From her thin muscular limbs to the walnut brown skin that covers them, Fiona is the opposite of her older brother. Their physical differences are mirrored by their contrasting personalities and that is clearly seen in their approach to sports. At first, I assumed this was just a reflection of gender difference but now, I don’t believe that. My daughter is a very different animal than my son and as keenly aware I am of what makes Drew tick, I am equally at a loss to motivate my daughter. She marches to her own, wonderfully independent rhythm: you’re always welcome if you choose to keep in step but are met with frank indifference if you don’t. As to engaging in competition with the kind of ferocity that her older brother does, one example speaks volumes. In a soccer game this spring, I was miffed to see her take herself out of the action to sit on the sidelines. “What’s going on?” I asked her as she came out. “My friends are here,” she said indicating a small group of girls a little ways away, “I wanted to say ‘hi’” Yes, the differences between her and Drew are large.
And though her head might not be ‘ready for primetime athletics” just one look at Fiona and anyone with a head on their shoulders can see that her running potential is a little scary. Naturally, she has the kind of lean, hard and light body that most runners spend a lifetime trying to achieve. She doesn’t have a big appetite, is conscientious (for a six year old) about eating things that are good for her and when she runs, her stride is efficient and happy. There’s a bounce to every stride and an effortlessness that inspires parental dreams incongruent to her tiny size and small years.
For the most part, I keep myself reined in with Fiona. She doesn’t ask to run with me much and I don’t push it on her. But this week, her mom bought her a new pair of running shoes. Light blue, from New Balance, my daughter loved them for their style way more than for their comfort. Still, she asked me if we could run together this weekend and I was all too happy to honor her request.
A blanket of heavy, suffocating humidity fell on Trumbull this week and yesterday, it seemed at its worse. I went out for 7 miles in the morning and finished up wetter than if had I taken a shower. And so, I was not surprised when Nona initially begged out of her run, claiming fatigue. This is a bit typical of my relationship with my daughter, there are many things (physical ones especially) that she expresses a desire for doing and then changes her mind. I was okay with her decision, I thought it was a little too hot and to be honest, I was a little gassed. However, after some muffled discussions with her mother downstairs, Fiona showed up back in my office a few minutes later, dressed for her run with a big smile on her face.
“Come on, Dad. Let’s get it done.”
We headed outside into the heat and I nonchalantly asked her what she wanted to do. Unlike Drew, who always seems to respond in the affirmative to a challenge, Fiona is far more likely to rebel against a suggestion. I try and let her set the agenda whenever I can.
“I want to break my record around the neighborhood. 4 times,” she proclaimed.
My heart leapt a bit at the ambitiousness of her goal. It’s a third of a mile around our little loop with a smallish but not insignificant hill on the back end. In the ninety degree heat, 4 loops around would be a challenge for my little six year old. I made a mental note to be prepared for an early bailout.
We started and, as always, her stride filled me with a delicious mixture of pride and happiness. You just have to smile when you see her little bod bouncing down the road, her ponytail bopping along with her.
Though she’s only six, she already has a bit of a teen’s attitude about too much parental advice. So, I keep my comments short and sparse. “Keep your hands low and keep your head still” I told her, “you want to conserve as much energy as you can.”
For a while, we ran in silence but for her little breaths. When the road bent up, she put on a burst and got ahead of me. This is a game she’s liked playing since she was about two. My part is to yell in protest that she’s “going too fast” and that there’s “no way I can keep up.” I did and she looked over her shoulder and smiled at me then slowed down so I could “catch up.”
By the third loop, we were both sweating and Fiona was laboring a bit. The heat was taking its toll and I was bracing for the inevitable request to stop. But it never came. Fiona powered through all four loops and in the last 100 meters, she threw in an impressive little kick, taking it home with a seriousness that surprised me. She was all business.
Had it been Drew, the finish line would have brought on an ear to ear grin. He relishes completion in a way that makes whatever the task seem worthwhile. But Fiona is different. As we walked up the driveway, she did not smile, there was no discernible joy in what she’d done or achieved. I went to get her a Gatorade as she sat outside and when I came back, she was grateful for the drink but still seemed overworked by the run.
Because I’m her father and she’s my daughter, I was worried that maybe I should have dissuaded her from the run. Given more significance to the heat and encouraged her to another easier goal. There was nothing tangible or immediate to the result of what we’d just done. My little girl looked tired and almost stressed. Not until I suggested a photo did she perk up. And then everything changed. Knowing that I was going to write about her, Nona began talking away about what she’d just done. First and foremost of her talking points was that Drew had not run that day and she doubted seriously, if he could run that far in this heat. Her sibling competitiveness surprised me, I had no idea when we’d walked out for the run that this was perhaps her motivation for getting out there. When we walked back into the house and found her brother eating his lunch, Fiona threw down one more physical gauntlet, out of nowhere she banged out fifteen push-ups under her brother’s watchful eye.
It was quite a display of naked rivalry, a little depressing but honest and real.
A day away from it, I don’t really know what to make of my daughter and our run together. Having seen that it was, at least in part, a chance to “show up” her brother, I’m not sure it was the best thing to do. But just as it is way too early to have dreams of Fiona dominating the world in the middle distances 14 years hence, it’s too early to judge the value of her motivations. Sibling rivalry might make for some uneasy dinner conversation but it can’t be all bad. The key thing for me to take away, however, is that even though I now have a little more insight into what makes Fiona tick, it’s a card I will never play. Her life will be full of competitions that will frustrate her, make her crazy and cause her to lose sleep. I promise myself that those contests will never include one designed by me that pits her against her brother. It’s too hard to keep families close to risk that kind of mind game.
So, our four loop run gave me some insight into my little Bean but the finish line of real understanding still seems a long way off. She’s like one of the girls Bob Dylan used to sing about in the early days of his career. On the one hand, she’s just a little girl. On the other, she seems a bit complicated, surprising, way more of a mental challenge than my boy. But man, oh man, she’s something special.