Now I Lay Me, Down To Sleep
August 24, 2013
Circa Spring, 1995
One of the great, great experiences of parenthood is the deep abiding feelings of love and peace that a parent gets from holding a sleeping child. There is nothing quite as endearing as when a child of a certain age climbs up in your lap, and goes into a deep sleep against you. The small, warm body and the smell of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo transport you to a place that is difficult to express in mere words. This innocent act forges a connection between parent and child that is strong, and important.
One of the great tragedies of being a father in a contentious divorce means that your lawyer will caution you before even the final papers are signed: “Don’t forget and take a nap with your child. It will be seen as… ‘inappropriate’.” I scoffed at this. What could be more innocent?
Until the day in the custody hearing when I was asked “Do you let your child sleep with you?”
“No.” I stated plainly.
“Even at naptime?” the judge had asked pointedly.
I wanted badly to spit “Why would that matter?” in defiant tones. But I knew it did. And I knew why.
Mouse was very afraid of the dark. One of our permanent bedtime rituals was that I would lay beside her on her bed, and read to her before bedtime. I would gently run my finger along the hair at her temple as I read, and she would slowly, inexorably, sink into sleep.
I had mastered the art of slipping from beside her and exiting her room absolutely silently.
It broke my heart to know that because of the divorce, I’d be confined to a chair beside her bed, or be labeled in a way that angers me to even communicate.
The ex, on the other hand, had absolutely NO problem allowing Mouse to sleep beside her. In her bed. All night. Every night.
This set up a dichotomy between her mother’s house and mine that was difficult to manage at first.
I knew that Mouse loved me, but, the truth was, at her mom’s house she would be allowed to sleep with her mom in her mom’s bed all night long. She would never be without a ‘buddy’ beside her in the dark.
When she would rotate back to my house, she would have to sleep in her room. Alone.
Her fear of the dark insured that this was actually a barrier to her enjoying our time together.
This was by design, of course. A first glimpse at what would be years of poor behavior and manipulation that would, in years to come, escalate into scenarios that no father should ever have to endure.
One evening, after putting her to bed, I decided to turn in early. I went through the house “buttoning up”, turning out lights, locking doors, checking the house. A few weeks before we had decided to divorce, I had bought a boxer puppy that required emptying and putting away in her crate so she didn’t fuss and roam all night.
As I passed Mouse’s door, I heard whimpering. She was crying. Not the pouty, petty crying of a petulant child, but the soft whimpering of a sad little girl.
I entered her room and sat beside her on the bed. Brushing her soft brown curls away from her face, I asked her what was wrong, although, in my heart of hearts, I already knew.
She struggled to put into words something that was a lot bigger than she was. But… in a small voice she explained to me that she looked forward to coming to my house all week. Things at her mom’s were “hard”, although she wouldn’t say exactly what that meant, and while she was anxious to get back to Dad’s house, which she considered “home”, bed times made her “tummy hurt”. Mostly because she had to sleep by herself. She was caught between her love of her Dad, and having to sleep alone.
I had to fight back tears myself, but they were tears of anger. Anyone who would set a little girl up to be this confused and heartbroken needed help.
“What are you most afraid of?” I asked her.
“The dark.” She said in a tiny voice.
“I’ll fix it.” I said.
“How?” she asked.
I had no idea. As a father I like to think I have the wisdom I need. Sometimes I have to turn to another Father for that wisdom.
The next day the Father was watching out for me, and showed me the way.
I was paying for my gas at the small station near the house while on the way to work, when my eyes fell on an impulse display setting near the cash register. It was one of those gaudy cardboard affairs designed to catch the eye. For $1.99 you could have your very own Guardian Angel. It was made of cheap, stamped metal. It had a thin stem on the back, which was poked through the cardboard and held in place with a pressed tin button the color of brass.
I slipped one from the cardboard cut-out and paid for it, slipping it into my pocket and forgetting about it for the rest of the day.
On the way home that evening, I stopped at two places. Sears, and the pet store.
As the evening wore on, Mouse became more tense. I understood why.
Eventually, I had to break the uneasy silence. I looked at the clock, and said quietly. “Bed time, Mouse.”
She’s never been a whiner, or a fit thrower. She lowered her face and quietly padded in to put on her pajamas.
