When Claire proudly approached me with a handful of little screws and nuts, my first thoughts were that either a) she grabbed them off of a closet shelf, or b) they just disassembled their own beds. I’ve seen enough Blues Clues episodes to know a good mystery when I see one.
When I entered their room, I saw various items from their closet shelves in disarray around their room, all things I try to keep out of reach — parenting books we’ve long outgrown, sticker sets reserved for a rainy day, the fishing game that just begs to have its little fish tossed around the room willy nilly. Their closet shelf system is supposed to be a means of swift organization. In real life though, it’s the place where I put crap that I don’t know what else to do with.
“Oh, girls,” I muttered as I bent down to pick up the crap, urging them to do the same, saving a few other choice words for the silence of my head.
And that’s when I saw it. A shard of painted modeling clay discarded carelessly on the floor, it’s matching pieces strewn nearby.
It’s a memento from the NICU: Rachel’s ever so tiny footprint imprinted on a modeling clay heart, painted and adorned with her name and the date on the back. I have one for each girl, lovingly created by the nurses and hung in the front hall of the unit, released to us along with our babies when they were strong enough to come home. It’s a token of where our journey began; a reminder of how far we’ve come.
Her little foot, not even two inches in length, was broken into pieces.
And I felt my own heart break into a million pieces.
I couldn’t help it. I bit my quivering lip and squeezed my eyes shut as the tears started falling. I hate crying in front of the girls. I know they need to know I’m human, but it really freaks them out, and right now I didn’t want to have to console them. I needed to be the one who was upset this time.
I gathered the broken heart as quickly as possible and fled to the comfort of my own room, and I prayed they wouldn’t follow. I let the tears fall big and heavy for just a few minutes, maybe even a few seconds — I knew I didn’t have much time. My shoulders shook, and my chest heaved from the emotional pain.
It’s just a thing, I tried to tell myself. Your children are healthy, despite their rough start.
It’s just a thing.
Oh, but it was a thing that I cherished so much, and why didn’t I take better care of it? Why didn’t I put it safe in a box instead of on the closet shelf, so tempting for explorative four year olds? I’m still not used to the idea that they grab their chairs to reach things beyond their grasp.
And how was I to explain to them why I was so upset? I tried. The words didn’t come out. I couldn’t think quickly enough, even though I thought I planned out what to say.
What is it? Is it broken?
It’s a footprint. A special footprint.
No! It’s a heart!
Yes, but it has your footprint on it, from when you were a tiny baby in the hospital.
Remember when I was a baby?
Yes, I do. You lived in the hospital for five weeks before Mommy and Daddy could bring you home.
Do I have a footprint?
Yes, you have one too.
I’ll be right back! I hafta go get my footprint!
They couldn’t fathom why this thing, this piece of clay with a barely there imprint of a time they couldn’t remember was so special to me. They live in the present. They relish in memories of their last trip to the pool or their birthday party. I’m the one who gazes at these tiny things and allows myself a deep breath, a WOW, and a quick prayer of thanks.
It’s just a thing.
Update: I left the pieces on my dresser for safekeeping, even though there really is no safe surface around here. I came in my room one day to find Rachel messing with the broken heart. I totally lost it and may have yelled at her to leave the damn thing alone. Her face crumbled into huge crocodile tears as she explained, “But I was trying to fix it!” So yeah, I’m an asshole.