Gabriella loves bedtime stories.
From the time she could lie head-to-toe between my palm and the inside of my elbow, I’ve made them part of her bedtime ritual. At first, this was me sharing my love of books, but it soon brought her pleasure as well.
In the beginning, she rested in my arms, then she sprawled on my lap, and now she lies in her hospital bed and I sit at her side, spreading the pages across the pillow. She appreciates the illustrations, which she has let me know the few times we’ve tried books without them.
We sampled much of the standard literature for babies and toddlers, and many classics came and went. A few like Goodnight Moon remain favorites, for both the familiarity and the calming rhythms.
Two standards have long been Sandra Boynton and Dr. Seuss. The former are for smaller kids, but both are full of cleverness and rhyming. Over the years, she’s accumulated more than twenty Boynton books and we still read the majority. As with videos, we’ve found the maturing of her taste in books distressingly slow, but have been pleased to find her interest in Dr. Seuss has evolved from The Foot Book and Hop on Pop to Hortons and Sneetches; the only ones she doesn’t like are the longer narratives without rhymes.
Whatever we read, Gabriella begins clicking at the prospect of “stories”.
Most nights we cover three books, which rotate, and we always end with Boynton’s The Going to Bed Book. It’s likely that I’ve read that short favorite over 7,000 times by now. It goes without saying that I can recite it (and several others) from rote if we are traveling and forget to bring her reading. Even that satisfies her desire for rhythm and routine, familiarity and companionship.
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After stories, we progress to prayers.
We pray for family members by name – not least for Luna, our cat, for whom Gabriella holds a sneaky fondness – and always for people with disabilities and those who love them. Or those who care for them. Or their families.
Nightly prayers are the one place where our faith plays a role in our daughter’s life. In a prior town, in a prior parish, we brought her to mass each week. Back then she slept through the service, only looking about at times with doleful eyes. Around when we moved to our current church, she grew more restless, complaining throughout. Although our new pastor encouraged us to bring her, we became self-conscious even in the crying room. At the same time, I was confronting the likelihood that Gabriella would never wear a First Communion dress. So we got into the habit of going to to separate masses.
After we detail our litany of blessings, we say one Hail Mary and one Our Father. There are nights when, I will confess, I come out of a daydream making the concluding sign of the cross, and I am beset with a twinge of Catholic guilt. Gabriella usually remains silent throughout, a show of reverence.
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I first whistled for my daughter on the day of her birth. I don’t know what I chose; the point was to find peace for each of us, faced with our frightening new life together. But like stories and prayers, we soon forged whistling routines and built music into our nightly bedtime experience.
Most of the tunes I whistle date back to her first few years, and I arrange them into medleys of four or five songs. One medley came from an audiotape she enjoyed; another comprised Mona Lisa and Daddy’s Little Girl, two lullabies, and the Italian standard Mama. Sometimes (often depending on her position), this collection can cause her to become overly excited. (This reminds us of a funny incident from early on when a friend was reaching under a table and banged her head because, she said, she was entranced by how “beautiful” my whistling was. It’s hardly beautiful, but at least Gabriella enjoys it.)
I still whistle to her in a variety of settings, whether I’m holding her in the swimming pool or rolling her down the beach in her big-wheeled chair. Even today, I think this simple act accomplishes the same thing it did the day Gabriella was born, bringing comfort and a special bond.
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Stories, prayers and songs. And the greatest of these is love.