The Nightmare Before Breakfast

Dear sweet child of mine:

It’s 2:36 A.M. I’ve likely only just fallen asleep after hours of lying awake in bed playing timed word searches on my phone, cursing the familiar battle with insomnia I face nearly every night. Still, somewhere in the depth on my pitch-black sleep haze, I hear you. Your voice is a vivid beacon that calls me back to the shores of consciousness. When I do wake, though, immediate panic sets in.

Your voice. It’s distressed, wanting. Fearful. Desperate.

It takes me a moment to unroll myself from my blankets while trying to minimally disturb your dad, who has to wake in just two short hours for work. I fumble to find my glasses on my nightstand in the dark, because I’m pretty much useless without them. Though when I put them on, it doesn’t make much difference without light. I carefully move toward the door, the pathway etched in my mind’s eye. And it’s right around this time, as I’m navigating our blackened room, that I curse our forgetfulness to invest in a nightlight. When I stub my toe on a laundry basket (well, I’ll be honest – it’s two stacked on top of each other), I make a vow to address the situation during daylight. I’ll likely forget again, but it’s the thought that counts, right?

Finally, I reach the door that opens to a moonlit hallway. If it had been under different circumstances, I might have even admired it for a moment, how peaceful the glow seemed.  Mysteriously euphoric. It flows like a ghostly blanket over the cold tiles my bare feet now touch.

Still, no time for that. You’re still sniffling, calling my name. The timbre of your voice cracks my heart open. I see the silver white light for but a moment before I’m grasping the knob to your door, opening it, and announcing my presence in a medium soft whisper:

“Mommy’s here. What’s wrong, baby?”

You immediately silence, and I feel the internal panic swirl as I make my way to your bedside in the dark. Your room isn’t nearly as pitch black as mine – the monitor that helped me to hear you casts an ambient glow, enough to make it possible that I don’t need to turn on a light. But nothing as beautiful as the moonlight right outside of our doors.

My eyes are now fully adjusted to the dark, and I see you. You’re sitting up toward the end of your bed. Your long hair is a wild mess, one of the very things I love to see when you first wake. Your nightgown is likely twisted, considering how turned about you appear to be. You’re still wrapped in some covers, looking toward where you heard my voice, clutching the most important toy you own – Bunny.

Bunny is a weathered soul, but faithful … even if he once got sidetracked in a thrift store, and another time nearly washed to sea when we were at the beach. He’s a good sport. He puts up with more than anyone could, I imagine. He doesn’t bathe often enough for my liking, but you never mind. Somewhere on his lower hem, he’s got a stain from cherries you once ate with him. His silky ribbon edges are peppered with subtle scrape marks, more than likely from being dropped several times in parking lots. He’s lost some weight in his fluff; he’s not as plump as he once was, but he’s still your constant prime choice for a snuggle. Oh, and he recently got two tattoos in preparation for your next big adventure together, preschool. Of course, I’ve reminded you a few times that Bunny will nap in your backpack while you are at school (he’s not a morning person, I’ve explained), but he will be geared up for hearing about your adventures as soon as it’s over in the afternoons.

I take a seat at the edge of your bed and touch you immediately. I evaluate you. You’re not warm, not sick. No bumps I can feel, and your airways sound okay. You’re just frightened. It flits through my mind that I’d rather you be sick than frightened. Sick can be fixed with medicine, usually; frightened can last for a lifetime.

I ask you what’s wrong, and your answer catches me so off guard that I try not to laugh at the oddity (and ill-timing) of it:

“I’m hungry.”

I chalk it up to some weird glitch in your internal clock, and I remind you it’s not time to eat. After all, the sun isn’t up. I offer you a smile, but you’re not satisfied. No, you insist, you’re hungry and you need to eat. I counter with the same adult reasoning, and am met with the same desperation.

“We can’t eat now,” I gently insist. “It’s still the middle of the night.” (Internally I cringe, knowing that will be something I’ll need to re-teach you once you can tell time.) And that’s when the heart of the matter is revealed:

“But Mommy, I was so hungry, and there was no food and I couldn’t eat. I was so hungry.”

Nightmare, I conclude silently. My approach changes, and I take you into my arms after wrestling you from the blankets, and embrace you. That’s when my innate voice of assurance comes. I must confess, I truly don’t know how the words right words seem to consistently originate, but they are somehow always there when needed, and for that I am grateful. These weren’t my best I’ve ever given you, but they were honest and true:

“Don’t worry, sweetie. Mommy would never let you go hungry. It was just a nightmare. I’m sorry it scared you.”

You’re tired – I can tell from how you immediately settle into my arms, fully relaxed. Perhaps you’re relieved with my verbal assurance, or my physical presence, or both – but I won’t ever really know. You’ll likely forget this ever happened, and I’ll only have this blog as proof later to show you that I do care, even when as a teen you might think I’m the worst mom on planet Earth. My hand finds your dirty blonde monster-sized bedhead and begins to do something I did the moment you were laid in my arms in the hospital. My fingertips massage your scalp, stroking your head in a rhythm I can only assume is from natural instinct.

