Every night Eliza asks if I can put her to bed. And almost every night I cringe a little at the prospect. I feel terrible for it but I can’t help it. I have spent most nights the past seven years lying down with her, scratching her arm, rubbing her hair. I’ve spent most of those years staring at the ceiling wondering if she was yet asleep, hoping I would still have enough energy to get up and do something like read or take a bath after she finally fell asleep. Over the years, she has not been easy to coax to sleep and many nights I have fallen asleep with her, my arm uncomfortably wedged under a pillow, my legs cold from not having enough cover. Eliza sleeps these days and usually goes to sleep pretty quickly but every night I lie down with her, I find I’m still holding on to all the nights before when she would toss and turn and frustrate me to no end. Those nights when I would pray, threaten, scream into the pillow because she just couldn’t fall asleep, or if she did, she couldn’t stay asleep.
This started when she was a baby and continued until last summer when I’d finally had enough—actually, way more than enough—and I took her to doctor’s appointment after doctor’s appointment trying to figure out if something was wrong. In the end, we found out she had sleep apnea. She’d probably had it for years. But we didn’t know. By the time we found out, whatever compassion I might have had for such an issue was buried so deep under my resentment of her sleeplessness that it was hard to access even when we had a diagnosis.
And I feel terrible for that too.
Tonight, she read her homework books curled into me in the warm glow of our tiny house. She’s working on inflection and she emphasized words in bold and worked on reading dialogue aloud. Then she took a quick dip in the bath. I helped her wash her hair while Seth wrangled Lucille. I combed her conditioned hair with my fingers and talked to her about my aunts and uncles. I sat in the bathroom with her just chatting, listening to her stories about her day. I leaned against the wall, settled in and was content to watch her tell animated stories all with a very loose front tooth that caught, occasionally on her bottom lip.
She got out of the tub and wrapped herself in a towel.
“Mama, can you snuggle me?” she said.
I rubbed her body quickly with my hands and pulled her close. Then she asked if I could put her to bed.
“Babe, daddy’s gonna put you to bed tonight,” I said in my most chipper of voices.
Then she started whining.
“But he put us to bed last night,” she said.
“No babe, I did,” I said.
“Barely!” she said.
Then I don’t know what happened next.
“Barely?” I said. “What do you mean barely?”
I didn’t let her answer though she was trying to.
“Barely? I made you tea. We talked about Lucille’s dinner ideas. We read two books,” I said. “Barely?”
My tone was half mild rage and half indignation. She was crying. I had turned on her and on a dime.
“Do you know how much I do for you, every single thing I do is for you and for you to say I ‘barely’ did anything…well it really hurts my feelings,” I said.
We had gone from a place of deep trust just minutes before with my fingers in her hair, listening to her tell me about her day to me on my knees detailing all the ways I take care her while she shivered and cried, wrapped in a towel, in front of me.
Sitting there, looking at her, I wondered just who I was trying to convince.
“I was just talking about the other night when we came home late from Jen’s house…you just laid down with me for a minute,” she said.
“That’s what I meant by barely. I didn’t know it was unkind to say that!”
I took a deep breath. I took a step back from the edge I had no idea I was so close to and I apologized. She is just a little girl and I was laying some heaviness at her feet that she couldn’t possibly understand, some heaviness I’m struggling to understand.
I hugged her tight and helped her put her pajamas on. I apologized again. And again. Seth put her to bed but just before I went to bed myself, I crawled into bed with Eliza just to feel her warm body next to mine. I was feeling scared, unsure. I needed to hold her, to know that she is there in the night. As I pulled her close it occurred to me that maybe she feels this way too sometimes, that maybe this is why she asks me to put her to bed each night.