I wake in darkness to find my child gone.
The realization comes slowly. Half-awake I reach out a hand to the opposite side of the bed. Grasping, slowly at first then faster, palm flat and fingers spread wide I am feeling the bed expecting a form to be there in the darkness; disbelieving that it is not. In the distance, I can see green numbers glowing. The bedside clock display: 5:05 hovering in space. SOS.
I stumble from the bed, panic rising. I knock the lamp from the table; stub a toe on the nightstand. A bulb shatters; pain makes its way from foot to leg. It is ignored. I need light. Light will make everything okay. Now it is too dark, but when the light comes I will see how foolish I am because my daughter will be right there, where I laid her to sleep. And I will laugh. I will laugh at how ridiculous I am.
I find the overhead and flood the room with light. So bright it hurts my eyes and I stand blinking. She is not there.
I say her name to the room. My voice sounds unfamiliar. It is empty and quiet. I repeat her name, this time louder. And again. Again.
I find myself looking through the sheets as if she had gotten lost in the folds. I look under the bed. In the closets, the bathroom, and the hallway. I run from room to room and then down the stairs. I catch myself from falling on the railing as my feet are too fast for my body. Through the dining room, the kitchen, I am spinning, calling, “Where are you? Jesus where are you?” Frantic, I run out the front door, into the dark morning, into the cold. There is frost on the grass. I can see my breath. It smells of pine and sage and animal droppings. The pebbles on the driveway cut my bare feet. The chill attaches itself to me. My eyes are wide and the mountain air stings as tears dry as they form.
The first time I was alone with my child, a newborn in the hospital, I stood trembling. I hovered over the bassinet; she was so fragile, breakable. Beautiful. I knew there must be a mistake.
Me, I should not be put in charge of something so small, so precious. I knew at any moment someone would arrive to lead me from the room, “I’m sorry sir,” they would say, “Thank you for applying but there are more qualified candidates available. Maybe next time.”
In the corner, I notice the television. The sound is off. ESPN is reporting that Walter Peyton has died. Sweetness is dead. I think to myself I will remember this. In silence, the TV tells me he will be remembered by family, friends, by peers. They speak of legacy. I know that I am not like this. I am simply a man who will live quietly and go.
Not this one though. This tiny child. I will make sure that she is everything that I am not. That I could never be. She will be happy, I will be sure of it.
I looked down at her, was she breathing? I wondered. I couldn’t tell. Probably. Surely. I couldn’t tell. So I place a hand on her back, just to feel the rise and fall of her breath. But my hand was too big. I was awkward. I woke her and she began to cry as the door opened and my wife returned. “What happened?” she asked, “What have you done?”
“I was checking, I didn’t know, I just…” I stumbled over my words. The baby was swept up by more competent hands and I was pushed aside.
My child is three years old now. She has her own room but prefers to sleep in the Big Bed. We could make an issue of it. We could. But midnight will come and there will be big eyes in the night and stories of bad dreams and sadness. So it’s preferable to start out together and sleep through the night. That is why I thought there would be no problems when my wife left for a week. My child will sleep beside me within arm’s length and nothing bad could happen. The days are spent playing board games; Candyland and Shoots & Ladders. Whenever I come close to winning the rules change, or I am informed of rules of which I was unaware.
Most of the time this is okay.
Despite the cold, I am sweating. Running, stumbling I find myself back in the house holding the phone in my hand pressing the numbers, nine, one…as my finger falls on the last number I hear it. A sound, small, just a whisper behind the couch. Dropping the phone I sprint to the couch and push it aside. She is there in a purple polka dot nightgown and fuzzy pink slippers; two hands cupped over her mouth, holding back laughter.
“Didn’t you hear me calling you?” I say, scream, yell, “Why didn’t you answer me, dammit?”
Her eyes are wide. There are tears. “We were playing a game,” she says, “You had to find me. That’s the rules.”
My body slumps and I lower myself to the floor beside her. “I didn’t know it was a game,” my breathing is heavy and I hold my face in my hands, “I don’t know the rules. You have to tell me the rules.”
My daughter puts her hands around my neck and squeezes. “Okay,” her voice is just a whisper in my ear, “next time, I promise.”
My heart still racing, I carry her back to bed as the sun slowly rises.
Original post date January 23, 2013