“Momma, I did,” Nora insisted, “I made it all by myself!” She giggled and threw her arms out at her bed. That night, the pink and white striped comforter was lying taut and flat, the hem of it hanging at a perfect horizontal line on three sides of the bed. The frilly pillows with rows of ribbons, and the pink heart one, and the purple sequin one were propped up neatly against the white iron headboard; even the stuffed unicorn was standing on all fours in the middle of the bed. This handiwork was not a trademark of hers.
“You did not,” I said, keeping it light. A year earlier, I would have scolded her for the blatant dishonesty. Lying is bad. Lying means you are hiding something, and you should never hide anything. And if you feel the need to hide something, well, then that means that that something is bad. And you should not do anything bad. So, don’t lie, okay? Tell the truth. Now, I try not to quickly react and speak to a four-year-old as though she was capable of comprehending my reasoning.
“If you say that I did not make the bed, then who did?” Nora’s tone of voice had shifted, and the playful glint in her eyes had disappeared.
Nora cries too readily, I think. She once broke down when her grandmother simply asked if her foot still hurt. And even though, as a child, I was even more sensitive than she is now, I am rarely the most patient or understanding parent when she wails to the point where she has to stop to catch her breath. In fact, I become so riddled with anxiety that she could smell it simmering in my chest, fueling her tear tank further, I am sure. I was on the verge of hurting her feelings that night with my honesty, and I really, really didn’t want to, because I really, really didn’t want to deal with one of her episodes that could eat into the alone time I was looking forward to. After an entire month of holiday festivities, I needed some child-free time to put the house back in order so that we all could resume normal life. I needed to empty my bedroom of all the gift wrap paper and bows, locate permanent homes for the girls’ new toys, and throw out dead poinsettias. So as Nora and I removed her pillows and turned over her comforter, I thought that maybe if I didn’t answer her, she would let the subject pass.
“Come on, let’s get under the covers and read our books!” I said, lifting Erin up onto her sister’s bed. Erin happily situated herself in between my legs, running her small warm hands up and down them in small caresses. But when she saw Nora planting herself beside me, she scrambled to sit in between the two of us.
“Who made the bed, Momma?” Nora asked.
“Your grandmother.” I opened the Pinkilicious book and asked which story in it that she wanted me to read.
“Why do you say that?”
I knew where this was going, and I knew that how soon I would be able to commence my alone time was well in my control. I had a couple of options. 1) I could be dishonest and tell her that I was joking, that I knew all along she had made her bed. Ha-ha, I punked you, Momma, she would retort with a satisfying, deep chuckle. 2) I could cushion the truth and tell her that she and her grandmother must have made the bed together. 3) I could be completely honest but risk jeopardizing the entire night for myself, but, perhaps, help her?
Unlike when Nora bursts into a cry that does not make sense to me, I am patient when she talks to me about her sadness. Lately, she has done a lot of this. A few weeks ago, Erin came down with pink eye and was placed on a new antibiotic. Because I feared that an adverse reaction might occur in the middle of the night, I brought her to my bed for observation. Sometime later that night, though, Nora wandered to my room, and I invited her to join us. She was not, however, content with sleeping to one side of her younger sister, insisting that her place was the center of the bed. Erin, who had been enjoying snuggling with me, was not in agreement and fought to maintain her position, which caused Nora some tears. I shared Erin’s stance on the whole matter, but my heart hurt for Nora, who, I believe, would pick me over everyone else almost anytime. So, why, she must sometimes wonder, can’t my mom love me the same way? Nevertheless, I had to tell her that she would need to return to her room if she was not happy with where we put her. “Momma,” she whispered over Erin’s head, “when you talk like that, it feels like no one wants to play with me.”
On the night Nora interrogated me about her bed, I decided on my response. “I said Lok Yeah made it because it looked very neat.”
“I can make my bed neat.”
“Not that neat, my love,” I said.
Nora’s bottom lip quivered as she sat up and kneeled beside Erin. “Momma,” she said matter-of-factly, “you made me sad.”
“I don’t mean to make you sad. I don’t ever want to make you feel sad.”
“But you said that Lok Yeah does a better job than me.”
“Well, she does make the bed better,” I said.
“That is not nice. When you say things like that, you make me sad.”
I am proud of Nora for many reasons, but her ability to unequivocally state her feelings is near the top. I dragged her onto my lap and cradled her, peering into her dark eyes that were black and round like the pit of a longan, and I contemplated my next few words. Lately, I’ve given a lot of consideration to mental health, or emotional health, as I like to call it. I can’t help but imagine and shudder at the hurt and disappointment that Nora — and Erin — will inevitably experience as they get older, and I wonder how I could protect them from such emotions. How will they overcome them? What will keep them from questioning themselves or their truths when someone comes along and admonishes them for their bed-making skill? I wish my love for them could be planted within them, almost like a seed, a tiny but determined seed that will grow and become a part of them, yielding deep roots to keep them up so that they don’t lose themselves to the harsh wind. As I swayed Nora on my lap and Erin by my side, I said, “I don’t ever mean to make you feel sad, Nora. I love you and Erin. That is the truth.”
That night I was able to store away the rolls of wrapping paper, ball up gift receipts and throw them out with the wilted poinsettias, and make myself a drink. The next morning, after she had gotten dressed for school, Nora asked me to enter her room. That morning the comforter was lying taut and flat, the hem of it hanging at a perfect horizontal line on three sides of the bed. The frilly pillows with rows of ribbons, and the pink heart one, and the purple sequin one were propped up neatly against the white iron headboard; only the stuffed unicorn was out of place.