It is 2am. I am on the living room couch with Rosie, who ghosted up to my bedside whisper-whimpering, “My ankle hurts and I can’t sleep.”
I rub arnica salve into her right leg, this startlingly lanky appendage snaking across my lap. Even in the dark I can sense she is forlorn. “Do you feel that bump?” she asks, drawing the word “bump” into two of the saddest syllables ever uttered. “That’s where Col pushed me down,” she sniffs. I refrain from a lawyerly objection to this middle of the night testimony, although last I remember Rose was kicking up into vigorous handstands a millimeter from Col’s pillow-shielded face and everyone was shrieking with laughter.
“Oh honey,” I murmur, while trying to harness my mind back from the full catastrophe of nighttime parenting. Those irrepressibly sunny daytime hours shine light into the mysterious folds of my brain, illuminating the neural centers of rational thinking, hope, and solutions. You can practically see the mental window-washers, whistling while keeping the storefronts clean and clear. But at night, when unable to sleep, the wolf of anxiety howls inside my cramped mind and the thorns of my minuscule problems become deeply, painfully embedded.
I realize that this is exactly what’s happening with Rosie. She wakes at night, alone in the precarious dark, where stuffed animals shapeshift and the shadowy darkness presses in. It’s alarming to be wide awake in the long, lonely night when everyone else in the house is safely, obliviously cocooned in the balm of sleep. So she lowers her pajamaed feet down the ladder of her top bunk to find some reassurance and comfort.
“I feel that bump,” I tell Rosie, “It feels like a bruise is forming. I’m glad you woke me up. Getting this arnica on there will help.” She leans her pony-weight into me and maybe for the first time I understand the task of nighttime parenting. I don’t need to fix her ankle pain, or tummy ache or whatever the current 2am malady is. I just need to offer her comfort, reassurance, presence. She needs the soothing tones of a parent whispering that she is safe from whatever simmers in her own 9-year old mind alone in the flat, inky night.
I feel my own nervous system unclench and I sense Rosie relaxing too. I know that we will both be back asleep soon, and that a groggy day tomorrow isn’t a real problem. In fact, I feel strangely grateful to be here with her on our long-suffering couch in the darkened house, as if tonight the nighttime has activated not my usual neurotic murmurings but the pure sweetness of being able to comfort and reassure a child who won’t be a child forever.
She thanks me for the arnica rub and tells me that her ankle is feeling much better. I carry her back to bed, the solid heft of her like a hay bale with limbs. She’s almost asleep by the time I lay her back down.