Today my two-year-old daughter asked for birthday cake and candles. Her birthday is in October. October 5, 2008, to be exact. But I'm always up for a song and we had bran muffins that were just spongy enough to hold a leftover taper from Hanukah. I also reasoned that the two dates were actually pretty similar. Her birthday is 10/5/08. 10+5+8=23. Today's date is 2/14/11. 14-2+11=23. And if I broke it down even further, today's date rearranged reads 1:42, which is the minute she was born, two years, three months, and nine days ago.
I did not explain all of these calculations to her. First of all, she's just mastering her abc's, but also because I know this kind of number jumbling is not necessarily fun for everyone. I've always been a little too proud of the way I can memorize birthdays, phone numbers, combination locks and clock configurations. I leak a nerdy smile when I have exact change. I don't know if it's a "symptom" of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I'd rather call it a somewhat-rare-and-pretty-unimpressive gift.
But a gift nonetheless, because as anyone from age two to two hundred will agree, patterns and repetitions are soothing. It's astounding how many times we can match my daughter's teacups side by side or play peek-a-boo with the same hiding spot. And for my newborn, I am absurdly consistent with how many times I sing each song at bath time, which direction I rub his belly and the order in which I kiss his toes. I want him to recognize the comforts of these precise rituals, yes, but it's definitely just as much to calm Mama too.
And unfortunately, my pattern seeking and repetitions can lead me to very dark places. A few weeks ago, my daughter woke up in the middle of the night crying about a snake in her crib. My husband turned on the light and showed her the bare mattress. We shared some warm milk and a cuddle and she drifted off again. But a little while later she was calling again, this time screaming,
"Messy, Mama! Messy!"
She had thrown up all over, and stood, stunned in the middle of her crib. I have to admit, my first instinct was flight. I've always been ridiculously scared of throw up, especially seeing someone else sick. I'll try to skip over the gory details. As with all fears, I believe the story is really unimportant. It's the immediate clutch in my throat, heart, stomach, brain. The impasse I hit where I can only see this is bad this is wrong there is no way out.
Blessedly, it was a 24-hour bug, and my daughter was braver than I about the whole thing. But I could not shake that fear. I memorized the sound of her sick cry - the timbre of her voice, her look of shock. A week later, I was edgy and anxious. My husband asked me to stop pacing and I informed him this was exactly a week since her first throw up.
"So you think every Monday night she's going to be sick?" he asked. A fair question, but I couldn't just shrug it off. Every time she called from her crib or used the word "messy" in the following weeks, I felt my chest tighten and demanded,
"Are you sick? Are you sick?"
I can all too easily groove these pathways into my brain. Commemorating and replaying untamable fears. And it never prepares me for what is actually happening. It only takes me out of the moment, and makes me unavailable for my children.
Which is what happened just before I sat down to write this. My daughter called out from her crib last night. The snake was back. We turned on the light, exposed the bare mattress, had our warm milk, and drifted off. Well, she did. I lay awake trying to blink away the images of her sick.
"It's the same dream!" I whispered urgently at my husband.
"She's fine," he assured me.
"But," I protested. This is bad this is wrong there is no way out.
My daughter is fine. She woke up today singing happy birthday and offering me imaginary cake. Which I ate gratefully, ravenously. Later in the morning she tells us it wasn't a snake after all but an alligator. Only proving once again that I can reconstruct the past and resurrect any trauma, but it will never tell me what today will bring.
The kindest thing I can do for my family and myself is to accept my unknowing.