Bedtime with Squish, after her teeth are brushed, after a last trip to the potty, after reading a book or two together.
Time for bed, kiddo.
Daddy? I want to snuggle.
Okay. Come here.
Beside her bed, there's an unfolded futon on the floor. We stretch out on it and look up. Pasted to the ceiling and walls are glow-in-the-dark stars. They're dim. When they were new, months ago, she would ask Felicia or me to "charge them up," something she learned could be done with the bright flashlights on our smartphones. Pass the flashlight over the stars, they glow bright. When we bought the stars, I stood on a ladder and pressed them to the ceiling all over the room while she stared up, watching, directing me to the bare spots. While she wasn't looking, I arranged several of the smaller plastic stars into the shape of an E, the first letter of her name. That night, the first night of the glowing stars, she and Felicia were in her room, staring up at them, when they spotted it. I could hear them gasp from another room. "An E, Mama!"
Now, lying on our backs, looking up:
A shooting star.
She wipes her hand across the sky above.
A faster one!
A slower one!
She pinches her finger and thumb together, and makes the swoosh sound again, tiny and high pitched.
An itty baby one, Daddy!
Do you want me to sing a bedtime song?
Um, how about a story?
What kind of story?
How about the one where Buzz Lightyear...falls into a hole!
There's a pattern to her requests in the evenings. When she realized she could ask for any story she liked, she began asking for the same one, again and again: the one where Buzz Lightyear tumbles into a hole and can't escape.
Once upon a time, I begin, and describe Buzz climbing aboard his rocket ship and flying to some distant planet, where he carefully calculates his landing zone, lowers the ship to the surface, opens the door and contentedly surveys the alien landscape...and steps out, only to fall directly into a giant hole.
And then Woody will come and save him, okay.
So I amend the story to permit Woody to also have arrived upon this planet, somehow, and to attempt to rescue his friend from the hole.
But Woody...falls in, too!
But who will save Woody?
Um...how about Jessie!
The story grows and grows, adding most of the Toy Story characters, until she runs out of names, at which point she suggests that Rex can come along and save everyone now. So I'll describe Rex perching on the edge of the hole, draping his tail down the slope for everyone to climb out upon.
Time for bed, now.
How about a song?
She and Felicia know dozens of songs; they go to a weekly Music Together class, sing and dance and play instruments together. I've learned only a few of these songs, but I inevitably botch the words, which stirs Squish from impending sleep to correct me. Finally, I'll give up and switch to something I know. She objects to most of these, but is agreeable when I sing Josh Ritter's "Idaho," a quiet little song about a man who can't seem to escape the state. In time, she'll drift off to sleep.
I don't remember, of course, what bedtime was like when I was three-and-a-half. I have memories, but I don't recall how old I was; maybe older, maybe younger. My mother read stories to me. When the lights went out, I would lie in bed in a too-bright room. Alaskan summers, nine, ten, eleven p.m., the sun still dusky and high. Gremlins curtains and bedspread. The sound of children still playing on the street as midnight approached. Falling asleep thinking about how unfair the world was. What was the point of a midnight sun if you couldn't take advantage of it?
I love being a father, love my wife and daughter dearly. When I return home from work, I know I'll soon be leaving again, going to the office to write. I postpone leaving as long as I can, squeezing in one last round of inflatable volleyball in the living room, or building makeshift bowling pins out of Legos so she can knock them over. Two nights ago, I shared Reading Rainbow with her for the first time, and she was mesmerized by the story, and also by the short snippet about a man who builds patterns with dominoes and knocks them over. Afterward, we broke out her own dominoes—a Cars-themed set that my parents gave her—and made shapes with them, then toppled them. At bedtime, or sometimes after bedtime, I slip away to write for a few hours.
I wonder, like I'm sure all parents do, if I'm away too much. I don't think my daughter worries about it; she loves every moment she has with me, and when I'm not there, she loves every moment of whatever she's doing. I'm at work every day, and writing books every other evening or so, and part of every weekend. I don't trade time with her for writing time; I'll take every minute with her I can get.
Sometimes, though, she can take or leave me.
I thought you were still asleep.
My Mom wants to sing to me.
Yes. She really wants to. Can you go get her?
I might attempt to distract Squish for a minute or two, knowing that Felicia is downstairs knitting or shaping jewelry in her workshop; her own creative time is limited to moments like these, when our daughter is sleeping or with me or Felicia's mother. But Squish always sees through my effort to distract her. She'll put her hands on my cheeks, as if to tell me to focus.
Did you hear what I said?
She'll be four in a few short months. It seems like it was just yesterday that she was just a little burrito in a swaddling blanket. Now she's a little storyteller, into everything from zombies to fairies, from fishing to dancing.
Okay. I'll get Mama for you.
Did you find her yet?