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I knew even before I opened my eyes, something wasn’t right.
Lying on my back in the dark room, I could feel a heaviness on the center of my chest, a pressure that made taking each breath an effort. My mind raced, inventorying the signs of a heart attack. Shortness of breath? Yes. Pressure? Yes. Pain? Oddly, no.
Fully awake by this time I realized the “elephant” occupying my chest was nothing more than a snoring two-year-old in footie pajamas, her precious blankie tucked under her arm, one thumb in her mouth, the thumb and forefinger of the other hand twisted—as was her habit—around one of her curls. She’d come into our room at some point and since her older brother and sister had—one by one—already made the trip and had staked out their places in the crowded bed, simply climbed up on top of me, popped her thumb in her mouth and drifted off again.
I shifted, rolling her gently onto the bed beside me.
Most mornings when the children were small, I woke up to find everyone who mattered most to me curled, warm and safe, around me. Our bed was an island—not always a comfortable island, with two adults, three children and the occasional cat—but in those moments, it was a sanctuary.
Now, the toddler who climbed me and stretched out like I was the top bunk at summer camp, is 22. Today is her birthday and there is a box of cupcakes waiting to welcome her home.
Now, she’s about to graduate from college and fling herself into the real world with all the enthusiasm, humor and jolly determination that have marked everything she’s done since the day she was born. She talked early. She walked early. She read early, asking me at five years old, her head cocked as she scanned a book on the shelves in the living room, “What is El-e-men-tal Ge-ol-o-gy?” Her only mispronunciation was a hard “ghee instead of “G”. It was at that moment I realized she hadn’t memorized all the children’s books in her room, as we’d thought. She’d been reading them since she was four.
This middle daughter is an adult now, soon to have a degree in, of all things, geology. These days, nobody but the cat pads into our room in the wee hours. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t still on my mind.
Even now there are nights when I wake and lie quietly in the dark, thinking about her, about the baby she was and the woman she’s grown to be. About the balance of time and how easily it shifts from now to then. And in those moments I feel, again, the warm, familiar weight of love pressing down on my heart.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Home Planet , Treasure Hunting and CAMera: Travel and Photo blogs, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org