November 2016

The picture

by Karen Crofts

Winner of the 2010 My Child/Parenting Express Short Story Competition for Parents

 

Your third babysitter, in as many weeks, is Czech. I will forget her name tomorrow but remember her strong accent for years. I will forget her face but remember the way she pronounced your name. Today will be recollected in disconnected images: the pattern of the hospital carpet, the way I curled your hair and your Czech babysitter.

When I hear her accent, I imagine a dreamtime with you and Daddy and me; I see her arriving at our house in the Czech mountains instead of this hospital foyer. After easy instructions, Daddy and I leave you with her for the morning while we stroll into the village. We buy cheeses, salami and hot peppers and spy a little toy for you. We have coffee in a quiet square and sample bright berries from a market barrow. We come home with lollies.

“Do you have toys for me?” You jump up and down on the foyer lounges as if you are at home and your squeal brings me out of my reverie.
“Be as good as you can ever be,” I remind you. “Don’t jump on the hospital lounges. Mummy will go and see Daddy first and then you can come in with me.”

I brace for the argument you have given me all day: But I want to come in and see Daddy with you; I don’t want to stay with the new lady. Instead, you peer into the babysitter’s bag and call a distracted ‘bye’ to the collection of toys inside.

I am suddenly hesitant to leave you in an expansive foyer of a big city hospital with a girl we have only just met. There is no one to watch her watch you. This is a place of passage for strangers. But I cannot take you into the recovery ward, not yet. Besides, this foyer is the only carpeted area I can find—plush with a regal blue and gold pattern—and you are a child who needs a comfortable floor to assemble your fun.

We have put all our trust into the booking officer from ‘Dial-A-Sitter’ who chose this young woman to mind you. I am new to all this—the terminally ill husband, the city hospital five hours from home and the best way to look after you while managing all this. But the booking officer sounded experienced.

“She will meet you in the foyer. Five o’clock is no problem. Yes, for two hours or as long as you wish. She will bring toys and activities—your daughter is almost four, yes? No problem. Does she like dolls? Puzzles? Drawing?” The lady shows no nervousness, none of the misplaced worry or over-fussing that friends and family deliver. I need a transaction, a contract, not sympathy or anxiety.

So I leave you in the care of a girl whose name I will never remember.

What do you do while I am gone? Do you think of Daddy? What do you tell the babysitter? How does this place settle in your memory? Will you, too, save only disjointed images of this day? Will you remember a blue-and-gold carpet but no reason for being there? Will you draw me a picture that I will put up at home to remind me that this day even happened?

Returning at 6.30 I am struck, again, by the vast foyer—a cavernous space of steel and glass. It is ideal architecture for daytime: floor-to-ceiling windows that let in natural light; kentia palms in elaborate urns to add a slice of nature. But now it is night and the dark heavens outside create internal gloom, the palms in their tubs are fans of harsh spikes and the busy carpet pattern stretches forever across the empty space towards you, over there, in the corner. You are sprawled along the arm of a lobby lounge, drawing. Your hair ribbons have come loose but you are frowning with concentration.

“Look what I do, Mummy. I draw a picture for you.” You wave your drawing above your head and I see large flowers and clouds and a little girl in a green dress on a swing.

“I build this too, Mummy.” Now you are down on the floor while the babysitter packs up books and textas. “Look. I make a bed for the dolly and this is a bridge and this is her pillow and this is a tree that she sleeps under. Do you want to play too, Mummy? We can sit and have a cup of tea with her. She sleeping now but she’s going to wake up soon. Will we wake her up? I call her Josie and she’s asleep. Do you want to pick her up, Mummy? You want to see my drawing? You love my picture?”

I pay the sitter and try to help her pack up yet I long to pick you up, to hold you and to sob. Anguish is rushing through me. I am not angry at a health system that cannot provide specialists closer to our town; I do not feel guilty that I left you alone with a backpacker on a working visa in this monolithic building; I am not worried that I haven’t yet explained how sick Daddy is and I am beyond wondering why old friends do not phone to ask after us.

I just feel alone. Alone, beneath the burden of the future that stretches before us.

Ahead of me lie the years alone, without my husband: alone, with you, recalling the years before three of us became two of us, retelling moments like this when I return to you, so tiny, in a stark, deserted lobby.

Moments, like now, when I set aside the crushing burden and step over a mess of toys and books and pencils to sit you on my lap and adore your picture of a little girl in a green dress on her swing.

 

© Karen Crofts

“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown. In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”*

As our children grow and become more independent, we might become a wee bit complacent about their existence, lost in the daily grind and focusing on the world outside the home. But it doesn’t take much to realise how shockingly fragile human life is, and how quickly childhood will be over, though the connections and feelings that bind us will remain for eternity.

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* Tony Morrison (American novelist, editor, and professor)