Image via Cindy Andrie
It began with the traffic.
A couple of years ago, the red lights were so slow to change and the kids so restless. I needed brain-occupying diversions. I taught them the alphabet in sign language, and the "I love you" sign. That's about the sum total of my knowledge of sign language, acquired back when my school and a deaf school shared a bus. It kept my littles concentrating on their fingers and distracted from the glacial pace of rush hour.
The bigger sister uses ILY all the time, waving at me when she leaves for her own school separate from the rest of us, or when she spots me across a quiet gathering where she shouldn't shout out, or whenever she wants to receive some love herself. The younger sister almost never bothers, preferring to express all her emotions much more overtly.
L had a tough evening last night. She was a little too tired, a little too daddy-missing, and a little disinterested in the mundanities of toothbrushing and pajama-donning. She flopped into an epic tantrum, just as I was asking the girls to get ready for bed quietly so I could get their brother to go to sleep.
Poor girl. The worst of caring alone for all of them is the competing needs. I couldn't stop my own actions to give her the ten minutes it would take to soothe her, because G was quickly melting himself and needed sleep. The best whole-family solution was to get G to bed quickly and then give her more concentrated attention immediately thereafter; but in the interim I left her flailing. It was pitiful, even as I knew that the tantrum itself was expending a much-needed release.
When G was asleep, I crept out of his room and leaned quietly into her doorway. She's a mercurial girl and I can never predict the kind of audience she'll give me. I wasn't sure if she'd fling herself into my arms or screech in my face and begin screaming anew or something somewhere in between.
"How are you doing, love?" I asked her. I noticed that she had completed her routine even without my presence and urging. Her pajamas were on and her clothes were in the hamper and two books were waiting on her bed. A penance, those things are, and she noticed me noticing. I smiled in encouragement. "Do you want to talk?"
Hiccuping softly, she shook her head to decline.
"Okay, sweet girl. How's this: I'll go take out my contacts and check on your sister. And then I'll come back and if you want, I'll read to you."
She wide-eyed hiccuped her agreement with mournful sincerity and if you know her in person, you know just how wide those eyes go. I turned away to give her the last bit of save-face solitude she needed.
I turned back. Shyly, she waved an ILY at me. And then she looked away and climbed into bed.