Back in 2011, all three of my children moved out of our house within about a six week period.
Our oldest was already a college graduate, while her brothers were still in the process of getting their educations.
As a “MammaBear”, that year just about broke my heart.
I know, I know: it is a sign of having succeeded when your children reach adulthood and move out into this wide and wonderful world.
Still, for me the transition was the most painful thing I’d ever encountered.
I remember, so very clearly, one cold winter night after they’d all moved out. I couldn’t sleep. I tossed, and I turned, and I tried to visualize every beach I’d ever seen. At 2AM, my heart was knocking in my chest, and I got up.
I made my way through my silent house to the living room. I stood for a moment in the window, gazing out into the snowy, frozen night.
I knew that I was a very lucky woman; my husband of more than 30 years slept down the hall. Our dogs were snoozing on the couch.
Still. My heart hurt.
I sat down in the rocking chair where I’d so often held my children. I pulled a blanket around myself, and stared out into the starlit, frozen night.
And I wondered.
When was the last time that I’d sat here in the night, rocking a feverish little child? When had I last held one of my children to my heart and murmured words of comfort into their ear?
I didn’t know, and that realization had me curling forward, over my knees, sobbing into the winter night.
I wanted to go back! I wanted to recognize my last ever night of holding a sick baby in my arms. I wanted a do-over.
When do we sweep our children into our arms for the very last time? When do we hold them as they shiver with the chills, not knowing that this moment will never come again?
I was so filled with grief, even as I recognized how lucky I was to have brought three babies into a healthy adulthood.
I wanted, just for one more night, to hold a hot little body against my heart, to soothe and to comfort and to rock. I wanted the chance to feel so deeply needed, so wanted, so important.
In my sheltered and unimpressive life, those were my best, most competent, most meaningful moments.
And the years, as they do, went by.
My children made their way into their adult lives. They are happy, productive, loving and whole. My job should be done.
But I’m not ready to let go.
Last night our beautiful little granddaughter spent the night here. Her parents were committed to an event at the school where her Momma is a teacher. Her little brother went with them.
But Ellie had been running a fever for a few days. She couldn’t go to the game. We decided that it made sense for her to spend the night here with her Papa and I.
Because I take care of Ellie and Johnny every day, our house is all set up for them to sleep here. I had pajamas in the drawer. The “Nappie bed” was ready. Ellie’s Dad dropped off her favorite stuffies for the night.
All was well, more or less, as Ellie settled into her bed for the night. I was planning to turn on the monitor but let her sleep by herself just the way she does at home.
But at bedtime, her fever began to rise, and she became a little weepy. “Nonni, will you sleep with me?” she asked. My old momma heart rose in my chest, and I assured her that I’d be delighted.
The two of us snuggled into the nappy bed, where a nightlight, two strings of Christmas lights and a glowstick kept away both her fears and my ability to sleep.
By ten pm, Ellie was asleep, and Nonni was tossing and moving the blankets on and off.
By eleven, Ellie was panting, her eyes were glowing with fever, and she was sobbing about how much she wanted to go home.
I pulled out the thermometer for a check. When it read 105, my heart dropped. “This isn’t right,” I told myself, and checked once again. 104.8 was the reading this time around.
I jumped out of the bed, and poured a dose of ibuprofen. I went into the bathroom for a cool, wet facecloth and began to wipe down Ellie’s face and neck. I pulled back the covers, and whispered that I’d make it OK.
The poor little kid curled herself into my chest, and sobbed.
I suddenly remembered how much I’d missed rocking a hot little body in the night, and guilt flooded me. Had I somehow brought on her illness by wishing to be the one to comfort her?
In something of a panic, I texted Ellie’s Dad, telling him that she was crying to come home at midnight. He answered immediately that he’d be right there.
But common sense and a mother’s wisdom prevailed; as the medicine kicked in and her temperature dropped, Ellie’s Mom decided that it made no sense to take a sick toddler out into the icy cold of a Massachusetts’ December night. Better to wait until morning.
Of course, I did.
Because after that call, I found myself once again wrapped in a blanket, in my living room rocking chair, comforting a sick little child.
We rocked, she dozed, we rocked some more.
My arms went tightly around her, and I felt the familiar blessing of a tiny, hot hand, resting on my cheek in the darkest part of the night.
“I’m so happy that you’re here with me, Nonni,” Ellie whispered. “I’m having fun on our sleepover.”
I pulled her to me, as close as we could get. I kissed the sweaty hair on her brow, and handed her a cup of cool water.
“I am so lucky,” I said into her shoulder. “I am so lucky. Here you are. In my arms.”
It was three AM, and I was still holding her. Her breath was hot and panting on my cheek.
I was so sorry that she was sick. I prayed that I could pull the virus out of her and into myself. I was more than a little freaked out about her very high temperature.
I laid my cool cheek against her feverish one.
“I’m here,” I said.
“I know,” she whispered back.
That fever raged the whole night long. We rocked, we sang, we took medicine every few hours. Ellie panted, and dreamed and cried for home. But she also wound her arms around my neck and pulled me close.
My love for her is a deep and enduring echo of the love I held, and still hold, for her mother and her uncles. I remember every long, feverish night of their childhoods. I remember thinking, “Dear God, let this end!” and I remember my firm belief that I wouldn’t survive another all night rocking-the-sick-kid marathon.
But now I know that one long night is nothing.
I know that it is everything.
In the blink of an eye, these little children won’t need my loving care anymore.
And that is just as it should be.
But for now?
For now I am so happy to have had a chance to feel that too-hot hand resting on my cheek, and to feel those too-hot lips pressed to my neck with love and gratitude.
For now, I am so tired, and so worn down, and so very very very grateful to have had a chance to be the one taking care of a sick toddler in the darkest part of the night.
I hope she’s all better tomorrow. I hope that tonight she sleeps deeply and without a fever.
But I’ll be forever grateful for last night.
Exhaustion is a very small price to pay for being the one who magically makes things all better.