eyes.
I am the mom that's never far away, the concern always showing in those moments where Em's world seems to pause - and the rest of the world is forced to follow. I encourage her to keep going. I make sure the waiting kids don't crowd or push her, but I try not to intervene. Sometimes I have to force myself to let the moment play out, because Em's not doing anything wrong - but neither are the kids who don't understand.
Then, Em gets un-stuck, and everything goes on.
I had to remind myself of those many moments at the park last week, after we got home and pulled into the garage. I unbuckled Em's car seat and held out my hand.
"Come on, babe, let's go eat."
She scrambled out of the seat immediately, but instead of climbing out of the car, she turned away and bent down to the floor.
"Em, let's eat supper! Come inside with Mom."
During our drive home, the stuffed animals we (always) travel with had made their way to the opposite side of the car, wedged under the driver's seat. With her back to me, Em dislodged them, returning them to their rightful place beside her seat.
"Okay, you got them! Good job! Let's go in the house now."
She was crouching again, her back still to me. Now there were books on the floor. Those, too, she carefully replaced. My encouraging smile was starting to feel forced, and then she slid back into the car seat.
"Sweetheart ... please."
Every time we're in a store and a cashier hands Em a sticker, she wears it out of the store on her shirt, but once we're in the car, those, too, have a place. Stickers go on the back of the passenger seat, so she can reach forward and touch them while we're tooling around town. The Target dog was starting to peel off, and so she leaned forward, carefully patting it smooth.
She turned to me then, took my hand and climbed out of the car with a smile, her work done. Everything was where it needed to be for the next car trip.
Next time, I won't begrudge my girl the 30 seconds it takes for her to shift her world back into place.