Stay Here

This article originally appeared in Medium’s P.S. I Love You on August 24, 2018.

Stay here. Stay here, or you’ll forget. Sway slowly, don’t jerk. Hold back your sneeze. Breathe with her. Don’t move except to sway, to rock her on the hammock ropes in the breeze.

Stay here or you’ll re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, the veil that makes you forget moments like this. You’ll forget that the stars are made of the same stuff as she is, you’ll forget why there’s a flower named after baby’s breath. You’ll forget the way her eyelashes look like a cresting wave, the way the tiny creases in her lips, when viewed way up close, resemble the rippled smile of a giant clam. You’ll forget the ancientness, the wisdom that washes over a baby while she sleeps, the instinct that takes over when swaying in the trees with a child in arms. How the clutch of tiny hands reminds us we are all monkeys.

Don’t forget the feel of the hammock, the soft summer breeze, the sunlight twisting with the branches to create this corpuscular sight. Don’t forget the apple trees that have supported this hammock for seven years now, shading many lazy embraces between mother and child. These trees will be gone soon. Well, gone to us at least. As will the sound of the breeze through their leaves.

We did everything right. We bought a house, got married, started making a family together. We picked the apples from the trees and spent days juicing them, turning their bounty into our little fermented creation. We planted fruits and veggies in our garden, tended chickens, got degrees, worked jobs, made babies. We were living the dream.

But what they don’t tell you about the dream is how much it resembles an actual dream, constantly skipping from snapshot to snapshot. A story stitched together through discombobulated moments and images and sounds and tastes and smells. The dream adorns itself with the highlights while downplaying the elongated spaces in between. The spaces that real life calls home. The spaces filled with constant chatter, messy rooms, screaming children, arguments, cancer scares, layoffs, lost children, lost body parts. Fights. Distance.

No, don’t go down that road right now, Danielle. Stay here with her. Memorize this moment to plug into the highlight reel later on. Actively commit this moment to memory — immortalize it forever. Kiss her gently, kiss her all over, remember the way her skin feels like…

Shit. She just peed on me. A lot.

Ah fuck it, I don’t care. I’m staying. I can’t bring myself to move her resting head off my heaving chest. I wonder if she’s listening to my heartbeat. And if she is, I wonder if it reminds her of all those months she spent inside me, sharing my food, my breath, my blood, my world.

I often explain to my child-free friends that I complain about the tough parts of parenting because the good parts — there are no words for those. There is no way to express how it feels to have such a massive portal open up in my chest every time she smiles at me. My body can’t articulate its reaction to a child crying or in pain. Words are profane and clumsy when they encroach on the smell of a baby’s breath.

It’s much easier to complain about my lack of sleep. To vent about my noisy house and the special kind of crazy induced when a child hits that age-specific pitch (every age so far seems to have one) too many times in a row. To describe the difficulty of two little ones constantly needing things, constantly under foot. Children don’t just make noise, messes, work. They make weather.

Much harder to sit with, much harder to admit, and nearly indefensible to voice, are the times that feel as though I’m trapped in a prison, a penal system of a biological sort. Like I’m surrounded by tiny, sticky guards who constantly push me to the corners of myself — real estate best left alone. Milgram would note the dark times in which I lose my temper and yell, the even darker times when I fantasize about leaving.

Like the dream, those moments make up the nightmare, also luckily spaced out by stretches of time. Time.

I can hear my phone ringing from inside the house, and my heart does that thing it does when it knows the caller is likely a bill collector. No amount of budgeting, spreadsheeting, scheduling, negotiating brings relief. No raise, no additional college degree, no seemingly exciting advance in my career ever seems to alleviate that indefatigable feeling in my stomach. The feeling that I do not have enough, that enough simply does not exist for me. For each raise gets countered by a layoff, each paid-off bill countered by a busted transmission, a flood in the kitchen, a new medical bill.

But when she’s in my arms, when her sister is in my arms, I don’t have merely enough — I have everything. Every mystery ever laid down at a mother’s feet, every fire stolen from the gods, every peek behind the curtain of heaven, it all resides here in my arms. So stay here Danielle. For the love of God, stay here.

They say that you blink and they’re in school. They’re driving. They’re 18. 21. 40. Dead. They tell you that you’ll miss this time with little ones, that you’ll look back on these early days as the best days. “The days are long, but the years are short.” That’s because there’s a staccato to the years. Those are the moments that make up the dream. They gather together like chords, bursts of notes on a sheet of music.

No, stay here. Stay in a moment where the wind isn’t the reason you can’t catch your breath — you can’t breathe because you are in the presence of Awe. And it’s looking you right in the eye. This person who looks through your soul and pulls out the name embedded so deeply you know it is your true name: Mom. This person whose very life was built from your cells, your blood, your milk, your kisses, your peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Your tickles. Your words. Your love. This creature pulled from your ribs to awaken you to your true purpose, then violently chain you to it.

The oldest, nearly five, has taught you that your true name can be both the most beautiful word you’ve ever heard uttered and the Last. Fucking. Word. You. Want. To. Hear. Again. Today. Jesus. Christ!

“Does anyone else need anything today?” you often mutter caustically. Sarcastically. Exhaustedly. The paradox of both finding yourself and losing yourself in their faces, their laughter, their tears, their body fluids, their demands, is jarring. You have whiplash. I get it. You’ve bled for them. You’ve cried for them. And in the midst of it all you’ve tried to appear strong for them, berating yourself wholly when you fail to keep yourself hidden from them. You don’t want them to feel responsible for making you happy, because you don’t want them to feel like failures when they can’t. The sound of your oldest child’s voice as she tried to comfort you as you violently lost the pregnancy after hers — doubled over on the floor, naked, in pain — continues to haunt your memories. Echoes of the nightmare that leaves you disturbed and beside yourself. “It’s ok, Mom. I like you.” The only tool she had, a line Marlin used to comfort Dory in Finding Nemo. Playing over and over again in your thoughts, your heart, and feeling so much like your fault.

Then this one popped up not two months after that violent event, entering into a grief-stricken woman. You tried to connect with the pregnancy like you did with the oldest, yet your body wouldn’t let go of the feeling of violation. You loved her in utero. You smiled with pure joy when you felt her move for the first time, you grabbed his hand to feel her as she continued to move, you built her up to her soon-to-be big sister, and you sobbed with relief when you finally met her. Yet between those highlights was that damned space again, and those spaces were messy and sad. So you disconnected yourself from time to time, your distance feeling so much like your fault.

Look at her face, Danielle. Look at the face that looks so much like her father. Her father; you were both shocked to make it to your sixth wedding anniversary. The grief, the unrelenting bills, spilled glasses of milk, opposing work schedules, increasing responsibility, and time apart drove a canyon between you, and all you could see were the spaces, not the dream. You searched his face for the highlights of the dream, yet his eyes looked like those of a stranger. Feeling so much like his fault. Feeling so much like your fault.

But she has his face. And her face is bliss. And his eyes are back, and his eyes can be bliss too.

Ten more days, Danielle. Ten more days and you’ll be living in a space a third this size, a space with no hammock and no apple trees. Ten more days and the medical bills will be gone just as much as the house will. Ten more days and your sacrifice will be complete, the sale will be done and your debtors paid off. You’ve rested today in a feeling of defeat — you rest in that state most days now — so rest now with her tiny arms around you. For those tiny arms, and everything between them, is your greatest victory. Stay here.