I logged a few more hours writing, blogging, reading, worrying, and even longing to reach my goals. When I finally shut down the laptop for the night, the faint lullaby coming from the girls' bedroom prompted me to check on them one last time for the day. Suddenly Jewel's entrancing voice faded in favor of Amber's quiet sobbing.
I'm all too familiar with her stalling tactics, so my first instinct was to give her a "go to sleep or else", but the tears on her little face stole my voice.
She always looks so tiny in her little nightgown. Her pillow takes more room than her on the twin bed. Ming-Ming, her stuffed panda bar who guards against bad dreams, was crushed to her little chest.
"Honey, why are you sad?"
Amber mumbled a question I couldn't hear. I sat next to her and after giving her a reassuring hug, I kissed her forehead and asked again.
"When we die, what's going to happen to Ming-Ming?"
My breath caught as I cradled her, and we both stared at the unblinking, soft dark eyes of the panda.
This is a moment no parent is really prepared for. Least of all me, who has always struggled with accepting the inevitable end of life. I knew what she was really asking, What's going to happen when I die...?
If there's anything unfair about creation, perhaps it's our own self-awareness. Even more so when it manifests in the mind of a child.
I wasn't about to question her or diminish the importance of her concerns. Given my recent spiritual and mental awakening, I wasn't about to lie to her either. Truth is, I didn't know what to say.
"Don't be afraid, honey," I muttered,wishing I could simply absorb every little fear, real and imagined, out of her mind.
I held her tight, trying to comfort her. In response, she turned her face and kissed my cheek. The delicate curve of her cheek made me feel her vulnerability, and it nearly broke me.
"Some people say it'll be like when you're asleep," I told her, once I regained my voice. "Except that your dreams are always great and you'll get to hang out with anyone you want. Maybe in heaven, Ming-Ming will actually move by himself and talk to you."
I placed my hand just beneath Ming-Ming's head. "Isn't that right, Ming?"
I made the panda nod.
Amber laughed, and the sound was so angelic it took everything in me not to cry. "Amber, we have a super long road ahead of us. We're only at the beginning of it." I took her dainty hand and placed it on my thick, older palm. "Just look how much you have to grow."
Amber studied our hands for a moment. "When I turn six next month, is my hand going to get bigger? As big as yours?"
"Nah, just a tiny bit. It's taken almost forty years to make mine this big."
I chuckled at the way her voice rose with wonder. "Yup, but I'll tell you something. You don't have to worry about anything sad like dying. You know why?"
I had to swallow hard and focus so my voice wouldn't break. "Because you have the strongest little heart I know, Amber Gabrielle."
Amber kissed my cheek again and wrapped her arm around me as tight as she could. At that moment, I knew come hell or high water, I would give my little girl the best life I could. She deserves nothing less.
My adult, practical mind began running commentary on my reality. You're starting over from scratch... You lost your house... The insurance is due... It'll take $60 for gas, you only have $20 in your wallet... Houses in Connecticut are expensive... You need to finish that other book... The blows kept coming in waves, but little by little the images faded. I smiled at my little girl, mentally thanking her for her patience, her resilience, her limitless strength.
"We have a long, long life to live, sweetie, and I'm going to give you a good life. Promise."
I petted the panda's head, willing a single tear to keep from spilling. "And Ming-Ming too."
With a smile that produces the most endearing dimples I've ever known, she let me tuck her in after I promised to check on her in a few minutes then I told Sheri about Amber's fears. Sheri quickly went in to check on Amber, who was already asleep. I wish I could quiet my mind the way she can, and find sleep with ease.
"My little sweetheart..."
"I know," I said.
"Sometimes I don't like how she understands everything."
I nodded, but stared into space, still wishing I could protect her from it all. I wished I could be like Ming-Ming, guardian of dreams. The panda needed nothing to stay alert and do his job. He had no worries in the fibers beneath his head, and Amber never saw doubt or fear in his black eyes. When possible, he never left her side. He patiently sat with her as she did her homework. He tagged along while she put together her Lego sets, patiently awaiting her notice, and he was a great listener.
"You coming to bed?"
"In a few."
I took a few minutes to lament the fact that we only live to die in the end. Unfair, to say the least. But with that in mind, it really came down to making this one life, the best it could be.
Staying positive is not always easy, but easier when you have someone to fight for, so I went back to the manuscript and rearranged more edits. When my eyes burned I went in to fulfill my promise.
Amber was asleep on her side, the flawless skin of her tiny face as soft as a petal under my touch. I pushed away a strand of hair and gently kissed her temple.
"Goodnight, baby girl," I whispered.
With her arm protectively wrapped around him, the panda stared at me in a way that made me feel a measure of approval, as crazy as that may be. I envisioned the day Sheri and I set up Amber's room in a new house, some day in the near future, and place the panda on her bed to keep guarding our baby's dreams.
"You too," I told the panda. "Goodnight, Ming-Ming."
Javier A. Robayo