“Let’s do something different tonight.” I said.
Mouse’s eyes searched my face for some hint.
“Got something for you.” I said. “Few things actually.”
I asked her to go sit on her bed.
A few minutes later, I came into her room bearing gifts. Three of them.
I handed her the first. It was one of my old t-shirts. On me, it barely fit. On her tiny frame it went all the way to the floor. She put her face in the soft cotton and sniffed loudly. “It smells like you.” She said simply. It didn’t sound like a complaint.
“Can I wear it every night? For real?” she said with a bright smile that only a small child can manage.
“For real.” I assured.
The second gift was a small Winnie the Pooh lamp. At the base was a smaller lamp, with an opaque plastic cover on it a night light. I plugged it in and put it on her dresser. We fussed with it a few minutes, learning the sequence of knob rotations. One click. Lamp on. Two Clicks. Lamp and nightlight on. Three clicks. Nightlight only. Four clicks. All lights off. The small nightlight at the bottom of the lamp threw enough illumination around the room to chase out the majority of the darkness, but wasn’t so glaring that sleep would be hard.
“Wow!” She said.
“Wow.” I repeated.
The third gift she didn’t understand. At first. It was a dog bed. I made a great display of taking it from the box, and putting it on the floor near her bed.
Then it hit her.
“Ripley?” she said.
“Ripley.” I agreed. “She’s a good guard dog.” This was, of course, just silly. Ripley was big, and slobbery, and like all boxers an ass-clown that was friendly to the point of ridiculousness. But to a small girl she was as good a guardian as one could ever want. And another warm body in the room to make her feel as if she wasn’t sleeping alone.
“Can I go get her out of the crate?” she said, with excited eyes.
“Yah.” I said, with a look. “But if she doesn’t behave, or roams around, we’ll have to put her back in the crate.”
“I understand.” Mouse said. I knew she did.
I was concerned about the puppy not sleeping, or roaming the floor. But the big, slobbery girl seemed to immediately grasp the situation, and went right to the dog bed. She stood in the middle of the overstuffed dog bed, turned around once, twice, three times, then laid down with her face on her paws as if she’d been sleeping there from the beginning. I didn’t know it that night, but she would sleep there most nights for the rest of her life.
“Bed time story.” I said.
“Five.” She said.
“Two”. I counter offered.
“Three.” She countered my counter offer.
“Done.” I said. We shook on it as if we were Arab camel traders.
Down from the shelves came three of the small books that were her “stories”.
As we finished the third and final, I pointed to the lamp beside the bed. One, two, three clicks. Nightlight only.
As I got up to leave, I searched her face to see if these new additions to our nighttime ritual were going to ease her mind.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah.” She said. I could tell she was trying to be brave. But her voice still sounded small and afraid.
As I stood there searching for a way to make things better for her, my hand slipped into my pocket, and closed around the tiny little guardian angel pin. It was the Father’s hand on my shoulder.
My heart leapt a little. It was the perfect closer to the gifts already offered.
“One more thing,” I said, and sat on the bed beside her. “I have something, very, very, very special for you. But… you must promise to take very good care of it.”
Mouse sat up a little intrigued by the conspiratorial tone of my voice.
“What is it?” she asked.
I brought my hand out of my pocket, the tiny angel hidden inside. “Promise first.” I said.
“Cross my heart.” She replied.
I pressed the little $1.99 angel into hand as if it was a priceless diamond.
I felt a little spark of magic transfer.
Her eyes glittered as I pinned it to my (now hers) oversized t-shirt.
“It will keep you safe, and guard you against all harm.” I stated emphatically.
And in that instant, she believed it would.
Later that night I peeked in on her.
Ripley had sneakily slipped from the dog bed to the foot of Mouse’s bed, and shot me a look as I peeked as if to say “Get over it, Dude. You want her to feel safe, don’t you?” I resolved to take her advice. As I brushed the hair from her little face I could see that the nightlight had driven the shadows from it.
The little guardian angel pin glittered cheaply there on my old t-shirt, the best $1.99 I’d ever spent in my life.
Thank you, Father.
Who Can Say… Where Magic Lives
August 18, 2013
Circa Winter, 1998
There is a moment that one can only find on rare Midwestern winter evenings. A small window in time after a heavy evening snow, when the violence of the winter storm has moved on to other cities, and the stars come out, and the snow has glazed over to a crisp, unbroken sheet that mutes every sound.
