Rosy, round cheeks framing the sides of her sweet, tiny face. Closed eyelids hiding the deep blue from underneath. Wispy, blonde curls falling around her just so. While I am watching my daughter sleep, soaking up her implied innocence, a deep hurt causes a blow to my stomach and moves up my spine. I shake the shivers off and start a prayer for my sweet baby girl. She takes in a deep breath and lets it out. Her stomach rises and falls. Tiny, precious whimpers escape her mouth, not distressed, but the sweet sound of content sleep. Tears burn my eyes. I go to kiss her, but do not want to wake her. Maybe while she sleeps, she is as innocent as her appearance reflects. My mind races and takes me back to one of the darkest days I’ve seen.
Annika was clinging so tightly and seemed to be peculiarly distraught, very opposite of her normal, bouncy self. Her father and I, young lovers blessed with the gift of life early on, passed her between us, questioning what could be wrong.
“Maybe she has a diaper rash?”
“Maybe it’s her stomach?
“Maybe she has an earache?”
Her father lifted her above his head, and she let out a faint laugh followed by a breathtaking shriek. She grabbed her father as if to never let him go. He fell onto the couch, tired; we had both lost any hope for sleep. Annika clenched so tightly around his neck the color of the flesh on her fingertips faded, and tiny bones protruded from under her skin. As he hit the couch, his body lost life. My attention immediately went from my eight-month-old to my best friend. His eyes rolled back, and the tight grip on our daughter was lost. She rolled to the side of him. Annika was screaming and turning red, the lullaby CD was still playing in the background, but I went deaf. I heard nothing but a loud buzzing. Goosebumps were tingling down my legs, and heat took over my body. I buckled to my knees, grabbing his head into my hands. “Afton!” I shouted his name as if to call him back, but just as I couldn’t hear my daughter’s screams, he didn’t hear me. Tears streamed down my face, and I confessed my love for him, begging for his response. For a moment his eyes met mine and replied, “I love you too, always and forever.” Then, in a moment’s time, he was gone.
Annika’s body twitches suddenly, and my attention is focused to the present. Though the memory has faded, the stinging pain lingers. The hopelessness that always stays tucked in my heart overshadows the light in this moment. I pull her close and tickle her nose with mine. As her eyes open, a smile appears across her face. She pushes the hair away from her eyes and hugs my neck. I hold her closer, and warmth fills us both. I carry her with me to grab her sippy cup from the kitchen counter.
“Mama, we go mall,” she says, very sure of herself.
“No, not today, baby. We are going to stay in and play.” The thought of getting out and into the world seems nice, but a single young mother with a single-young-mother budget does not see the mall often. After analyzing my wallet only to find two wrinkled dollars along with some old receipts, the idea did not seem very appealing anyway. Leaving my small, cozy house was also harder than my initial feelings about the idea let on. Anxiety settled in quickly anytime I tried to get out into the busy world, although I would never admit it. I turned to walk back to the living room. “Nana!” The door bursts open, and there stands my mother.
“Natalie, just look at you! You look terrible and so fragile. Give me that baby.” She holds her arms, filled with costume jewelry from every other finger up to her wrists, out for Annika. Annika willingly goes to her. As my baby is plopped on her hip, my mother uses her free hand to fuss with my hair. “Your hair is dreadful. When is the last time you ate? Are those your pajamas?” She sighs for a moment as if she expects me to spit out all the answers just as quickly as she poured out the questions.
“This shirt is not a pajama shirt. I got it from the Hidden Closet, and I like it just fine.”
“Hmmm,” she lets out behind pursed lips, and a disapproving gaze meets my eyes. We stare in silence for a moment. She prisses over to the pantry and pulls out the tea kettle. As she starts the tea on the stove, I can almost hear her thinking. She can be overpowering, but she has good intentions. Her love for me runs deep. I know the sadness that seems to follow me like a shadow worries her. “So your sister is at it again. You won’t believe this guy. Well, yes you will. His name is Jace. The tattoo that takes the length of his arm is absolutely dreadful, crossbones overlapping a naked woman.” She lets out a disgusted sigh. “He plays the drums for some band called something like Hit This.” She rolls her eyes and rattles on. Eventually, my thoughts are heard louder than her words. I am brought back when she says, “Now go!”
“Were you even listening? Go take a shower and do something with that hair. It’ll make you feel better. Annika and I will play right here and have some tea. Isn’t that right, baby? Tell Mama to go shower.”
“Take shower, Mama.”
“I feel fine, Mom, I really do.” She just waves her hands as if to dismiss me.
As the water falls down my back, the heat rises up, relaxing my tense muscles. My mind begins to wander. A week ago today, Annika had said she would pet a baby cow. A baby cow, how random the thought seemed at the time. Surely she had seen barn animals on her favorite show earlier that day or maybe on the string cheese package, something to spark the idea. Then later that day, as we walked up to the annual family fish fry, there in a small fenced area, were goats, pigs, and to my dismay a calf. Annika waited patiently in line behind her cousins and other relatives. When it was her turn, the calf found its way to her. She ever so gently and lovingly pressed her little hand down the calf’s head and across his back. The thought, so precious, and the look of Annika, so pure, almost brings a smile across my face. But before the smile ever exists, my eyebrows turn down, and the worry takes over yet again.
I clumsily fumble through my drawers for something to put on that won’t provoke a negative response from my mother. I walk out into the living room, and she looks satisfied. She hands me some sweet tea with a lot of ice and a slice of lemon (she knows just the way I like it). “I’ve started some soup but cannot stay; I have a lunch date with Caroline. Just stir it every once in a while, and let it simmer for about an hour.”
