You Are My Sunshine

Evelyn and I rocked in the glider. With her birth two months before we expected, we had little more than a crib, mattress, and a carseat. We had some clothes and diapers from the baby shower the month prior, but no one had given us preemie sizes. We had planned to buy a glider–the rite of passage for new parents with dreams of feeding their babies, rocking their babies, and singing to their babies in comfort–but didn’t think we’d need it yet.

Amazon will deliver a CHAIR? I had asked Jason when he suggested we have it delivered to our third-floor apartment. Sure! You can get anything from Amazon, he said. From Evelyn’s bedside in the NICU, we put the oversized, overstuffed chair into our virtual shopping cart. It arrived in two days and awaited Evelyn’sarrival four weeks later.

Her four-pound body laid on my legs. I watched her take the bottle. Her mouth opened slightly, her eyes stayed closed, like a fish blindly searching for the flakes that float from the top of the water. The nipple of the bottle disappeared between her slender lips, and we rocked.

She had found her suck reflex before she was discharged from the hospital–a requirement for her departure. The goal at first was small: a few milliliters of milk. Then ten, then twenty, then twenty-five, and eventually the full bottle at thirty. The first night she took thirty Jason and I had already gone home for the day. When we returned in the morning, a nurse had left the empty bottle on Evelyn’s isolette bed with a note saying I drank the whole bottle!

The nurses had given us extra bottles and nipples as a parting gift to use until Evelyn graduated to the Dr. Brown’s bottles we had bought from Target.

At home, her feeding schedule and my pumping schedule worked in tandem: I fed. She ate. I pumped. She slept. I labelled the milk bag with the current date and the date three months out. One bag went into the freezer and I took out another to thaw.

“Ok, baby, I have to put you down so I can pump,” I told her.

She laid in her rocker with vibrations that were supposed to soothe her. I pulled her back-and-forth her a few times, until I was confident she seemed peaceful. I sat on the bed, only a few feet away from her, and began assembling the pumping equipment. The tubes on the machine. The funnels that attached the tubes to my body. The bottles to the ends of the funnels.

Evelyn watched.

I hooked up the nursing bra, the kind outfitted with two holes for the flanges to go through and from where the bottles hung. I turned the dial. The whirring began.

Evelyn began crying.

“Don’t cry, Evie,” I said.

She didn’t stop.

“Mommy’s right here.”

She wailed. High-pitched, arching notes that reverberted her vocal cords and my fused, vertebrae-less spine.

Jason was at his office at Wake Forest University. The neighbors to the left of us and across the breezeway were strangers. My co-workers were busy at the psychology clinic twenty minutes away. My parents, who lived in Wisconsin, had gone home from their visit. Jason’s mother was back in Virginia. His aunt and grandmother had not yet made it out from Maryland.

Evelyn and I were alone.

I couldn’t stop the machine. My breasts were engorged; it couldn’t wait, not if I wanted to prevent a third round of mastitis[1]. The cords kept me bound to the mechanical plastic evil necessity.

I couldn’t get to Evelyn. 

“Please stop crying, baby…”

            Her tones took on a curvature that bent them up to the top of a scale; to the shrillest of keys on the right end of a piano, and back down. It reminded me of when I was young and took piano lessons. The trill, the fast flickering between two notes, my fingers flying as fast as they could go.

I remembered a commercial for Johnson’s & Johnson’s baby wash with a mother gently singing “You Are My Sunshine” as she sat on the edge of the bathtub. I recognized the melody, the cheeriness it exuded. But I had never learned the lyrics. I pulled out my phone and searched.

Once I found them, I sang:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,

You make me happy when skies are gray…

My voice was dampened by tears, the grinding gears, Evelyn’s rhythmic wails.

You’ll never know, dear,

 How much I love you,

 Please don’t take my sunshine away.

I held my phone in my left hand, my right clutched the half-filled bottles. If they fell, which they hadn’t yet, but if they did, I would have just one more reason to cry.