I am standing hand in hand with Mouse as we marvel at how unbelievably clear the evening air is, and how unbelievably silent the world has become. There is a sparkle in Mouse’s eyes and I hear her small voice softly whisper “wow”. Dad and nine year old daughter are connected by this magic.
“Are you ready?” I say. My voice sounds supernaturally reverent in the muted winter air. “Are they really here” Mouse asks? “I’m pretty sure.” I reply. “We’ll have to see.”
“Where do they live?” Mouse asks. Her voice matches my reverence automatically.
“I’m not precisely sure, Mouse.” I say. “I’m not sure where they actually live at. But I know they like to play under trees and bushes, away from the street and people and dogs and traffic.”
“Quiet places.” She states. It’s not a question.
“Exactly.” I say.
We walk along the silent suburban streets. The plows haven’t made it through here yet. There has been six, perhaps eight inches of heavy, wet snow. Another quarter of an inch of freezing rain has put a fine glaze on the new fallen snow. Everyone is tucked up tight, avoiding the dangerous roads, and keeping warm.
Everyone but the two adventurers.
“What will they look like?” Mouse asks. She is normally a quiet and pensive child, content to let the adventure unfold, and enjoy where it might take us. But tonight her excitement level is palpable, and she is having a hard time constraining it.
“Not sure, Mouse.” I say, “Not sure they are even out at any rate.” I offer. “I was your age the last time I saw them.” I offer.
Another soft “wow” escapes her.
Our winter boots are doing a wonderful dance, the steps of which require us to put our foot down, apply a little pressure, and listen for the sharp, crisp, “snap” as the glaze of ice gives way and our weight falls through the ice to the street below. The snaps give a strange, out of phase echo against the sides of the houses and street signs as we walk.
“You cold?” I check.
“Nah.” Mouse says. I can see by the color in her cheeks that she is, but she’s never been a whiney kid. There is adventure afoot. She knows if her Dad thinks she’s cold or uncomfortable he’ll begin to worry about colds and flus and missed schools etc. No way is she letting that happen.
Her tenacity is one of the things I admire so much about her.
Our adventuring takes us to the top of the street, and then to the grade school. She points out “her” window. I’m pretty certain it is the exact same room I had when I was in the fourth grade. We marvel together at the fact that there are still teachers there that I had when I was her age.
As we round the corner on the return trip home, I hear an audible gasp. Her small, mitten covered hand tightens around mine. She freezes in place, motionless and silent. Her voice is very small, and very soft, but the muted winter air amplifies it. “Dad…” she whispers.
I can see on her face that she’s seen something. I track her line of sight to the side of the grade school. There is a small, snow covered bush near the ancient, rusted and also snow covered bicycle rack. Her eyes are riveted to the snow beneath the bush.
I squint to see what she is seeing.
And there… dancing on the snow… about three inches above the ground, is a tiny blue light. It bobs and circles, and plays along the bark of the base of the bushes. It dances from bare branch to bare branch, and then back to the snow beneath the branches.
“Is that…” she asks excitedly.
I suppress a mighty laugh of happiness. “I can’t believe it Mouse.” I say, letting her hear the smile in my voice. “You found one!” I let the mighty laugh out. The dancing blue light vanishes at the sound of my voice.
“Dad!” she admonishes. “You scared her off!” She’s visibly disappointed.
“I’m sorry Mouse.” I offer. I’m truly contrite. “I didn’t mean to scare him off.” I shrug apologetically. “Let’s stand here a minute. Perhaps he’ll come back.”
“It’s a she.” Mouse corrects. “All faeries are girls.”
I did not know this. I’m not prepared to argue. Mouse has been reading a great many “Faery” books lately, and knows her stuff. I’m pretty sure she knows more about this than I do.
We stand for long moments. But the blue faery does not return.
“Let’s head home.” I say. It’s getting late, and we are both very cold.
“Just another minute” Mouse says.
“She’s moved on. “ I offer. “If we’re quiet we may see another on the way home.”
She pouts a little. Not a small, petty pout. Just a little disappointment shining through.
