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Open Translation
I bent down to turn on the seashell night-light and pressed “play” on Hazel’s “Lullaby” playlist. A woman’s voice softly crooned from the beat-up stereo as I turned off the top light. Hazel sat perched on her bed, the pink-and-white covers not yet pulled back.
“Okay,” I assured her with a sigh. Hesitating briefly, I lifted back the covers, got in bed beside her, and gently pulled the covers over us; They reached her shoulders. She shuffled her little 4-year-old body under the blankets, gathering her various stuffed animals around her like a fortress. I picked up a stray plush fox and nestled it beside her. Gradually I, too, lay my head down and quieted my adjusting movements. Hazel scooched closer to me in her mismatched PJs (“you call them PJs (not pajamas)?” she had asked earlier). Absent-mindedly, I brushed her light brown and blonde-streaked bangs from the middle of her forehead to her temples. Even in disarray, her hair was smooth and felt in straight planes.
“Do you like playing with my hair?” Hazel asked. Her questions seemed rhetorical, but I knew if I didn’t answer she’d ask again.
“Yes,” I replied, fully aware that this would not be the final question of the night. I remembered that her mother had mentioned that giving Hazel back-tickles helps settle her down during her (extensive) night-routine. My dad has since reminded me that this is pure karma for my own theatrical night-routines as a kid that I put upon him. As I gently tickled her back, I thought of how many times my parents and grandparents had done the very same when I was younger. The back-tickles seemed to do the trick; Hazel became quiet for a time and her breathing slowed. Then she asked,
“Could you draw letters on my back?” I thought for a second I had misheard.
“‘Draw letters,’ did you say? Did you know my parents and grandparents used to do that with me and my brother?” I asked.
“My grandpa used to draw letters on my daddy’s back when he was little,” she told me.
“Really?” I asked with a sad smile, trying not to show it. Her grandpa had passed away before she was born. I felt as if our families were somehow connected through this simple childhood tradition. I started out easy, tracing the uppercase letter “A” on her shirt. With one hand she started lifting up the back on her shirt, saying,
“No, like this. Try it again.” After retracing the letter “A” on her bare back, I spelled out her name. Then she wanted me to spell out my name. So I slowly traced out the letters, each letter taking up her whole back. I flashed back to my mom and grandma tracing letters that were part of a mystery word. Whenever I’d have trouble guessing a letter, they’d press their palm against my back and slide it side-to-side as if erasing on a chalkboard.
“Now you guess what letter I’m drawing,” Hazel half-whispered. I paused, wondering if she actually meant what I think she meant. Feeling oddly embarrassed, I rolled over and lifted the back of my shirt, careful to cover my bra as much as I could. Would she ask me about it or laugh? There were no limits to what kids would ask about. To my surprise, she didn’t mention it, nor did she remark about the fact that half of her babysitter’s back was now exposed.
“W,” I guessed.
“No,” she replied. She traced the mysterious letter again. After a few more letters I realized my guessing average was low due to the fact that Hazel was tracing at an angle. Nevertheless, I praised her as I pulled down my shirt and turned back over to face her.
“I love you, Serena,” Hazel said. Although she had begun saying it several times in the past few months, it caught me off guard every time. Surprise would turn into relief that a kid really did like having me as their babysitter. Then I would melt and it would hit me how much she and her brother, Caleb, meant to me.
“I love you, Hazel,” I said, placing my hand on her little arm.
“Do you love me all the time?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said smiling.
“All the time. No matter what. You are so special to me, honey.” She thought about this for a while. Then her mind began to buzz with more thoughts that came out as nonsensical chatter. She began to tell stories about her and her mom flying on an airplane and riding in hot-air balloons, traveling to the moon. Sometimes they were “pretend” trips, and other times not (according to her). Then somewhere in the middle of her imaginative storytelling she grew quiet and whispered,
“I know someone who died.” I held my breath, waiting to hear the name of the person I knew she was referring to. I had dreaded when this would come up. It had been 6 months since it happened.
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