Mama says she must sleep for a long time. Her children do not understand. Her husband does not either, not completely. Of course the children have noticed how much Mama naps lately, how slowly she moves. How it’s been worse since the youngest one started school. When the three of them climb onto the school bus and wave goodbye to Mama through the dusty windows, she seems to stare off into the distance at someone they cannot see.
Now, as the children follow her to her room hours before their bedtime, Mama moves slower than ever, as if she is carrying all of them in her arms. She curls up on the unmade bed and pulls the blanket up to her chin. Her husband urges her to get the rest she needs and, one by one, they all kiss her goodnight. Mama closes her eyes, leaving them alone.
Nothing wakes her. Not the kids’ thundering footsteps as they play tag amid sharp edges that she cushioned with foam. Not their arguing over the last snickerdoodle she baked. Not even the wails when the youngest cannot find the fox she stayed up till dawn knitting for his last birthday.
At night, her husband tucks in the children after reassuring them that there is not the slightest gap between the closet door and the wall. He attempts to sing the lullaby Mama made up, but the children shush him. After he leaves, the younger ones climb into bed with the oldest and they lie awake together.
Down the hall, their dad stands at the doorway watching Mama. Comforted by the rise and fall of her chest, he glances at the small silver box atop the chest of drawers. Inside are three slips of paper with due dates that never became birthdays. Every year, on one of those dates, his wife bakes an elaborate cake and lights three candles. She tells the children that it’s a bonus birthday cake. As they make wishes and blow out the candles, he interlaces his fingers with hers and squeezes tightly, trying to close the gaps between them.
But now, Mama is farther from him than ever. On a vast field of grass the color of twilight and slender trees reaching up to a still gray sky, three children wait. Mama recognizes them the way she recognizes her parents in old photographs. Here are the ones she thought lost forever.
They run to her and she revels in their cool skin and messy hair, the eager crush of their embraces. The eldest, a girl nearly as tall as Mama, turns cartwheels so fast it leaves Mama breathless. The middle child, a boy, holds up a large green and orange bug she has never seen before, flashing her a dimpled smile that melts her fear. Mama’s heart hammers when the youngest child climbs so far up a tree she loses sight of him. He cries after his sister orders him down but erupts into boisterous laughter when Mama tickles under his ribs.
They grab her hands and pull her into a fort made of fallen logs and adorned with iridescent flowers. Inside, they jostle each other for a spot in her arms, snuggling so close they can see themselves in her eyes as she tells them stories. They try to imagine stars and scooters and what birthday cake tastes like. And they try to imagine the lucky ones who have always had Mama.
Those children want Mama back, but their father asks them not to wake her yet. He worries she may not be ready, may never be ready. He trims crusts off sandwiches, retrieves misplaced shoes, and tries to comb out tangles. The children doodle pictures of Mama in class and tape them to the refrigerator at home. The dinner table is too empty without her so they eat their spaghetti from paper plates in separate corners of the house. And when no one else is looking, each of the children sneaks into the bedroom to curl up next to Mama’s chest and feel her slow breathing against their eyelids.
All the while, Mama chases her lost and found children, teaches them games, giggles at their nonsensical jokes. Finally spent, they curl up and lay their heads on her lap, and she sings them the lullaby that her living kids love. The weight that had pulled her to her bed is almost gone.
Distant voices call Mama. Her singing falters.
In the silence, Mama draws a deep breath. The three who have not left her for a moment since she arrived lie asleep. She gazes at each of them, trying to memorize every detail so she can tell her husband, and someday, her other kids. One by one, she kisses them goodnight.
Light floods Mama’s eyes as her living children clamber onto her body, their elbows finding their way into her tender spots. They cling to her like she’s a buoy and cover her with wet kisses. And a jolt of relief courses through her—the same relief she felt when each of them made it out of the recesses of her womb into the brightness of this world.
“Wake up, Mama, we’re here,” they say. “We’re here.”