We turn back toward home, and begin to retrace our steps. There is now a very distinct halo around all of the streetlights, and they are throwing an eerie glow on the glassy snow. Our encounter has changed the tone of the evening to a darker, more conspiratorial one.
About half way home it’s me that hushes us to an abrupt halt.
“Where?” Mouse whispers quietly.
“There.” I say. “Near the top of Mr. Washington’s Catalpa tree.”
Her eyes track up, up, up the ice covered branches. Approximately half way up a pale blue light dances and sways. Mouse and I stand transfixed. The frost blue light bounces and weaves and plays among the branches.
For long minutes we watch the faery dance. It darts from branch to branch then back to the trunk. The long thin Catalpa husks that refuse to fall until spring twinkle in the gentle winter air, and the small blue light delights in spinning in and out and through and around them.
“She’s a tree sprite.” Mouse whispers.
“You think?” I ask. My knowledge of faeries is not what it should be.
“I’m certain.” She states. “Sprites live in trees. Faeries live in more open areas.” My education continues.
“Do you think she’d let me get close?” Mouse asks.
“Pfft.” I offer. “I wouldn’t think so, Mouse. They seem really skittish.”
“I’m going to try.” She says quietly.
“I’ll wait here.” I say. “I’ll watch over you.”
Her small hand slips from mine, and she begins to very, very slowly edge her way into Mr. Washington’s front yard, the crisp glaze of snow crunching beneath her small boot-covered feet.
She makes it about half way to the Catalpa tree when the small blue light freezes suddenly. Mouse freezes as well. For a long moment they are both completely still, frozen motionless in the winter air. Then suddenly, the blue light flicks left, then right, then quickly down, to the base of the tree. It skitters across the snow and along the base of the base of Mr. Washington’s well maintained home, then it slips beneath the neatly landscaped bushes, and is gone.
“Wow!” Mouse says. No longer taking the pains to be quiet.
“Wow.” I repeat.
“Wow!” She says again.
I cannot hide my smile. Mouse and I have shared a magical moment, on a crisp, Midwestern winter night.
In the half of a block that remains until we reach our front door, Mouse educates me in the ways of faeries and sprites, and nymphs and assorted other magical creatures. I listen intently as she downloads the data she’s acquired through the reading of the eight or ten books on faeries that lately have populated her reading queue. I’m careful to listen much, and talk little. I ask the odd, appropriate question, so that she understands I’m truly interested in the things she has to share with me.
Later that night, tucked warm beneath the covers in room, with Ripley our big, slobbery Boxer standing guard dutifully at the foot of her bed, we relive the adventures of the evening in bright tones. We speculate about that which we do not know.
Our operating theory is that the faeries are blue, because it is wintertime. It seems to make a great deal of sense to the both of us.
The magic of that evening infects our conversations, and our evenings together for many weeks afterward. During the weeks that followed she occasionally calls me from her mother’s house to ask if I have seen any more of them. My answer is always a variation on the theme. In my evening walks with Ripley I have searched and searched, but haven’t seen any faeries as of yet.
Winter warms to spring, and spring to summer.
There is a summer counterpart to the magical Midwestern winter nights that happens on only one or two evenings a year. It is “The First Warm Night of Summer.” The first evening of the summer that is truly a “summer” evening, and one realizes that spring has faded, and summer was truly, officially on deck.
It was one of these rare evenings, when Mouse and I decide to take Ripley for a long evening walk.
Unencumbered by heavy winter clothing, and pulled along by an eager Boxer, we head out on along our regular route. The first warm days of summer were and remain special days for Mouse and me. Our steps are quick, and bright, and we are happy to be alive, and in the world, and adventuring together.
Near the schoolyard, almost in the exact same spot we saw the winter faery, Ripley begins to bark and pull at her leash. Mouse’s eyes flash and her voice is bright and excited.
“Dad! I saw one!”
“Where?” I say. “Where?”
“There!” Mouse squeals, pointing to the same bush we saw the first faery during that winter night.
My eyes search the bush, but I see nothing.
Ripley is threatening to tear my arm off as she lunges in the direction that Mouse is pointing. She has apparently seen something interesting as well.
“She was there!” Mouse says. “Ripley barked and scared her, but she was there!”
I can see she is in earnest. I’m certain she’s seen something.
