It is early morning — somewhere between the hours of three and four, when my brain is too fogged with interrupted sleep to comprehend things like time — and you have awakened me with your intermittent cries. Yelps, more like. Between outbursts, a pause of several seconds — long enough for me to think Sure, he’s okay then and sink back onto my pillow before another cry wakes me from my sleep-drunken stupor.
Grumbling, I untangle my legs from the winding vines that the sheets have become overnight: your father doesn’t believe in sleeping like a normal human being (under the covers), so he is forever bringing a blanket to bed and hunkering down in it, pushing the sheets and bedspread to the side or foot of the mattress so that I end up in some sort of twisted pile of bedding that seems intent on strangling me as I sleep. You cry out again — I think you’re probably mostly asleep, the cries are so far apart — and I murmur reassurances that I know you can’t hear as I blindly walk the familiar path from our room to yours.
Your room is awash in the eerie glow of a too-bright nightlight that casts shadows on every wall. The worst is a spidery looking apparition that covers half of the room, mostly over your crib: the ghastly result of light striking your woodland-animals mobile. I secretly shudder at that leggy shadow every night, certain that your cries must have something to do with its looming appearance above your resting place. Can infants fear spiders? I’m sure any child of mine must.
On tiptoes, I lean over the top edge of your crib, my gut — still not recovered from carrying you, seven months later — creased in half by the hard walnut edges smoothed by your father’s shop machines. Shhhhh, shhhhh, shhhhh, Mama’s here — you stop the instant my hands grasp your torso and I lift you gingerly from the confines of your bed. You’re hungry, though, and begin to grizzle feverishly as I carry you to our chair. I brace myself against the shocking chill of polished wood against the backs of my thighs and shoulders. In the dark, your mouth works like that of a little milk zombie: open, shut, open, shut, open shut — until finally, you find what you’re searching for and your eyes fold shut in a mixture of relief and ecstasy.
As you feast, I close my eyes and lean back, wondering who you will become. It is three-something in the morning and I am awake, picturing you twenty years down the road, always with that cheeky grin and creamy, smooth skin. You stroke my hand with your tiny plump palm, occasionally pausing to wrap a finger in your fist, as if to tell me Thank you, Mama or — I like to pretend — I love you most. Not that it’s a competition between your father and me; just, I am your most beloved now, and I will savor that, because later you will have friends and classmates and girlfriends and lovers and I will surely lose the privilege of that most as I drift along in the wake of your expanding horizons.
Looking down at the rounded nub of your nose, I think of my teacher’s son, David, who took his own life a few months ago. Tracing the soft curve of your cheek with my fingertip, I pray. Please let this child grow up to know he is beloved and help him to find fulfillment. And Please always bring him home to me, whole. And Please make him need me always.
You’re through with the midnight snack, your head has lolled back onto my forearm and your mouth is agape, a stream of milk leaking from the corner where your lips meet and trailing down your neck: you are one satisfied little boy. I’m not tired any longer; I’m wide awake with the kind of fervent panic I can only assume all mothers experience at one time or another. It’s a futile panic: you will get older, you will grow up and out, you will leave me for a different life. These are certainties, and though I hate the leaving, I know that it is better than the alternative.
I am not tired anymore, though, so I will hold you a little longer now. I love you, I love you.
I love you.