“I don’t ever want to lose you.”
It’s the witching hours when her words cut deepest, a soft whisper against my neck while tiny arms hug me tightly in a silent defiance of all things cruel and unusual. Night after night, I answer the call of her voice as it floats uneasily down the hallway, crawling under the covers to wrap my arms around her as she fights to stay awake.
Of all the ties that bind it is this bond that should never have been forged – a childish fear of the dark that death brought to life – that holds us closest.
Ever the contrarian, my daughter plays quietly night after night in a mound of covers, soft pillows and stuffed animals while my son greets the sandman before I cross back over the threshold of his room. Hours after the lights are dimmed and flecks of light begin to dance across her walls, her whispers float down the hallway as bunnies and peacocks and kittens and puppies band together in familial threesomes.
A mommy. A girl. A brother. Never a daddy.
She knows that a daddy is warm and safe and happy. But what memories remain – distant embers that burn brightly for brief moments triggered by the way light falls in the hallway, the way an ordinary object sits on a shelf, a story long forgotten remembered in laughter – are indelibly linked to the pain and confusion of loss.
For weeks afterward she drew pictures of the man that had vanished without warning, as though the carefully drawn images would change time and space. And then the man grew smaller and less colorful before taking his perch in the clouds before vanishing altogether, an image that faded into the background along with the pain. She questioned why she could not float to him with the balloons that disappeared into the vast sky above, and why he could not slide down just for a moment. As time passed she let his image return, on her terms and on occasion, in vivid color and warm context.
But with age comes understanding and the realization that childhood fantasies often remain unrealized while fears do not. She knows that there are gaps in the childhood that is shaping her, but does not understand who or what they are. Her days are filled with laughter and contentment, interrupted by what is missing when it erupts like a festering sore accidentally scratched. The world that stopped turning now spins on a new axis.
But it is the dead of night when things that can go bump do. And it is at night when things disappear into the dark. Because when daylight broke they had.
And tonight sleep has abandoned us both, because as darkness settles tomorrow I will disappear into it far away from her and from him. I cannot promise her the one thing she needs, but of this I am certain. When daylight breaks tomorrow she will be sleeping peacefully under the covers.
In my room.