“Can we take Ripley home and look some more?” Her eyes are so bright and excited. I will not deprive her of this adventure.
“Sure.” I say. “Let’s put her up, and we’ll come back.”
It is not a ‘school night’, and we have nothing but time.
Thirty minutes later, Ripley is safely put away in the yard, and we have returned to the spot where we know the faeries frequent.
“She was red, Daddy.” Mouse states. “She was red this time.”
My eyebrows arch a little at this revelation. “Hmmm.” I say. “Kinda makes sense.” I offer.
“Yes!” Mouse says. “Summer time faeries are red. Winter faeries are blue.” I’m buying what she’s selling, and I let the look on my face tell her this is so.
The red faery of the summer evening is no longer in evidence at the schoolyard. Nor can we find her in the top of Mr. Washington’s tree.
Mouse looks terribly disappointed.
“Let’s take one more trip around The Big Block.” I say. “You up for it?”
Our suburban neighborhood is a nested series of concentric circles. There is the “small block” which is comprised of a small square bordered by the immediate streets surrounding our house. Perhaps a quarter of a mile in total. Then there is the “big block” which is a longer set of streets that make up a walk that is perhaps as long as a mile and a half in total.
“Please?” Mouse asks.
We head down the street at an adventurers pace.
Approximately a half a mile into our journey, we are brought up short. It’s not a house we recognize or are familiar with, but there… under a bush near the front porch, was a small red light, dancing in the darkness. Mouse and I both see it at the same time, and stop in unison. I can hear her breathing quicken. The magic in the summer evening air and between us is very present.
We watch for a long time as it dances and plays beneath the bush, and then blinks out.
“Wow!” Mouse says again.
“Wow.” I repeat.
We spend another evening in awe of our adventure. The magic we had experienced with the blue faeries of winter we relive with the red faeries of summer.
Two weeks later, she has rotated back to my custody, and we are at Target and have been shopping for “summer clothes”. In line, at the checkout counter, there is a wall of items meant to entice impulse shoppers. Hanging near the cash register are small blister packages, with what appears to be a tiny flashlight encased in it. There are two distinct models. One is red, and the other blue. The gaudy packaging declares them “laser pointers” good for any number of useful purposes. One is “LazerRED”, the other is “IceBLUE”. The blister packaging is cut away around the on/off switch and the writing on the package declares loudly “Try Me!”
I am trying to hurry our purchase through the process when Mouse’s eyes fall on the brightly colored penlights. Her eyes meet mine, and I know I am minutes from being busted.
Typically well behaved, Mouse fights years of “Don’t touch stuff” indoctrination and reaches out for the packaged labeled “IceBLUE”. Her finger finds the small rubber stud that operates the tiny blue laser penlight and a frost blue colored light dances on the display rack. In Mouse’s hands it dances and darts. After only a moment’s practice, it is dancing and darting and precisely mimicking the dance of the faeries. She repeats the process with the “LazerRED” penlight.
She gives me a long look. In her eyes I see the reflection of a conversation we had over a year ago, when she was poking around in my study, and ran across two identical penlights in my study drawer.
“What are these?” she had asked.
“Just some flashlights that don’t work anymore.” I had said, and then I had quickly spirited them away.
Slowly, the truth behind the magic of the faeries dawned in her eyes. An incredulous smile spreads across her face.
I know beyond any doubt she has put two and two together, and now realizes the truth behind both the blue faeries of winter, and the red faeries of summer.
On the long ride home I wait for her reaction.
She says little but she has an odd smirk on her face. The smirk says “I knew that old fart was behind the faeries somehow, but I just couldn’t figure out exactly how. I have finally figured it out. “
She never verbalized the fact that she had completely discovered her father’s shenanigans, but neither did she ever again pester me to take her out faery hunting. Nor did she bring it up in casual conversation again.
Some years later I would ask her about this, when I was certain that the statute of limitations on parental war-crimes had expired. She confessed to me that for one short winter, and for one short summer, she had allowed herself to believe in faeries, and to believe in magic. She confessed that she had not been upset at all.. She recognized that her Dad hadn’t faked the faeries in an effort to fool, or make fun of her, but in an effort create a magic that we could share together.
In short, she “got it.”
It was “Daddy Magic.” And remains one of the great memories of her childhood.