Once the day is done and pajamas are on, Julia and I often cuddle in her bed as we wind down in the evening. Most nights book reading dissolves into imaginative stories and at long last she drifts off to sleep. Most nights she nods off before me, but not always! Something about her soft breathing and relaxed body makes my shoulder muscles ease and my own breathing becomes less frantic. In the daylight hours I find myself striving for order among what feels like emotional chaos. The mad dash from dinner to bath to bed is something I feel most parents experience with their young ones leaving us exhausted, frustrated at times and saying unreasonable things to our progeny like, “If you don’t fall asleep right now, I’ll never read you another bedtime story.” But the moment the house quiets and Julia is asleep, I find myself longing for her childish voice again because my home is too silent. I fill it with the sound of television many nights, lately watching “House of Cards” on Netflix over and over but honestly I relish drifting off to sleep with Julia in her bed because most nights my bed feels too spacious, too empty.
Julia wants stories about Wesley almost every night. My tales of the first time Daddy said that he loved Mommy; how we celebrated our cats first birthdays; the sweet Indian ladies at Dunkin Donuts on North Druid Hills Road who kept Daddy well stocked in donuts when he would drive around Atlanta trying to get an infant Julia to fall asleep in the middle of the night are met with gleaming eyes and anticipatory excitement as she raptly listens to stories that involve and pre-date her. Like most children I suppose she seems fascinated that there was a life before her, that Wesley and Katherine have a whole life of love and laughter that came before the little blonde pixie entered our lives. We always wished for and wanted children so our life was enriched so fruitfully on June 8, 2009, but we had years of just us and she seems to like to hear those where she is not a central character. But I find my favorite stories are those of simple times between Wesley and Julia. Not a holiday or special celebration, although those have their own happy memories, but the times we could just be seems precious. I think back to Wesley and I stacking the deck so Julia could win games of Go Fish by secretly signalling to each other to ask for cards we know she won’t have clenched in her chubby toddler fist makes me laugh. And her glee as she would tell us to “Go Fish…in the lake!” pointing out our window to the glittering lake that stands behind our home. It is not the moments that I thought were important that I cling to, but the moments of pure simplicity that I love. Because every day we embraced each other with spoken and unspoken love. The fibers that wove us together.
As I nod off to sleep lately I find myself gently shaken or tapped on the shoulder by Julia asking, “Are you asleep?” I’ll grumpily reply, “Yes…” and am met with her soft voice saying, “Oh sorry, Mommy” before she rolls over herself and goes to sleep. It was happening every night without fail and honestly I was getting increasingly more puzzled by the tiny taps on my shoulder each evening. So, I asked her why. Why, oh why, are you waking me up night after blessed night? Her answer surprised but did not shock me. She is afraid I’ll die. I’ll fall asleep and never wake up like Daddy did and when her little hands gently shake my shoulder she wants to know I’m still here. I told this to a friend recently and was met with a shocked look and a muttered “that is so terrible.” It is terrible. It is awful that a little girl knows that her parents are not invincible by the time she is 4, but I do not see it as a moment to pity. It is our life and it is our reality. I’m comfortable with her reaction to my falling asleep and passing away and our conversations about death and loss and that she misses her daddy. I miss Wesley terribly and know that I’m often confused and bewildered by our life; I cannot imagine it for Julia. It is important that I’m here to offer reassurance and understanding to her. To take her hands in mine and say I’m not going anywhere and that I’ll wake in the morning and we will eat oatmeal and argue about what she wants to wear. Which makes her crack a smile. I cannot make promises that everything will be OK because for both of us the veil of comfortable innocence has been torn asunder and I cannot greet Julia’s concern with anything but honesty and compassion. Shying away or sweeping her feelings under the rug will not help either of us and I will greet her questions with my best efforts. I look into her questioning face and I offer her my arms; I squeeze her tightly before stroking her hair and say into her ear, “I’m right here”