The other night, dear,

As I lay sleeping,

I dreamt I held you by my side.

When I awoke dear,

I was mistaken.

So I hung my head and I cried.

“It’s okay, baby. Evelyn….Evelyn…look at mommy! Look here baby! You’re okay. I’m almost done. You’re okay. I’m okay. We’re okay.”

You are my sunshine,

My only sunshine.

You make me happy,

When skies are gray.

            It was a little too soon to shut down the machine, but it was close enough. The bottles filled quicker than they had during the first days, days when mere droplets lined the inside of the bottle, what the NICU nurses said would give your baby the taste at least and we’ll supplement with donated milk. It was time to turn the dial on the pump’s speed down. The grinding softened to a hum.

            You’ll never know, dear,

            How much I’ll love you.

            Please don’t take my sunshine away.

            Evelyn quieted. Her screams turned to whimpers, and then faded into saliva-filled gurgles.

            “I’m almost done, baby. Then we can snuggle.”

            Her face was wet. The tears, the spit, the mucus running from her nostrils, the agony I didn’t understand.

Was she hungry? If only I could have gotten the breastfeeding to work, for her to understand to latch onto my nipple instead of the bottle, but after five weeks of exclusively using bottles in the NICU, she just didn’t understand how much simpler this whole process could have been for us both.

            I’ll always love you,

            And make you happy.

            And I know you’ll say the same.

            But if you leave me,

            To love another,

            You’ll regret it all one day.

            My voice softened on these last words as we finally lingered in a silent room.

···

            I later learned that “You Are My Sunshine” became popularized in 1940 by Jimmie Davis, a former college professor, criminal court clerk, and hillbilly singer.[2] He later became the governor of Louisiana and the song became the second state song, behind “Give Me Louisiana.” Davis sang “You Are My Sunshine” at his campaign rallies. It became a symbol for what is American, the simple melody easy to learn, the lyrics of the chorus uplifting. When I read the verses, especially the lines most left out– but if you leave me, I dreamt I held you by my side, but I was mistaken, you’ll regret it all one day–I thought of how we were told we’d lose Evelyn just like my other babies, how she wouldn’t survive two holes in her heart, how she was born too early and had to prove her strength and will to live. She was my sunshine. Please don’t take her away, too.

I had heard others sing the song, most recently Johnny Cash’s solemn version on YouTube when I was searching for lyrics. So many have sung the haunting lyrics, each putting their own take on what the words mean, how the melody flowed (fast and jazzy, slow and weepy): Louis Armstrong, Gene Autry, Lawrence Welk, Bing Crosby, … the teachers in Moore, Oklahoma to their fifteen young students as they hid in the bathrooms while they awaited the tornadoes to blow past, mothers bathing newborns and lulling them to sleep, me with a crying newborn preemie, not yet five pounds, grasping for something to soothe us both.

···

            One early July night when Evelyn was four-years-old, on the brink of turning five, I was putting her to bed. She brushed her teeth (then I took a turn to reach the molars), she used potty (then I helped her wipe and straighten out her bunched-up underwear), she came into her bedroom, I asked did you wash your hands?, she responded yes…., she returned to the bathroom and I heard the water run, and she came to the bed where I sat.

            “Hi, baby. Thanks for actually washing. Remember germs, right?”

            “Yucky!” she said.

“Okay, so what book do you want to read?”

            “Kindergarten Here I Come!” she said.

            It was a new book she had received for her birthday. It was one I had read to her the past two nights.

            “Okay, but after tonight, we take a break from it.”

            When she wasn’t tired, when her muscles still had enough life in them to get her legs onto the metal bedframe and her biceps could still pull on the covers, she could get herself onto the mattress. But tonight, like most nights, her limbs were loose, her efforts coming out in grunts and motion. Her hands grasped at the bedding. She swung her legs to the left, trying to catch a foot on the edge of the mattress. Each time, though, she slipped down just enough to keep her from getting up.

