Certain memories stick with you. Three decades later, my mother recalls the first time she spent a night away from me; she was hospitalized while pregnant with my sister. I fear that when Lila is my age, I too will remember the first time we spent a night apart, especially now that we’ve spent several consecutive nights apart twice, in a two-week span.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. For Lila’s first two years, we never spent a night apart. Sure, we spent time apart–she’d spend a few hours with a family member or babysitter–but we’d never slept under different roofs, and we’d certainly never gone 24 hours without talking or seeing each other. I felt like a piece of me was missing.
It was all supposed to be much more carefully choreographed. I had cringed at the thought of being sidekick-less, but my husband wisely reminded me it would have to happen at some point. When a save-the-date card arrived several months ago, we decided “some point” would be July 4th weekend; we were invited to close friends’ wedding overseas, and we wanted to make it work.
My sister and brother-in-law agreed to stay with Lila in our apartment. I didn’t like the thought of being away from Lila, but knowing she would be in a familiar place with two people she adores reassured me.
That carefully laid plan imploded when my father landed in the ICU on the May morning of Lila’s 2nd birthday. Lila knew the gist of the scary news, since my sister had called while I was with her.
I had to rush up to New York to join my family, and the ICU didn’t allow visitors under 12. Even if they had, the situation was too terrifying for a toddler.
So, I contacted a few favorite babysitters. With their help, I patched together emergency care for Lila to cover the hours my husband was working. Lila was reportedly cheerful, but as time wore on, she was increasingly inquisitive about Mommy’s whereabouts. Meanwhile, I wasn’t sleeping well, being away from both my husband and daughter. Vivid nightmares, especially about being separated from Lila, paraded through my head each night.
When I returned home on Mother’s Day, after four nights away, Lila was thrilled to see me. But the day quickly went downhill, as Lila’s anxiety about my leaving again became painfully clear. The confident girl who typically goes straight to sleep refused to nap. Every time she’d get ready to rest in her crib, she’d jump up and reach out to hold onto me. I asked if she was afraid I was going to leave again, reassured her I wasn’t, and tried to coax her to sleep. It didn’t work. Thankfully, she slept that night, having seen me stay in the apartment with her all afternoon and evening.
But we found ourselves in a similar spot after my father’s health took a turn for the worse days later, and the three of us took a spur-of-the-moment drive to New York. Lila spent that night with us, but the next morning, she went to stay with my in-laws. Lila clearly loved Camp Grammy and Poppy, which eliminated one item from my worry list. But when my nightmares continued, and my father switched hospitals, it made sense for me to join Lila.
Lila was overjoyed to see me that first night, but our bedtime ritual, which is typically no more than 10 minutes, stretched to three hours. Again, Lila was worried that I was leaving. I finally soothed her to sleep by showing her where her grandparents and I would be sleeping and putting on my pajamas. That became a new nightly routine in New York.
Thankfully, after we returned home, we both started sleeping, and the bedtime ritual became brief again. My nightmares disappeared, and I’m grateful to be near my girl again. Oh, and my husband and I never did make it to that wedding.
We (parents) often yearn for time away from our little ones so that we can sit and just be. But when you’re grappling with a family medical emergency–and you’ve nearly lost a parent twice in two weeks–you’re grateful that your 2-year-old hears the alarming “ICU” as the playful “I see you,” and that she’s close enough to hug tightly.