“Call from Tori-Call from Tori,” my mom’s cell phone alerts her.
“Hello. Oh hey! Yes, I’m here now. Uh-huh.” My mom grabs my phone. “Yeah, her ringer was off.”
I lip talk to explain why I had it off. “Annika was napping.”
“She says Annika was napping. Oh, that’s right. That is today. I will let her know because she obviously has no idea. Uh-huh. I’ll let her know to call you back.” I watch as my mother squints and holds her phone away from her, trying to find the end call button. She turns her gaze back to me. “Did you forget something, darling?”
I pretend to think for a moment, but know I don’t have any idea, so I have to give in. “I guess so.”
“Pictures with Santa at 1:30 today.” She looks at me half disappointed and half pleased with herself, as though she has saved me yet again. I try not to look as alarmed as I feel. Annika reaches her arms out for me, and I grab her up. “Well, I’ll turn this soup off. I have to go, Natalie. I can’t be late; we are trying to make happy hour. Annika’s Christmas dress is in the front row of her closet to the left. I saw it the other day when I pulled out her play clothes. Call me when you get back home. If you don’t, I’ll worry. Maybe y'all can make it to my house tomorrow for dinner? That would be nice. I will cook a roast. Be there at 6.” After a kiss for me and a kiss for Annika, she prances out the door. I watch from the window as what looks to be a very wealthy, secure woman walks to a car with a bad paint job and a bent bumper. She proceeds to put her hand through the window in order to open the door from the inside. Then she buzzes down the driveway and is gone as quickly as she arrived.
As soon as her car disappears down the road, I sit Annika down and run into her room. I fling open the closet doors and rip the dress off the hanger. Next, I run to her dresser and pull out the tights. Annika has followed me into the room and laughs at the sight of me running around like a chicken with its head cut off. I drop to the floor and try looking for her dress shoes under the crib. With no success, I rise up to see Annika digging in her closet. She does not have any success either. Then I remember they were in her crib. Stand up, arms up, dress on, sit down, tights on, shoes on, hair half up, oversized bow clipped securely in, and we are good. I give her a small tub of soup crackers and her cuppy. I run a brush through my hair, apply a small amount of mascara, some lip gloss, decide to just pull my hair back, put on my tennis shoes, look at my clock knowing it was probably already five minutes past time to go. Sure enough, I verify. As I secure Annika’s car seat, my phone goes off. It’s Tori. “Hello. Hey, sorry I forgot to call. I was in a hurry to get going. Yes, we are leaving now. Yes, she is in the dress. Yes, she has the matching tights on. Yes, the cute bow is in her hair. We will be there in about fifteen minutes.”
I think of my poor niece and nephew that have probably been dressed in their matching attire since that morning, not allowed to move or barely breathe in fear of messing up their outfits and hair. I look in the rearview mirror at my baby, the youngest of the three. The bow is tilted to one side because of the weight. I smile at her, and she smiles back.
“Bwaiden and Bwi?”
“Yes, baby, we are going to see Aunt Tori, Bri, Braiden, and SANTA CLAUS!” She couldn’t have cared less about Santa, but she loved her cousins and aunt.
My sister was an early childhood teacher and though homeschooling tugged at her heart, she wasn’t ready to give up her career. She could easily stay at home without a financial burden. She had married into money; her father-in-law owned more than half of the town. They live in a gorgeous house with a huge yard and pool. They are the perfect all-American family. When she found out I was pregnant before marriage, she claimed disappointment, but I think it was embarrassment. But as soon as I went into labor, any ill feeling had left her, and her heart was filled with love for the precious niece I would give her. She never left my side.
My love for my mom and sisters runs deep. We were all we had, and we know we will always have us no matter what.
I pulled up to the mall, relieved it was only 1:27. I parked and rushed into the building, not even worrying with the stroller. My sister had probably been there waiting since 12:30. As soon as the doors parted and the smell of pretzel teased my senses, I felt something like deja vu. In a hurry to find my frantic sister, I dismissed the feeling. Annika’s voice grew louder, trying to get my attention. I somehow managed to pick my sister out of the crowd. Glancing at her watch, tapping her foot, with my four-year-old nephew on her hip, napkin tucked into his shirt, looking around and then glancing at her watch again.
“Mama, we go mall.”
“Yes, baby, we go mall. We go mall. We?”
I stop dead in my tracks and feel the blood start to drain from my extremities. We are at the mall. She had told me that morning, “We go mall.” There was no way we were going to go to the mall, and now we are here. We are at the mall.
“Mama, we go mall!”
I fake a smile and kiss her forehead. I push my way through the crowd, and my sister finally meets my gaze. “Oh, thank God! Two more minutes, and we would have lost our session. Look at how packed it is.”
“Yes, it is packed.” I grab onto my niece and nephew and kiss them hello. My sister kisses my cheek then puts Braiden down to grab Annika.
“Oh well, at least you made it. After pictures we will get some cookies and hot chocolate.” She smiles a true smile. and my nerves are calmed, at least for now.
The older Annika gets the more intense the coincidences seem. I did not tell a soul; it never seemed to mean much of anything after the moments passed anyway. Only in the moment did it feel so real and heavy. When I was alone and the thoughts spun, I felt so hopeless and scared. Thinking of telling anyone just seemed silly. Petting a calf, predicting a mall trip, they were just small, insignificant things that seemed unimportant and explainable. But I knew something was coming; I could feel it the same way my heart would tug when I tried to soak in my daughter. I know the day we lost Afton was the day we found something else. We found what others would call “a gift.”