Tonight she asked me to help her down off the stool. She’s big enough to climb up there and pick out her dress and climb down and lay out her clothes, like her dad taught her. At his house.
But tonight she called for me to help her get down. So I did. I held her tiny pelvis between my hands and felt the arch of the bones, the soft skin and squishy fat and strong, small muscles sink between my palms. I put my nose into her long hair, breathed in and then held my breathe there, just a split second, for my prayer: please don’t die.
I’ve held that baby. The one who suckled and grew. And I’ve held that baby. The one who died. Here, between these very palms.
Please don’t die. I pray to her, to Him, to anyone who will listen. Please don’t die.
We crawl into bed and we read the stories she has chosen. She is older and grown into snuggling. She runs her tiny hand along my forearm as I read and I am getting used to her touching me voluntarily. Trying not to be too greedy, too overexcited that she seeks it herself now. That she will hug me first and let me hold her when she is hurt, rather than tearing into her room and slamming the door. I close my eyes without closing them and inhale again. She’s here now and I try to memorize how her skin feels on mine, the particular wrinkles of her knuckles, the shape of each nail bed.
I held my boy and I did the same. That was all the time I had. Memorize. Learn him. And quickly. And so I studied and studied. In the haze of shock, I scrutinized. Slowly pulling the blanket away to reveal chest and nipples and ribs and belly and navel and how the diaper top lifted away from his skin and the rolls on his thighs and the slope of the shin and big, big feet, similar in shape to his dad’s and sister’s. I don’t remember any of it now, not one detail that isn’t in a pictutre, except that I tried. To memorize. To remember. My boy. The most important test of my life. And now, I look at his picture as I would a stranger.
And what if I forget her? Her touch, her arcs, her laugh, her voice, how exactly long her hair.
Tonight she stayed awake for each of the three books we have been reading every night for most of her life. Tonight, for the first time in months, she asked for songs. So I sang. I breathed deep and I sang the songs of my mother and my aunt and my grandmother. “Duermete, mi nina”. And I felt the ghost in my throat: the exact way my wind pipes vibrated as I sang to him but that time, it was “nino”. The first time. The last time. Shrill, as I realized. As I caught my breath and sang on anyway, aware but undeterred that the others in the room would have heard my voice crack, the plea in it. I thought tonight of the arc of helpless pain that must been have sent through my dearest ones at its sounding, all sitting in that NICU room, holding their heads, no words, no way. Helpless as we were, at the hand of God.
Like, tonight, as I lifted her 6 year old body off the stool. Her fragile, sturdy self. Will I remember her if she goes, too? Will I never not pray for her to stay? I hope not. I hope I am 82 and reaching for her hand and repeating my silent prayer: please don’t die.
Please let that be.