There is a little boy who lives at our house. He sleeps in the corner of our bedroom cuddled under the fleece of hand-me-down blankets inside a well-loved crib. The teeth marks of our three children decorate the railing. A sad gray bunny sits at the foot of the mattress keeping watch.
I hear this little boy breathe each night, cry out for his mother (who is she again?) as I lay motionless in my own bed, praying he learns that delicate art of sleep, that period of rest where bodies and minds heal from the hurt of the day, that gentle reset calling forth our best selves by morning light – but not if we don’t do the thing we came here to do. Not if we don’t sleep. And so I close my eyes and pray. Please God, help this little boy go back to sleep. Please God, help me go back to sleep. Please God, help.
I lay there, afraid to breathe. Maybe the little boy doesn’t know I’m here. Maybe he doesn’t yet recognize my scent (will he ever?). I am a bulge in the blankets on the far side of the room, or am I more? I am supposed to be more, but not too much. We must be careful not to be too much. We are mere placeholders, stand-ins for the real thing (strange how real this thing feels).
I hold my breath. I am always holding my breath these days, praying the trapped air in my lungs sustains just a few seconds longer because he’s quiet now. I think he’s nearly settled. Ah, yes. Settle in. Find comfort here. Again, I close my eyes just as the little boy launches into a wail piercing the gray air between my bed and his. I rise and walk to his corner of the room, lay a hand on his back, rub small circles until the crying stops and his breath slows. I return to bed and my abandoned prayer. It shifts from a cry for sleep to a cry for peace, peace for this little boy, for me, for decisions that are not mine to make.
I am only here to make the bottles and the breakfasts and the doctor’s appointments, to sit in the back of the court room and listen quietly. I am here to change the diapers, to rock the sleepy-headed little boy, to bathe him and comb through soft curls, to dress him and love him and mother him without becoming his mother (but can I still hope to be?) There are no answers. Just questions.
And so I remind myself – I am only here to ready the diaper bag that goes off alongside this little boy to visits that I imagine to be all smiles and sadness but can never really know because he is only a little boy. He cannot tell me who these visitors are to him. He can only smile and cry and sleep all the way back to our home (his home?). And when I lift him from his car seat, I catch a scent that is not his. This little boy’s face, it seems, has changed a bit. What is this essence left on him? Is it his? Is this the real little boy that I catch for a moment or two before he turns back into the one who belongs here, in this house, with this new family we are forming?
Shaken, I plunk him in a bath, hoping to wash this strange unfamiliarity from his tiny body. I watch him babble to the rubber ducks and whales, sing to his reflection in the shiny metal of the faucet. Which reflection does he see? Toweled off and lotioned smooth, I recognize him once again and things settle until the next time I ready the diaper bag. Because that is what I’m here to do.
This little boy who lives at our house has been here for a while, and every day his presence feels more like the air we breathe automatically, without thinking, and less like those calculated breaths in the stillness of the night as his little feet rustle against sheets and I pray for quiet slumber, for peace. He is starting to belong here, but in truth, he has felt that way since the beginning, when he was nothing more than a name thrown across the airwaves and into my ear then out of my mouth, and almost immediately, that name became part of our family and who we are and who we hope to be as days go by, months (dare I dream, years?).
But we are not where his story began, and mine were not the hands and words and love and secret moments that carried him from creation and into our arms. Those were someone else’s hands placing little boy against bare chest, a chest still heaving from the struggle of bringing life into this bright and glorious and terrible world, a world that unfolds so very differently depending on where our story begins. I think back to where my story began, and the story before that, and before that. I think about the stories that had to be lived for my world to look this way. I think about the stories that have called this little boy into existence and into the crib tucked neatly in the corner of our bedroom. I go back to prayer, asking that his story be a brave and beautiful one.
This little boy is sleeping soundly now, and I lay my head back into the comfort of king-sized pillows. I let the breath out of my chest, burning with hope and fear and knowing that I am only here to make the bottles, to change the diapers, to love him so wholly in the only way I know how – as a mother. I am here to lull this little boy back to sleep and peace, and in doing so, find some of my own, if only for tonight.