Nina's name

     When Nina was little, we had a special name for her. It was more like her true name, not a nickname or label that she was known by. She was a determined little girl, focused, intent. She'd set up her game in the living room with the small table, a book to read to the doll and the dog, her stuffed animals ready to listen, and if the dog didn't behave according to expectations, he would get the stern reprimand "Gunner NO." She insisted on dressing herself in her eclectic style, proclaiming “My do-it!” with a glare. We had to keep an eye on her especially at the beach, because spying a gull on the sand, she'd follow it without ever looking back at us as it hopped further and further from her. “Nina's gone walk-about” someone would say, and one of us would trail her at a distance down the beach.
      When we whispered our goodnight words in the dark, always ending with the same phrases we'd strung together over time (“See you in the morning when the sun comes up/ sleep tight don't let the bedbugs bite/ nihao nihao*”), we used her special name: Fierce Spirit. It felt like an acknowledgement, as well as a gift. She was Fierce Spirit, but she needed to know it.
      One week ago, Nina got on a plane after a mind-bendingly hectic week in which she graduated from high school, scored multiple goals in intense lacrosse play-off games, packed for her summer job working on a trail crew in the Tetons, and tried to organize her life belongings for us to bring to her at Whitman College where she will begin her freshman year straight off her summer job. In the airport on that quiet Sunday afternoon, we hugged and laughed and cried as she walked away from us, through security, and out of sight to her gate. I couldn't trail her this time. She was on her own.
      At home, I sifted mindlessly through the detritus of mail and notes on the kitchen counter, trying to put order to our nest, and I found a manila folder. I flipped it open, and caught my breath. It was the drawing that Nina had done in the aftermath of the second suicide at her school this past year. She turned to one of her deepest soothing habits: drawing birds. But did she know she drew herself, her Fierce Spirit? Did she know that she and two friends would rise up from that tragedy to organize a day of community play to raise awareness and funds for suicide prevention (link), to publicly declare that mental illnesses need to come out of the shadows and not be stigmatized but treated as other illnesses where we rush to help our friends with support?

      A Kestrel is a fierce spirit, focused, beautiful, deft. Nina knows her true name, and it is more than the words we used. It is this, the wholeness that an image helps us to understand. Nihao, Nina. Nihao, Fierce Spirit. Safe travels.

*"nihao" is a Chinese word that we now understand means hello, but back then we thought it meant both hello/goodbye, and I love you.