“You know I love you, right?” I adjusted the bow on Ruby's sleeping cap as I tucked her into bed.
“Unh-huh,” she said. Her eyes were closed and the sound of her acknowledgment was stifled by the presence of her thumb in her mouth. The sound was a pasty gurgle, as if she had pudding in there.
“And you know Daddy loves you,” I said.
“Unh-huh.” Sucking, sucking, eyes still closed. I wanted her to look at me, but she wouldn't budge. I could practically feel her telling me to bugger off.
“Mama and Daddy love you like nobody's business,” I said, closing in on her face. I felt myself morphing into the badgering Jewish mother who gets talked about in therapy and begrudgingly visited at holidays.
“Unh-huh,” Ruby said again.
She was ready to be left alone, and I knew it. But there's this thing called self-control, and I had none of it that night. Anyway, I had to make up for earlier-in-the-day parenting indifference. Being euphemistically challenged, I moved in close so my breath touched her earlobe: “We adore every bone in your body, little girl. You're the world to us. You're Mama and Daddy's angel.”
Could I have been any more annoying, you might ask? Oh, yes. Without question. I could actually have been about 1,400-times more annoying. It's a mother thing.
“Unh-huh, unh-huh, unh-HUH,” Ruby fired off in rapid succession.
And with that toddler version of the pre-teen eye-roll, I saw myself in the future as an overbearing, don't-forget-to-use-the-bathroom-before-your-solo backstage mother. I had become my mother-in-law, who, back in the day, before we had a child for her to focus on, used to come for visits and stare at my husband. Just—-stare at him. For days. It was weird.
Suddenly, I needed a martini and some steady middle ground.
I'd parented from the other end of the attention spectrum that morning when Sam and I took Ruby to visit her new school. It was the Friday before she'd be there full-time, and the plan was to drop her off for two hours as an acclimating exercise. We'd been talking up all the pluses of this Big Girl school for weeks—that the Trolley goes by every 15-minutes was the toddler equivalent of granite kitchen counter-tops—and she'd been right at home during a previous stop in. We had high hopes that were simply begging to be dashed.
In perfect form, Ruby was clingy to us and standoffish to everyone else. She was pouty and dour. But at the advice of the teacher, we ignored her pleas to go home and peeled ourselves away. I would say it was like Sophie's Choice, what with my urge to grab her and protect her and run from the building forever. Only, a part of me could not stop thinking about pancakes, and I'm pretty sure breakfast food never occurred to Sophie in her moment of reckoning.
We watched from a window as Ruby stood alone at the side of the sandbox, kicking listlessly at the ground, her hair clips jiggling each time her toe made contact. None of the other kids took much interest in her. Most were oblivious, and those who did take notice simply rubbernecked as they pedaled by on their tricycles. Really, I couldn't blame them for keeping their distance. While no parent wants her child to be the odd man out, my kid didn't exactly parade her glee and enthusiasm for launching matchbox cars into each other at high speeds.
When we finally rescued her, she crawled into my arms and immediately went limp. Wouldn't you know it, the child was en fuego. As in 104-degree-fever en fuego. It was, as parenting moments go, quite a startling revelation: We were those people, the ones who all the other imperious parents tsk-tsk. Like that poor woman in New York who dropped her arguing daughters at a strip mall and drove away (she's my hero), we made the faux pas of sending our kid to school—the new school!—with what very well could have been swine flu. Well played, Belfers.
One could argue we should have known she was sick when she crawled back into bed that morning and passed out for an additional hour, highly uncharacteristic behavior for a 3-year-old. But we'd chalked it up to a psychosomatic thing, and there was no way she was going to feign illness to get out of her first day of school (such shenanigans will come later). This show had to go on.
And on it went, child protective services be damned. We strapped our ailing girl into her car seat and did what most other parents in our situation wouldn't do: We drove straight to The Mission for breakfast. There was still that unresolved pancake hankering, and even Ruby in her stupor had a taste for The Mission's delectable blueberry/blackberry pancake.
Of course, she slept on my lap while Sam and I gorged on our food, and when she didn't eat hers, we ate that, too. Then we ate her side of bacon, ordered a round of coffee refills and two mimosas. Just kidding. We didn't order mimosas. That would have been self-indulgent.
We paid the bill and shuttled the child home to some Tylenol and her bed. I tucked the blankets under her chin and planted a single kiss on her forehead in a tender but non-smothering manner. There was no adoring fanfare or desperate enumeration of all the reasons I can't stop loving her. As mothering moments go, I'd momentarily found the right balance. It wasn't too much. It wasn't too little. It was just right. And it was fleeting.