When did you first understand the meaning of love? For Life Lessons Essay Contest winner Mara Eve Robbins, that moment came unexpectedly, overwhelmingly, when one small gesture helped her cope with an enormous loss.

Girl laying next to mother in bed
Credit: Julien Magre

I’d let you stay up too late. By the time you had brushed your teeth and gotten into your pajamas, your voice was mostly whine and you did not want to read any of the stories or hear any of the songs that usually calmed you down. My reserves were gone after a day out and about: crafts at the library; grocery shopping; a playdate with your friend, whom I did not know well enough to be anything other than awkward with her mother.

I still did not always communicate appropriately. Everyday questions—especially from people I did not know well—had no easy answers. They were land mines I had to either carefully avoid or choose to step on directly, risking explosions of sympathy or incomprehension. Keeping my voice as even as I could, I sat down on the edge of your bed and held your shoulders so that your eyes could meet mine.

“If you don’t want a story or a song, then you need to tell me what you do want. We both need to get some sleep, sweetheart.”

Your hand went up to your hair, twirling a ringlet into a tangle. After resisting for this long, your eyes were heavy and you were close to surrender. “I want to listen to the tape again, Mom. The one with the Ally Bally song on it. Could you make me some tea?”

Thank goodness. Typically, once you finally decided what you needed, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief. “Sure, honey. I’ll put the water on, and you find the tape?”

You nodded, heading over to the bookshelf where your tape player lived. I stood at the kitchen sink for a long time, water spilling over the kettle and splashing on my hand before I snapped back from wherever I had just gone.

Half the time I did not know where I was. Half the time I forgot what I was doing. You, my three-year-old daughter, were the only person who could keep me focused, who could remind me of what was real.

By the time I had gotten the kettle on the stove and put a bag of Sleepytime tea into your favorite mug (the one with the picture of you and your pal Maggie dancing in your bumblebee costumes on Halloween), I could hear music coming out of your room. “Good job!” I said, wiping my wet hands on my T-shirt. “You got it to play all by yourself!”

You grinned at me and hopped up onto your bed. “I know, Mom, and I even pushed the rewinding button before I pushed the playing button!” Settling down into your pillows, fingers still twisting and pulling at that one tired curl, you blinked at me, eyelids fluttering as you struggled to keep them open. “Is tomorrow’s tomorrow my birthday, Mom?”

“No, it’s one more day after that. Today is Monday. Your birthday is on Thursday.”

You smiled, finally letting go of your hair and holding both arms out for a hug. “So it’s tomorrow’s tomorrow’s tomorrow,” you said into my shoulder.

“Yes, it is,” I said, stroking your back.

“OK,” you murmured.

It was October. Three months before, your father had had an acute coronary occlusion and died while I was giving him CPR. You called 911. Or maybe you just got the phone for me? Those details blur.

I recall what I have told people. I recall the thin skin of sweat on his face seconds before the seizure. I recall the moment he quit breathing and it was only my breath going in and out of his lungs. I recall telling you to watch for the ambulance.

Life keeps moving ahead even when it is not recognizable anymore. I was a 30-year-old widow. You were a preschooler. The two of us shared a brand-new home, one we had purchased and moved into less than six weeks before your father died. There were breakfasts and dinners and bedtimes. Breakfast I could rarely eat; bedtime I often forgot. All the while, you asked me impossible questions I did my best to answer.

My friends who were single parents became my child-rearing gurus. Together we tucked you and the other kids into a pullout sofa bed, put on a movie for all of you to watch, then went to sit on the back porch and drink wine or coffee. On those evenings, I studied the new role I had no choice but to play.

The kettle whistled, and I kissed your cheek before getting up to make the tea. When I went back into your room, you had fallen asleep on your side, fingers still in your hair, your breath gentle against the pillow. I set the tea on top of your dresser and lay down next to you, just looking at your face—long eyelashes you inherited from my uncle, a perfect nose sprinkled with freckles. Your father’s cheekbones.

My chest tightened, and for a moment I thought I was having an anxiety attack. They had visited me often in the last few months, and I did not know yet how to identify their beginnings. You knew, somehow. Your hand moved from your hair and settled on my hand.

The love built up from my chest and spread through my body, fierce and pure and encompassing. I gripped your hand—not to wake you, just to hang on to the feeling as long as possible.

Your dad and I used to talk about love as something bigger than a mere emotion. “It is a state of being,” he used to say, and though I agreed, I did not really know what he meant, or even what I meant the times I repeated the thought. Suddenly, that changed. I looked at you for a long time, holding your hand, watching you sleep. My love for you overcame me—a feeling that had become unfamiliar. I had not been able to feel love, not for months. I loved you. I knew that, intrinsically. I just did not have the capacity to experience it for a while.

I met your dad when I was eight. He was 10. We were childhood friends, and lovers in our late teens. We lived together for nine years and got married on Leap Day a year before I got pregnant with you. I had very few memories of life without him. My mind did not know how to absorb these abrupt changes. And so I stopped feeling anything but the void I carried in my belly at all times, which was unrelenting.

A few weeks after that revelatory night, you woke up in the middle of the night wailing. With your hand on your chest, you asked me, with halting, sobbing breaths, for a Band-Aid. I held you on my lap and looked—there was no bruise, no cut that I could see.

“How did you hurt yourself, sweetheart?” I moved my hand in gentle circles over your collarbone, your shoulder, your chest.

“My heart hurts, Mom. I need a Band-Aid.” Burying your head in the crook of my arm, you repeated it more softly: “I need a Band-Aid.”

Holding you, rocking your small body as it shook with sobs, I thought about saying something about a bandage not working for this kind of pain. I thought about pain itself, how sometimes it was a relief to feel an obvious physical injury.

When your crying slowed, I helped you blow your nose on the edge of my T-shirt and I picked you up and took you with me into the bathroom. Setting you down on the edge of the sink for a moment, I got several Band-Aids out of the medicine cabinet, wet a washcloth, and took you back to bed.

Your body was limp from weeping. I folded the washcloth into quarters and placed it on your forehead. “Do you want a Hello Kitty Band-Aid? Or a Sesame Street one? I have one more—let’s see—oh, it’s Toy Story.” I moved the washcloth so that it was centered on your forehead. “Which one would you like?”

“I like the Sesame Street one, Mom,” you said, reaching out to hold them, “especially if it has Cookie Monster. And I like the Hello Kitty one, too. But Daddy liked Toy Story a lot. We all saw it, remember? He liked Buzz Lightyear. ‘To infinity and beyond!’ ”

A tiny smile crept across your face. “I want the Toy Story one.”

I unwrapped the Band-Aid, placed it carefully on your chest, smoothed it down, and climbed into bed beside you. You put your head on my shoulder, and I held you there, humming a lullaby. Soon we were both asleep.

Check out the two runners up, to this year's contest, The Embrace by Kenneth Krattenmaker and Knowing Sam by Molly Fessler. Want to participate in next year’s competition? Click here for details about the Fifth Annual Life Lessons Essay Contest.