Lights turn off for bedtime. The small flashlight flickers on but it’s not enough to play by, not enough to hide the scary shadows of a child’s imagination. I don’t stop to argue, don’t invite the protests, tonight. The baby is fed and warm in her daddy’s arms so I linger with the big boys, so tough and independent in the bright daytime light, all full of fears and doubts and unnamed dreads in the dark. I lie down on the bottom bunk and feel the lithe warm body of a little boy press against my back, strong and wiry and small and vulnerable in the drowsiness of just-before-sleep.
Softly, in the dark, I hear the gentle murmur of a snore, and I peek over my shoulder to see him lying there asleep, empty sippy cup tucked in against his elbow, Grandma’s handmade quilt pulled up over his belly, legs poking out the side with the knees up and the feet tucked under my hip. I sneak out of the room. I am eager to have some time with my own thoughts, to create, to be, without any demands or expectations on my time.
But there is still the food from dinner to be put away; the dishes are done but the food, too hot before, was waiting until after the bedtime rush, and as I scoop the leftovers into Tupperware, mindlessly, inefficiently, trying to read a book at the same time, I hear the baby crying, waking up for a last feed before settling into the deep sleep of nighttime.
I pick her up, lay her next to me on the bed, and she curls into me, little hands reaching for me, little feet tucking themselves into the curve of my belly, little mouth open and eager, little tear-stained eyes sleep-heavy and drooping closed. Her frantic energy lessens, breathing calmed, until at last I roll her back over to her crib. For a moment her whole body drapes across mine and I feel that soft cheek pressed up against me, the total trust and relentless love of an infant for their mother, and I’m the mother, and it hardly seems real, scarcely seems believable, like the whole crazy world is just too beautiful to be possible.
Most nights I stay here, worn out myself, caught up in the sweet beauty of the love a mother receives from sleepy children in need of snuggles and presence, unable to stop watching a baby or a toddler or a preschooler still and peaceful at long last, barely daring to breathe lest it all fall apart, amazed that such a life could be mine. But tonight I pull myself up. There are words to write, pictures to curate, cookies and milk to be eaten, and thoughts to be wrung out from ethereal unformed space to concrete actuality on the screen of my computer.