It’s about 4am that I hear it: a mournful whining through the baby monitor, pulling me from deep sleep to total wakefulness in less than a second – or so it seems. I freeze in the dark listening. Is she just groaning momentarily in her sleep as she sometimes does? A couple more seconds is enough to tell me I must scramble into action on this chilly Boxing Day morning, swearing as I accidentally crank the volume up on the monitor in my hurry to turn it off. DP groans in his sleep. I stumble into the hallway and peep through the door of the opposite bedroom.
She’s a forlorn figure, sitting up in her cot, back to me, continuing the lonely little wail in the gloom. I pop the light and bend down to scoop her into my arms – such a routine act that still gives intense pleasure even in these wee small hours; the warm cheek against mine, small hands reflexively squeezing my upper arms. I hug her close and wonder if giving her cheese just before bedtime has returned to haunt us.
Whipping her into the bathroom for a nappy change buys me some time while I consider what can be done without waking the whole household. Eva gazes blearily at me, seemingly as confused to see me at this time in the morning as I am to see her. As I move to wrap her back in the sleeping bag, her face collapses in dismay. This is obviously not an option.
I try to suppress my irritation. Some months back, a friend who had been reading Gina Ford determined Eva to be an ‘Angel Baby’. The problem with ‘angel babies’ is that they can produce devil parents .. cranky so-and-sos who are totally banjaxed by an early wakeup call, unlike any normal functioning Mum or Dad. Eva cuts deftly thorough my conundrum by demanding her new dressing gown – a crazy fluorescent puffball of a christmas gift – then setting off down the hallway at a purposeful waddle, seeking Granny, the toybox, and Phoebe the friendly English Setter (“Hey-yow, Daggy!!”)
‘Eva!’, I stage-whisper, ‘Eva! It’s bedtime! Everyone’s asleep.’ I do the ‘sleeping’ mime in desperation.
To her utter credit she stops, turns around and follows me reluctantly back into her bedroom, her face dubious. I quietly push the door to behind us. Ah-hah… result! But she is now fully awake, and ready for some show and tell. So it begins:
‘OO-OO!’, she cries, grabbing a plush monkey ‘Hey-yow, Oo-Ooo!’
Monkey is tossed aside as she reaches for a lion. ‘RAARRRRR!!!’
Then, ‘Ball! Ball! Ball!’, throwing anything remotely spherical that happens to be within grabbing distance; balls, soft toys, crumpled wrapping paper…
I wince, thinking about her grandparents on the other side of the wall – notoriously light sleepers – and move to intercept the show with a drink of water. ‘Eva, it’s bedtime once you’ve drunk this.’
She sips, then spots a box of tissues.
‘Eva, it’s…’ Tissues fly everywhere. ‘Eva… ‘
I figure that confinement to the cot will cause instant uproar. Luckily, this bedroom has a double bed too, so I take my chances, grabbing her mid-rampage and whisking her up and backwards into it with me, still wearing the puffball. She protests briefly, but I cuddle her and wrestle the thin sheet up over us. I am now ready to pull the sole trick up my spoiled-parent sleeve: playing dead.
Flopping one arm loosely over her I close my eyes, snuggling into the soft curls.
Initially there is silence. Then there is wriggling. A little knee presses into my side. A hand fails briefly. Minutes pass. After a while there is the sound of thumb being sucked. My right arm is going dead from holding my pose, but this might just work.
Then I hear the thumb pop out and small-person breath blasts into my face.
‘E-y-e-s’, she intones slowly. ‘E-y-e-s.’
A small finger prods uncomfortably at my eyeball. I struggle not to undo all my good work by giggling.
For a while all is quiet. Then..
‘Baa-baaa, yeah-yeah.. row-row-row-row-eee-ii-O!’
Uh-oh – the nursery rhyme megamix is underway. Then..
‘Sit dowwwwwwwwwn, Bubba! Sit dowwwwwwwwwwnnnnn!’
Again, I struggle to suppress laughter – she has her imitation of Mummy down to a T. How sharp small children are! She watched Grandpa snap a stick over his knee yesterday, and has spent all her time garden-time since attempting to replicate the action with a twig, with a surprising success rate for a 20 month old.
‘Tick-tock, tick-tock, up, doooooown. Sit down, bubba…. ‘
‘Bubble! Bang! Bang! More bang!’ (we recently discovered that, unlike the sane people of the world, she loves bursting balloons)
With the word-medley over, silence descends once again. The minutes tick by. My arm aches. I risk opening my eyes for a millisecond. She is lying on her back, the dressing gown in heavy folds around her. The little cheeks puff out as she busily sucks her thumb. Her large eyes gaze serenely at the ceiling. Is she contemplating the things that a toddler holds dear.. tickles and apples, balloons and bubbles..?
Maybe she is wondering who she can greet today with a cuddle. (‘Bebe’ her babydoll ….christmas baubles… bogeys …yes, all are treated with equal warmth). Or who she can surprise with a ‘Buh!’ or a ‘Pee-Bo!’ Any passer-by is game. Dogs. Cats. Birds in trees.. The fireplace is the latest victim. Maybe she thinks the fire is alive. She is right, in a way – though even its crazy jumps and flickers would struggle to keep up with the unbridled vitality of a tiny tot.
… but Eva is clearly sleepy now. Her eyelids droop. She’s not the only one. With my arm now completely numb, I go for broke and, as gently as I can, turn and reach around to switch off the lamp. A little cry of protest erupts into the darkness, but it’s a half-hearted one. I lay my arm reassuringly across her and snuggle close.
More time passes, I drift. Her breathing slows. At some point I become aware that she is sleeping, and start to relax a little…
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Much later that morning, we all walk through the spinny together. It is windy and bright. The light is doing that dappled thing, and Eva is cavorting among the fallen leaves with the boundless energy of the young. I regard her through gritty eyes, and speculate with DP on what caused the sleep glitch. Is she starting to get night-terrors? Is it just the over-stimulaton of the festive season? Swilling the sour taste of sleeplessness around my mouth, I wonder yet again at her fortitude on a mere four hours sleep, and brace myself for a possible period of sleep regression – it’s pretty clear which one of us will come out of such a scenario still laughing (Clue: not me).
And yet… what will I remember when I look back to these early days? All those smooth, eventless nights of uninterrupted sleep?
Hell no. I’m going to be chuckling fondly to myself, picturing a small child – bubbling with curiosity and excitement about the world – using my face like play-dough at 5am. I’m going to remember snuggling into those delicate curls and sneaking smitten looks at that face… still cherubic, for all that it has lost its ‘baby’ look over the past months.
When she is too old for Slumber Parties – impromptu or otherwise – when she’s too embarrassed to hold Mummy’s hand any more, let alone cuddle, I can think back to this moment and take sustenance from it.
I think back to 4am; hearing the cry and dragging myself irritably out of bed, swearing in the blackness. Way back then, I didn’t yet understand this: that sometimes, the best gifts are the ones you didn’t ask for.