My youngest daughter's breath is warm against my neck as she snuggles closer to me, nuzzling her head beneath my chin as she lays alongside me on the couch. She is big, but then not so big, and she fits as perfectly against me as when she was an infant.
The compact softness of babyhood has been replaced with a tangle of bony adolescent limbs that poke uncomfortably into my side. The wild disarray of her hair tickles my cheek and I brush it away. Nevertheless, the contentment I feel is pure deliciousness.
She shakes briefly with a coughing spell, and I glance down at her. She's wearing the pained scowl she always wears when she's sick.
"Are you uncomfortable, Sara?" I murmur, wondering if she'd prefer the couch to herself. I'd move in a heartbeat if it would take that sad look off her face. I feel her nod against my chest. I lift my head and prepare to rise, but her small hand reaches out to grasp my arm.
"Stay," she says. Her voice is high-pitched and raspy, a demand and a plea at the same time, and I happily settle back to accommodate her.
I had a dream a few nights ago. I was awakened by the sound of my bedroom door opening, and when my vision cleared, I saw my daughter standing in the doorway. In the moonlight I couldn't even tell which daughter it was, only that she was tiny enough to be dragging a stuffed animal with her. She paused just inside the door, one small hand still clinging to the doorknob. I could feel her staring at me in the darkness, the unspoken question hanging in the air.
"You want to sleep in here?" I mumbled sleepily.
Her nod was so eager that it was hard to imagine that she was still bothered by the childhood upset that brought her into my room in the first place, but I didn't mind.
Then I woke, and realized that my girls were sound asleep in their own beds, having long outgrown nighttime comfort-seeking excursions to their parents' room. My heart clutched with a longing that only a parent could understand.
It's a feeling that comes to mind again as I brush Sara's hair away from her face with my fingers. I can still remember a time when my own mother comforted me in this way and I wonder if she remembers it, too. Somehow, I think she does.
I know that time and experience will gently but inevitably draw this beautiful child from my arms and into an unknowable future as an adult. It is the way of things; the way it's supposed to be, yet it is no less bittersweet.
It may be a blessing that my Sara is small for her age; a sort of divine kindness that has allowed me to cling to her childhood a little longer than necessary. But those days are going away, sadly but surely. She'll set her sights toward her own horizon, a breath beyond my grasp, just as her sisters did before her.
Her head feels heavy against my chest and my arm is going tingly where she's draped it around her shoulders, but that's fine with me. I kiss the top of head, and I wonder if she can feel my heart beating. I wonder if she can sense its silent, wistful plea.
(Dedicated to my darling daughter Sara, on the blessed event of her confirmation. I love you.)