The kids were finally asleep. I know that there should be respite in silence at the end of a long day, but when the bickering comes to an abrupt end and the “thud” of kung-fu masters at work on the floor above ceases, I find myself wondering whether a child has stopped breathing, or escaped, or leapt out the third floor window into the water feature far, far below. I resisted the illogical urge to check on them and finished the drudgery … dishes, bills, phone calls, and emails. There was the nightly tradition of collecting the various articles of laundry strewn about, followed closely by the equally scintillating ritual of sifting through homework, permission slips, and book orders …
My feet were hurting. I looked down and realized I was still in my suit and heels, and there was a big fat run in my stockings. I checked out my reflection, and my eyeliner was smeared. I could easily have been mistaken for a truck stop whore. This day was over. The rest of the mess would have to wait for another day.
I peeled the shoes away from my feet, and lifted my lead weights up the stairs to make sure the lights were out and all brains under 39 had gone far along into the place where children’s brains go after reading about magical flying horse-fairies and dinosaurs looking for their long-lost blankets. I love these moments because I come up the stairs completely wiped out and in just a few moments a sleeping child wipes away all the grime of my day.
A muffled cry greeted me instead, and as I ascended I could tell it was coming from Sweet Pea’s room. She often talks and walks and runs and hits and laughs and sings and snorts and sighs in her sleep. But I had never heard her cry in her sleep.
When I arrived in her doorway I immediately felt the push of guilt for not overriding my motherly instincts and checking on the kids one hour ago. She appeared to have been crying a very long time, and her tiny hands were drawn up to her eyes as she sobbed. They were the loud “ah hah whah” laments punctuated by a quivery deep, sorrowful breath. Yet this wasn’t the kind of cry that kids do for attention or sympathy. She didn’t even know I was standing there. This was real and deep and raw. The push in my chest berated me again for not hearing it earlier, and for not coming to her rescue sooner.
She was snuggled in with the little brown lamb her Daddy sent her for Christmas, the “Me and My Daddy” book she made when she was four, and an old picture of her and her Daddy snuggling on the couch:
Based on the pile of evidence I knew right away that she had been torturing herself with the memorabilia and undoubtedly her own memories. I was transported back to a broken heart I once had, including the entire 24 hour period I spent lying around my dorm room surrounded by a boyfriend’s shirt and some pictures, crying until my eyes swelled shut. My particular song of self-inflicted choice was Sinead O’Conner’s “Nothing Compares to You.” What a gut-wrenching feeling I still get when I hear that song on the radio.
And then I was transported back to my own Dad’s deployments. I remembered a time when I laid in my bed, listening to his voice on tape. He was reading me a bedtime story for about the tenth time, and I was staring at the white roll-up shades on my bedroom windows. I stared at those white shades and I tried and I tried to remember what his face looked like when he spoke. I tried to remember his smile. And I tried to remember how he looked when he moved, not the one-dimensional dad that lived in photographs around the house. I remember catching a glimpse of him for just a moment, and then I would lose the clarity of the image, and it would be gone. I was afraid I was forgetting him. More than that, I was afraid he was forgetting me.
I approached her slowly, lifting her face, and after just a moment of catching her breath she fell into me. I wrapped my arms all the way around her by default, and held her tightly. We rocked, just a little, until she lifted her own face and blurted out, “I MISS MY DADDY!” She was sobbing now directly on me, using me as her snot rag, taking deep breaths between laments and clenching my shirt like it would turn into His. I had been there. The Preschooler had been there. I guess it was Sweet Pea’s turn.
But this time words didn’t come for me. There wasn’t really a question. Even if there was, there wasn’t an answer – not a good one, anyway. She had long grown weary of my pat response, “I miss him, too.” There was just holding. And rocking. And silence. And prayers.
She fell asleep there in my arms after a very long time. My second grade child, the one who no longer fits in my lap, hasn’t fallen asleep in my arms in a very very long time. She needs space when she sleeps, and I like to give it to her: she kicks and squirms and flails and flops like a fish at night. Our tangled-up mess of limbs and hugs was a rarity, and so I savored that moment even though my back hurt from leaning back and her feet stunk a little too much and the bed wasn’t big enough for the two of us.
I felt the prick every parent feels when their child suffers in even the smallest of ways, but it wasn’t debilitating. This was Sweet Pea’s wall. The Preschooler hit it first, and I had the strength to give him the words he needed. I hit it next, and My Rainbow reminded me of promises and hope and change. And now, as Sweet Pea hit it, I had compassion for her, and clarity for myself. I fell asleep knowing that the joy for all of us would be coming right around the bend.
Yep. We feel it. For sure. Joy. Here it comes. Any minute now …