It started at 4 AM. An overtired little girl, woken by the sound of her own coughing, tearfully tapping at my shoulder. A groggy “what’s up?” answered with silence, I picked her up, surprised as always by the effort now required, and carried her back to her room across the hall.
Like many nights over the past five years, I sat us down in the rocking chair, rubbing her back and waiting for the deep breathing that would signal my duty fulfilled and my own imminent return to slumber.
As I lay her back into her bed, her eyes once more open and glistening, she confided that she was sad because she wished that she “was still my baby” and “could have stayed my baby forever.” Thinking we were nearing the end of the conversation I smiled wistfully, assuring her that she always would be, no matter how big she grew or how old she became.
That smile faded as a suddenly somber five year old informed me that “life doesn’t actually work like that.” That even if she decided to live with me forever, eventually I was going to get old and die.
I held her close and promised that this wasn’t going to happen for a long, long, time, an oath that I know I have no control over keeping.
She told me that she can’t get it out of her mind. That it makes her sad.
We went back to the chair , staying that way for a long time. I had no soothing words for her. Platitudes and false reassurances seeming inadequate. We rocked in silence, her head on my shoulder, my presence enough. For now.
Eventually she lay back down and I slipped away. As I write this I sit on the back deck, doubtful of my own ability to fall back asleep. I sit here in the dark and find myself with glistening eyes of my own. I think about the lies that we tell, both to our children and to ourselves. About a little more innocence lost, another crack in the wall between the naivete of youth and the fear and anxiety that follow. About how this probably won’t be the last night spent like this.
Mostly though, I sit here in the dark and marvel at the unconditional love of a child. I sit here and wonder how I ever got so lucky, how I deserve this wonderful gift.
I sit here and think about my daughter. My baby.