We brought you home, driving far under the speed limit, turning oh-so-slow, your mother worrying over how your head lolled in the carseat. The world, inexplicably, was still full of Wendy’s and gas stations and billboards for Michelob Ultra, heedless of the monumental shift that had occurred at your birth.
When we finally laid you down in your cradle for the night, I could not fathom leaving you there alone. I lay down on the carpet, covered my legs with a patchwork of tiny blankets, and trailed a hand up to rest on your stomach, feeling the nearly imperceptible rise and fall of your breath.
My fitful dreams were woven through with glittering images of you as a grown woman with a charming smile, a confident posture, and clothes that spoke of success.
I imagined for you a life without heartache.
You were two and a half years old and the sickest I had ever seen you, coughing so hard you retched, your face crusted with phlegm and wet with tears.
First, I lay down with you in your big girl bed, wedged against the safety railing, inhaling the menthol of vapor rub and patting your back while you whimpered hoarsely. When I figured out my presence was keeping you awake, I relocated to the floor.
My arm, though, could no longer reach from the floor all the way up to where you slept. Up above me, so far, you struggled alone, your rickety wheeze mingled with the constant hiss of the humidifier. They tinged my sleep-deprived thoughts with swamps and mold.
It was your tenth birthday, and you wanted a slumber party with your three best friends. We spent all May and June planning, but Ellie’s family decided to extend their vacation at the last minute, Laticia was sick, and (hardest of all) Brooklyn had another slumber party that she went to instead.
Your other friends came for cake and games, but it wasn’t the same. I discreetly asked a couple parents if their kids might stay the night, but the question of why I hadn’t asked sooner was heavy in the air. I got no takers.
When your last friend left, you went to your room and cried. Your mom and I cleaned up the icing-smeared paper plates and discussed how Brooklyn was the worst person on the planet and her parents weren’t so hot either.
After that we brought the bead-making kit into your bedroom and informed you the slumber party was still on. Mommy would be Ellie; I would be Laticia. I spoke in falsetto until my throat hurt.
We all camped on the floor of your room that night, you snuggled between us in your new mermaid-tail sleeping bag. My fingernails were each painted different colors and my skin shimmered with sparkle makeup in the glow of your nightlight. I smelled like bubblegum bodyspray.
I remember waking up in the night to go to the bathroom and finding you smiling in your sleep, clutching your threadbare stuffed kangaroo.
I resisted the urge to bend down and kiss your forehead.
You were seventeen and acting strange. At dinner you wouldn’t meet our eyes, and you answered every question with either a shrug or a grunt. When you excused yourself and went to your room, your mom forcefully gestured for me to follow you, but the door was locked.
It wasn’t until nearly midnight that I tried again. Your sobbing had woken me up.
I scratched at the door. You let me in wordlessly.
Pictures of you and your boyfriend, Warren, were strewn all over the floor with the stubs of movie tickets and other knickknacks. Some of the pictures had been ripped in half.
I gathered you into my arms. You cried even harder.
You had a recliner in your room at the time. I tucked you into bed and pulled the recliner over so I could stroke your hair.
You didn’t speak a word, so I kept my mouth shut too and tried to convey everything I wanted to say with that touch. This will pass. There are still people who love you. I am here.
I am here.
You were so excited to move into your dorm room. Our trip to Target to decorate it was bittersweet. You were full of delight as you shopped, happy to the point of frenzy. You couldn’t stop babbling.
Your mother’s smile was wistful and mine felt mechanical. We’d shop together again, I was sure, but ever after, it’d be different. Why had I never paused to enjoy the act of going to Target with you?
We went out for lunch after. Then, to draw it out even longer, stopped by Wendy’s for Frosties. After that, though, there was nowhere else to go but back to the dorm. I piled the Target bags onto your bare bed and stood awkwardly in the doorway beside your mom, hoping you might ask us to help you put everything out, but knowing you wanted to do it yourself.
I croaked out some stilted words then about how proud I was. Then we said our goodbyes.
Your mother and I wended our way out of campus in silence, far slower than the speed limit. Late that night when we stepped into the husk that had been our home, your room drew us to it.
You only had a single poster on the wall, a framed Wonder Woman one centered over your bed. Stencils of spaceships and planets adorned the rest, clashing with the kittycat drapes. Your stuffed kangaroo watched through its one remaining button eye on your shelf, waiting for you to return.
“I think we should sleep here tonight,” said your mother, her voice thin.
“You take the bed,” I said.
My place was on the floor beside it.