“Tell me a story,” she says kindly, not like a demand but more dreamy and full of hope. I sit by her bed while her fingers trace my eyes, my cheekbones. Her legs are bent to make a mountain of her blankets. The light is soft. Her face is calm.
“Not tonight, honey. Mami isn’t feeling very creative.”
Made-up stories are not part of our nightly routine, but I’ve never yet denied her when she’s asked. Her eyes fly open. “Then what am I supposed to think about?”
What do I think about before falling asleep? Nothing. Everything. The sound of my breath.
“Think about the best parts of your day,” I suggest, and as she lies with her eyes again closed, I wonder if this is possible. Can you think about only the best parts, or do the other parts fall into your drifting thoughts, too? If she remembers that new dance with finger-snapping, head bobbing, and elbow kissing, must she also remember whispered words behind cupped hands when she botches an art project? If she re-lives the moment on the lake, when she mastered a dive with aunties and moms cheering her on, must she also re-live all the shouting when I told her to take a shower and she refused, or the conversation which followed our attempts at apology, when I told her we’d get past it and she promised me we never would?
When do we begin forming habits about which bits of the day, the month, the year, which parts of life we focus on? At eight? At three? At twenty-five? How late is too late to re-train ourselves?
“This is when I started losing my mom,” I told a friend. Around eight years old, or nine, or ten. I’ve been trying to understand why I engage in power struggles with my daughter when she’s only trying to become her own person. “But you’re not your mom. Your daughter’s not you. You have an entirely different relationship,” my friend reminded me, and of course she’s right, although rationality escapes me in the heat of a fight. I suppose it escapes everyone then.
My daughter’s eyes open again and she looks to me for guidance. “Think about ducks,” I suggest, “Or mushrooms, or Duck Tape creations. Think about catching frogs by the lake. Think about itty bitty birds, or howler monkeys. Making friends with a giant tiger who follows you around all day.”
“Fairies,” she says to me.
“Yeah.” I smile.
I can see she’s settling in, so I stay quiet, petting her head another minute or so. She’s still awake as I stand up, but she’s beginning to drift.
She’s beginning to drift along her own silent stream. A little nudge from me, a little self-direction, a flow we’ll be practicing for years. Paddling. Drifting. Nudging. Guiding. Both of us here on the river, practicing what’s needed to get us around each bend.