When I tuck my daughter into bed at night, she twirls a ribbon of her hair and asks, “Can I tell you something?” It’s a patented stalling technique that somehow all children figure out. They can’t drive and they think mayonnaise is “spicy,” but they are masters of maternal manipulation.
I sigh, nod and listen as she repeats mundane stories about her day. I watch her expressions and try to remember her face when it could only produce needy, insistent wails or wet, gummy smiles that made me feel so relieved, like I wasn’t screwing up this whole parenting gig. When she pauses for breath, I jump in, tell her I love her and with a firm “goodnight” over my shoulder, I flee down the hallway to preferred adult activities.
Some nights, when I’m feeling particularly sentimental, I slip back into my daughter’s room hours later like a be-jeaned specter, and I talk to her in the moonlight. When she’s asleep, it’s the only time of day when her body is calm and still. She’s not flailing, bumping, jumping, yelping, scratching, dancing, singing, pleading, chewing, coughing over my shoulder or asking loudly, “What’s wrong with that man?”
When she’s asleep, I can gently trace the lines of her face, tug the sweaty wisps of hair that have crept like vines across her forehead and lightly rub the bridge of her nose like it’s a genie’s lamp and I’m about to make three wishes.
When she’s asleep, her room is full and damp with humidified air, because her nostrils are evidently lined with papier-mâché and midnight nosebleeds fall under “Tasks I Do Not Have the Stomach For.” Her night-light gives the room a lemony glow. Through the gently cracked window, the buildings breathe out after breathing in all day.
It’s my time to tell her something.
I tell her about my favorite part of the day. Every morning as we drive familiar roads, she fills the backseat with her joyful, made-up, off-key songs sung at obscene pitches and volume. Once these strangled notes are freed from her throat, they sail out the cracked window and into the air and become part of the city soundtrack.
I tell her that when I see myself in her face, I’m startled every time, like I’ve just nibbled on the inside of my cheek. Whether it’s the sleep deprivation or life’s little nonstop hurdles, I sometimes forget that a million years ago I reached down between my legs, cautiously touched the crown of her head, panicked because it felt like the dolphins I swam with once in Mexico, and then felt the edges of the room darken and every nerve ending explode as she was plopped onto my chest.
I tell her that I will do better tomorrow. I will listen more intently. I will extend my patience. I will remember her limits and bite back my often flighty expectations.
I tell her that I love her. I love her–oh, how I love her, in ways that are unfair, overwhelming and more powerful than my head and heart and whispered words could ever translate.
Some nights, as I ease my weary bones up from beside her and out of the room, there is movement. Legs kick and her eyelids flutter. An arm is suddenly flung across her stuffed animals; her fingers uncurl like flower petals. Seconds later, she is still again. I think, just for a second, that she might have heard me, felt my confessions cover her like a protective cloak. I close her door behind me with a quiet click and leave her alone to dream so she has great things to tell me come morning.