Today, I dared to leave you alone in the kitchen for approximately three minutes — 180 seconds while I raced to the bathroom to hastily pee and do a half hand wash with the speed and efficiency only a mother of a two-year-old wild child can summon.
When I returned, still finishing the buttons on my jeans, I found you in a moment of pure bliss: centered in a pile of hot chocolate powder, your tiny body twirling, your little feet, perfect miniatures of my own, stomping to a rhythm only you could hear, giving rise to an almost mystical cloud of chocolate dust all around you and settling on your clothes, arms, and hands, leaving a brownish tint behind.
You were mid-twirl when you finally saw me, and your spin halted to a stop, the tornado of cocoa settling on your chocolate feet with dark, moistened lines between your baby toes and sporadic dots of white where bits of freeze-dried marshmallows had landed abruptly. Your sparkling aquamarine eyes looked up to mine and seemed to ask, “How bad is it? What kind of time out am I looking at here?” And I wondered if you had planned this from the instant you begged for the hot chocolate mix in the grocery store.
In this moment, and so many like it, looking at your tiny face in the midst of self-imposed chaos, I reflected back on when we first met, those early days in the hospital, when (like so many moms) I asked the doctor all the wrong questions. They were just not quite right for the child that you are. I never thought to ask him if you would someday paint my kitchen in hot cocoa mix.
Instead, when the doctor stood at the foot of my bed, his face folded into an expression of concern, your small, chubby body warming my arms and chest, I asked him with a quiver in my voice, my heart sinking with a weight only parents of sick children have carried, if you would be okay. I see now that it was altogether the wrong question.
I should have asked him if you, at thirteen months old and in the span of only a few minutes, would scale the wooden baby gate (theoretically protecting you from the dangers of the stairs), crawl to the second-floor bathroom and dismantle my cardboard box of tampons, unceremoniously tearing off the wrappers and sending each flying down the stairs with a small, “Pchou” in a tiny, but persistent missile attack against our sleepy-eyed goldendoodle at the bottom of the stairs. It was a question that should have been asked.
I never did ask that, but when your father and I trailed behind you in a blur, the nurses and doctors rushing you down the hallways of the hospital, frantically attaching monitors to your tiny chest, I asked the question I was most afraid to ask, the one that brought a pain that made all others feel petty: would you live?
In retrospect, I know now that I should have asked him, if at 18 months old, you, dressed in a tiny tuxedo, with patent leather shoes reflecting the ballroom lights, would make a break from your father at the most opportune moment, and find yourself, in the middle of the empty dance floor, with a captive audience of 150 seated wedding guests intently listening to a heartfelt speech from the maid of honor? Would you look around, suddenly aware of your surroundings and feeling shy, and almost to alleviate your nerves, pull down your pants in front of the crowd? It would have been great if the doctor could have warned me about that, but again, it remained an unasked question.
Instead, I asked, while I sat holding you in the NICU, a series of wires and IVs sporadically interrupting and infinitely complicating our embrace, if you would someday be able to run and play like other kids.
If only I had asked if you, dressed in a perfect miniature man-ensemble of plaid shorts, a monogrammed golf shirt, and leather braided flip flops would, at our Father’s Day picnic, squirm and jump from my arms and run straight to the side of the house with a direct purpose I failed to comprehend quickly enough, as a stream of cold water from an unguarded hose descended on the deck and all the aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins gathered there, not to mention the buffet of BBQ.
To all of the moms sitting with their babies in the NICU today, I wish for you hot chocolate kitchen floors, tampon rockets crashing down your stairs, waterlogged hot dog rolls and potato salad soup, and bare baby buns at your sister’s wedding. My greatest hope for you is that you are now asking the doctor all the wrong questions.
And my greatest hope for me is that I will continue to do the same.