Several nights ago was a seminal moment in our household. Our oldest, Sam, started kindergarten the next morning. Danielle and I had been preparing for and living in mortal fear of this day for months. Partly for the usual reasons—our little baby growing up, circle of life, and so on.
But there was another, more primal reason: when Sam wakes up early, he’s a monster. I’ve never tried to steal a salmon from a grizzly bear, but I imagine it’s a little like waking Sam.
We tried adjusting over the summer. Bedtime moved earlier and earlier in hopes of a morning where Sam wakes up happy. We have yet to find such a bedtime. I now suspect that, like the Northwest Passage, such a thing does not exist.
So that night, Sam’s sleep was heavy on my mind. The thought of it kept me awake late into the night.
As I stared into the dark abyss of my bedroom ceiling, a sound wiggled into my head. I held my breath, ears pricked above our white noise machine. I had just about convinced myself that it was the neighborhood raccoon when it happened again.
The small, wiry voice may have been saying “mommy.” Or maybe “help.” Or “cucumber.” A rasp around the voice’s edge confirmed my worst fears.
I waited for Danielle to get up. But I knew it was hopeless. She was either deep in a comfortable sleep, or doing a great job of pretending. I stumbled out of bed and, guided by the blue light of my lock screen, shuffled toward the boys’ room across the hall.
I creaked open their door. In the shadows beyond the nightlight, their triple bunk loomed like a ghost ship. The two bottom bunks are in an L shape. They belong to Sam and to Henry, our two-year-old. Thankfully, they were both still sleeping. On the top bunk was Noah, our four-year-old. His red face flowed with tears, and he made a sound like a critically-wounded badger.
“What is it, buddy?” I whispered.
Panicked badger wails.
“Noah, can you use words to tell me the problem?”
More badger wails.
“I want to help, but you need to use words.”
Louder badger wails.
Noah’s brothers both stirred. Putting my finger to my lips, I gently shushed him.
This was a mistake. Noah knocked my finger away and wailed louder than ever. But in between breaths, he muttered a string of syllables.
My eyes lit up. “Water? You want water?”
Badger head nod.
Normally, we have a strict “no drinks after bedtime” policy. But these were not normal times. Sam was sleeping his last sleep before kindergarten. I would happily get Noah a cup of water to keep that going.
I backpedaled toward the door, urging Noah to stay calm because I’ll be back soon with sweet refreshing water. After descending our creaky stairs, assuring my dog that there wasn’t an emergency, and digging out his water cup from behind the coloring desk, I presented Noah with his water.
Noah ripped into the water like a zombie intro fresh brains. At long last, the badger noises stopped.
Tiptoeing backwards, I reached for the door knob. I finally allowed a glimmer of hope. Maybe I could head back to bed and—
Henry went from deep sleep to fully awake before I could turn the knob. His eyes sparkled and his grin curved into mischief.
“Stay with us?”
If Noah was a wounded Badger, then Henry was a chipmunk riding a Mountain Dew rush. I took one indecisive step toward to door. The instant I did, Henry’s cry made Sam sit up in bed.
I skittered to the rocking chair. “Okay, okay. But I’ll only stay for a couple of minutes.”
Henry and I both knew that wasn’t true. But either way, Sam laid back onto his pillow.
My brain was in no condition to read a book, so I blearily opened Twitter. Time’s meaning evaporated as I sifted through the latest stupid controversies.
A badgery voice called me back.
Realization ran down my spine. “Are you saying…you want juice?”
Badger grunts of assent.
My first reaction was to give a lecture about how his water was fine, how big kids don’t need juice and how when I was his age I had to squeeze my own juice from lemons on the side of the road. But that would make Noah scream and cry. And if Noah screamed and cried…
I took Noah’s cup and stepped for the door.
“Juice too?” Henry asked.
I agreed because why the heck not, and went back down to the kitchen. I returned a few minutes later with a cup of too-much apple juice in each hand.
Henry took the juice and started gleefully chugging. Picture a golden retriever puppy frolicking in a field of bacon.
Noah took his first sip. I was just eyeing the hallway to my room when a choking sound shot from the top bunk. A spray of juice silhouetted against the nightlight.
I ran up to shush him. This was precisely as useless as you’d imagine. But luckily, I translated his badger wail. I removed his cup like I was the waiter at a five-star restaurant, and Noah was the incensed ambassador.
“Of course. I’ll…add ice to your juice.”
“Dad, want some—”
I grabbed Henry’s cup too, and began my third journey down to the kitchen.
In Noah’s condescension and mercy, the iced juice cup proved satisfactory. He settled into a dark corner of his bed, lips to his straw. Out of sound, out of mind.
Henry was a different matter. He took a few sips before deciding he could be having fun. He made a “hi-ya” sound and threw the cup in the air. It tumbled for a horrifying moment toward Sam’s pillow before bouncing off Henry’s mattress and onto the floor. I handed it back to Henry.
“Okay, buddy. You’ve got your juice, and you’re all set. Now go to sleep, and Daddy will head back to—”
“STAY!” Henry declared. Actually, “decreed” might be a better word.
I trudged, slouch-shouldered, to the chair. Every few minutes I tried, and failed, to talk Henry into laying back down. Then I went back to staring at the wall. Henry, meanwhile, was actively living his best life. He sipped his juice, flipped through a book, and sang to his big stuffed Lightning McQueen.
Minutes slunk like Ketchup from a diner bottle. I lacked the will to even check Twitter.
“Lay next to me?”
My hopes of laying on the other side of Henry’s soft bed soon melted. Henry pointed to the floor.
Normally, I like to believe I would have stood my ground. But I already surrendered that ground a dozen decisions ago. I slunk from my chair and, following my two-year-old’s instructions, prepared to lay on the floor. Along the way, I snagged Henry’s stuffed Lightning McQueen. This is secretly my favorite stuffed animal, because it’s basically a giant fluffy pillow.
On the floor, I situated my head in Lightning’s soft embrace. I took a deep breath. All things considered, this wasn’t half bad. Maybe I could defy the odds and get a decent night’s—
Henry peered down at me from his bed.
“That’s my Lightning.”
“Here you go, buddy.”