It’s quiet now – you’re content to sit in my lap, your breathing low and even. I swear you might even be asleep (but find out later that you weren’t quite). I, on the other hand, am very much awake now, my eyes finding the large windows of your room and focusing on the closed white curtains. I listen to the instrumental music playing softly in the background, as it does all night. For a brief moment, I wonder if it’s time to sever ties with your nightly soundtrack. After all, you’re nearly four. Surely you don’t need it anymore. Still, I’ll hesitate, because getting rid of your music means you’re no longer the six-pound baby I carried in my womb for nine months, and fought to have for several years before that. Rather, it would mark you as officially a little girl about to embark at school for the first time next week. Without me.

My thoughts sober up quickly to deeper matters, to the content of your dream. What stimuli from day could have provoked such a worry? You spent the day with me at work, where you had a cupcake and two cookies, courtesy of my generous coworkers. Surely you ate enough for dinner, right? And there were the Goldfish crackers you ate after while watching Dora The Explorer. I nod to myself. You ate enough. You don’t need a snack. I sigh with a bit of relief, and my mind wanders deeper, my hand still methodically stroking your scalp. It wanders to the promise I just made you.

How many mothers in our nation – in our world – want to make the same promise, but can’t? How many children wake with true hunger from starvation? How many actually live like what you dreamt, without the luxury to label it as a nightmare?

I hold you a bit tighter, my heart clenching with the thought. Just earlier in the day, I was wrestling with internal panic about having money to put you in soccer for the fall, and making sure I had enough to buy you a birthday present, and to take you out for a fun day next week. This afternoon, I took you to work in my air conditioned car after stuffing your light-up Finding Dory backpack with coloring books, crayons, a puzzle, a book, and yes, even “your” iPad for later. I also filled your piggie-shaped lunch bag with two bananas, your water bottle, and yogurt. We just ate a generous lunch, thanks to MeMa, so I assumed it would be enough to hold you over until we returned home for dinner. After I helped you put on your nearly new sneakers, I slid on my shoes and we were out the door.

As I stared at your curtains, a wave of guilt flooded over me. See, I’m Mommy, but I’m also a budding author. You’ve seen how I spend time at the computer writing, and have even sat on my lap for many sessions, listening to my headphones to my inspiration music. Even though Daddy loves my story, I’m cursed with the same doubts and fears that plague all sorts of cynical adults (especially the creative ones – we aren’t very nice to ourselves). I often worry about whether people will like my book, whether they will think it’s well-written, whether it will be a piece of literature that will be read by many, whether it might be good enough to garner a following. I worry about other talented writers I know, and how I rank among them. I don’t allow for any sort of rationality when comparing myself to a lifelong friend, who has been writing twice as long as I have. I often worry about petty things, such as attention and recognition, popularity and praise.

In short, I worry often about me.

As I realize this while rehashing my day, I silently thank you. Because, you see, while earlier I was blind to my own petty concerns, your nightmare made me realize how much of a dream I live in:

I’m a child of God.
I’m alive, fed, and generally heathy.
I’m clothed, housed, loved, cared for.
I’m a wife, and a mother – something I was told I would never be.
I have a job, pets, possessions, privileges.
I wrote a book (seven times over now, but that’s beside the point), one that will be published in a few months by people who believe in me.

I have a good, good life.

I tuck you back in, kissing you more times than necessary, whispering how I will love you, “always and forever” before leaving your room back into the moonlit hall. I return back to bed, less concerned about the double-stacked laundry basket I clip my baby toe on again.

And here I am, lying in bed as I write this blog post. It’s just after 4:00 A.M. now. Your daddy is still asleep, though he will soon have to get up. I, on the other hand, am very much awake. I couldn’t wait until “morning” to write this all out. The muse calls, and I answer. Maybe someday you’ll know the feeling.

As I wrap up the re-telling on my phone (which is more time consuming than I thought it would have been), I make a note to research on where I can bring you to volunteer in our community. That gets the top spot on my to-do list (ahead of the nightlight and the discussion with Daddy about potentially eliminating your lullabies). I don’t want all of this to end later this morning when I inevitably succumb to my funneled minuscule worries and minute personal concerns, such as whether or not I’m popular. As odd as it sounds, I want to remember this moment of fear for you, as painful as it is, because it’s a moment of clarity and purpose for me. I want to remember that there is so much more beyond me, beyond my immediate scope, beyond my every day life. I want to remember how blessed I am. I want to take those blessings and multiply them in the lives of others, in our community, the world. I want to teach you the value of caring and compassion, of giving and helping.

I just want to remind you: There’s nothing wrong with wanting to dream of being influential for what you do. I want to encourage that in you. Hence, why I write – so someday you can see that you, too, can pursue your dreams, no matter what. Still, I am reminded this morning that I ultimately want to leave a legacy that has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with raising you to have compassion for others. If I can do that, it would be more valuable than any recognition my books could receive, any title bestowed on me, any amount of admiration felt by others.

I will likely be exhausted when I officially begin my day, but thank you. Thank you, sweet child, for waking me up.

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