Note: I wrote the bulk of this right after Christmas but finished it today.
Getting upstairs last night was a struggle. It isn’t usually but Elisabeth wouldn’t go on her own so my husband had to pick her up and carry her upstairs. She cried the whole way. I heard her banging the baby gate upstairs (“what baby?” I think to myself as I head upstairs) and see her angry and sobbing while my husband pulls the curtains in her room. “Gate open,” she cries repeatedly. I open the gate and sit there, waiting. She comes over, red-faced and desperate. “Gate open,” she says. “It is open, Star,” I tell her. She goes down one stair on her bottom and turns around to look at me. “Mama” she says with a look of utter despair. “Let’s go into Mama’s room and do a puzzle.” I suggest. In an instant, she’s calm and seconds later she and I are on the bed with her bedtime puzzle.
Later, I tempt Elisabeth into laying down by laying down myself and reaching for her comforter. She’s in a big girl bed now so we both fit in, barely. I rest my head on her pillow. Elisabeth edges up the bed and and yawns. She lays down and pulls the comforter close to her. As per our custom, I ask Elisabeth what she is feeling grateful for. “Christmas,” she says this 28th of December. “Great,” I say. “What else?” “Santa Claus,” she says without hesitation. “Nice, and what else?” I ask. The third answer is the usual answer “Going to Aunty Caroline’s house,” she says. [I’ve explained the idea of “grateful” as something that makes you feel good or that you are happy about. I think that must be why Aunty Caroline’s house is always in there although we haven’t been there since April.] I tell her that I am grateful for our breakfast with Papa at Monuts. She says, “the new Monuts,” and a brief discussion on the new vs. the old Monuts ensues. “Stay,” Elisabeth suddenly says to me after a moment of quiet. “I’m here, ” I reply. “Stay,” she repeats. “I’m here,” I say again, not wanting to tell the lie of “I’m not going anywhere.” She seems satisfied and closes her eyes. I do the same. I feel her feet rubbing up against my legs and remember that I had forgotten the last part of our ritual. “I love you,” I say, opening my eyes. Elisabeth is looking at me. She doesn’t yet know the answer to this last piece of our nightly ritual so there is only silence. I close my eyes and know Elisabeth has snuggled closer, feeling her breathe warm my face.
I’m beginning to think Elisabeth is more like a feral animal than a drunken bipolar troll. She’s impulsive with big emotions that flash hot and cold. The raw honesty, though, is sometimes blinding. It’s so unusual in our daily life. Conversations that adults have can go on for hours and never really reveal anything. There are double meanings, hedged words. Metaphors that go unnoticed, fruitless wishes for someone to read our mind or offer up a raise, praise or permission. With toddlers, you know exactly how they feel. They say what they mean. It can be uncanny.
A big girl bed now, not a crib. A bed where I hope Elisabeth will be until her teen years. She won’t always want me to lay down next to her. It’s almost 2015 but where was 2013? Wasn’t its just a muggy June afternoon when we came home from the hospital with her buckled into a seatbelt, wearing a snuggly hat? It’s all so far gone. And yet I know I can still preserve it by being in these bedtime moments, and others, as fully as I can. So I’ll take the struggle of getting upstairs now, as I think of the future struggles. Bedtime struggles suddenly seems mild.