One thing I know all too well is that being out past my children's bedtime is a recipe for disaster.
Add to that recipe one daddy being away on business for the first time in over a year, and the scene was set for a meltdown right after the rubber penguins.
The problem was I didn't see it coming. I could have stopped it. But my shoulders sagged over-tired, too, from a long weekend with a sick daughter, and so I pushed when I should have bent.
I had given the warning of one book, not three, because of the late hour and early morning to come. Compromise. Compromise.
I might as well have been saying pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis for all the good my words did.
Waiting by the sofa, each boy stood stubbornly with one book in his hand, neither willing to give. In a season where the two of them have been exhibiting less than more kindness towards one another, this was the proverbial straw.
There amidst the scent of bubble gum toothpaste and freshly washed hair, I lost it, pronounced the sentence of "no books" tonight, growled to the boys that they could say their own prayers, and closed the door.
The seconds it took to walk my instant-saintly daughter to her room were almost unbearable. All I wanted was to get back to my boys and apologize. What was wrong with me!? They were just tired. I was just tired. Why couldn't I have just stopped being the one who always has to be the heavy, taken five minutes, read the extra book and been done with it--no harm, no hurt hearts, no forgiveness to seek.
I could hear both their tears even before I opened the door and flipped on the light again.
This flash-angry now sober-penitent mama sat softly on Wyatt's bed and beckoned him into my lap, asked why he was crying.
He readily buried his face in the crook of my elbow, sobbing as he squeaked out, "I don't know how to pray. Daddy always prays with me."
In the brain fog of sleepiness, a father's absence suddenly erased five years' worth of bedtime prayers until Wyatt didn't know what to ask God for, what to tell Him.
"Well, what would you like to tell God?" I asked, holding one son, watching the other one peek out at me from under Lightening McQueen.
As I continued prompting the two of them with "and what else," they rambled down the list of thankful gratitude praise and heart-changing requests that I've heard husband speak over them many times before.
My younger son's dimples deepened as I asked his forgiveness, kissed and stroked his three-year-old forehead. All is quickly forgiven with the young. But even forgiven hurts hold longer with age, even if it's only two years more.
And so, I turned out the lights again, this time in peace, and did something I've only done once before--lay beside my oldest until the hiccuping sobs stopped and his rhythmic breathing sang the familiar tune of sleep.
The image would have been complete with me quietly slipping out the door. But I'm not that graceful, two left feet loudly stumbling backwards over train track and a half dozen engines just as the door closed.
I turned off the hall lights anyway, loosened the tap for a bath, and stood just looking in the mirror, wondering if I will ever really learn how to be a good mother or if I'm doomed to a lifetime of heart-failures like this one.
And as I stood, behind me flashed a little boy, reawakened by my blundering, come to use my potty. He looked up at me and smiled that shy, sweet smile of a happy boy who knows despite her flaws and admitted failures, his mother loves him.
On nights when failure rips deep, this smile of forgiveness is all a mother can ask for.
Image: Wyatt at a tulip garden in Washington D.C.