I pulled her onto the bed.

            “Ugh, baby, you’re getting to be so big,” I said. Her thirty-five pound body stretched my arms, pulled at my knuckles, popped my wrist as I lifted her up and swung her so her feet landed by me. “Let’s get your night shoes on.”

            Since she was a baby, we had been treating her club feet. First in the NICU with tiny white casts that covered her foot-to-knee. One morning we came back to find nurses had written ‘Hope’ and ‘Love’ on with purple and blue markers. 

When she came home we visited a pediatric orthopedic doctor. We sat in the exam room, Evelyn sitting on my lap, my purse under the chair. When I was not much older than her, I sat with my dad waiting for the orthopedic doctor to examine my spine, my ribs, my deformities. To learn if progress was made, or if my scoliosis had worsened. I wondered how much of this Evelyn would remember when she was thirty-five.

At Evelyn’s first appointment, we learned the casting that she had in the NICU was the wrong kind. That’s the Kite method, Dr. Ravish had explained. I do the Ponseti method. It’s the most widely used method of casting for treating clubfoot. The ‘gold standard.’ When he told us we’d have to let her feet be cast-free for three week to let them return to the clubbed positions, I was angry at the NICU doctor for having taken us on the wrong path. Why didn’t the NICU guy know better? I asked Jason on the ride home. He’s a doctor, right?[3]

How to undo the mistake:

Step 1: Full-leg casts–ones that now covered her feet and stretched up to her hips. Change every

week for eight weeks.

1.1: Load Evelyn into her car seat after finding pants that will cover her heavy, casted legs; keep her calm during the 30 minute drive to and from Dr. Ravish’s office. Repeat every Friday.

1.2: Watch the casting assistant start up his drill. Listen to the loud grinding, watch the blade spinning close to Evelyn’s leg.

1.3: Hold Evelyn’s hands to keep her lying back. Keep her still. Watch her face for signs of fear, of crying, of confusion. Say: it’s okay, baby. You’re doing so good, baby. Almost done! while holding in my own tears and desire to grab her from the table and safely wrap her back up in the stroller.

1.4: Help Evelyn sit up as the cast assistant wets the fiberglass–a wrap in a color I picked (the only choice I had). Watch Dr. Ravish hold Evelyn’s left foot at a ninety degree angle, knee bent.

1.5: Keep Evelyn still so the cast assistant can wrap the gauze, the pink or blue or purple or red soggy strip around and around and around until it is thick and heavier than Evelyn’s whole body. Repeat on the right leg.

Step 2 (after the first 8 weeks): Get Evelyn fitted for the Ponseti braces (our ‘nightshoes’).

Each day: Put foot in, make sure heel is down in the bottom of the shoe, buckle three times (middle buckle always first).

2.1: Pull buckles so tight it feels like her metatarsal bones might fracture.

Pro Tip: When you think you’ve tightened it enough, go for one hole tighter. Have her wear shoes for twenty-three hours a day for the first year (one hour allowed for bathing).

Step 3: After one year of diligence, wear the Ponseti braces for twelve hours a day.

Step 4: Maintain for the next four years.

Step 5: Wean off to Ponseti braces for five nights a week.

5.1: Celebrate ‘no shoe nights’ by putting fuzzy red socks on Evelyn’s liberated feet.

Step 6: ?

···

Evelyn always cooperated with the shoes. By the time she was four-almost-five, she didn’t know a night without them.

“But I HAVE to sleep with them on!” she said.

“Dr. Chandran said your feet will be okay,” Jason said.

“If we notice anything changing, we’ll let Dr. Chandran know right away,” I added.

“We have to tell her right away!” Evelyn said, emphasizing each word with a wave of her index finger.

When we had our first no-shoe night, we commemorated with a family snuggle–Jason on one side, me on the other– in her bed, for reassurance.

We left her alone to sleep, her feet free to rub within her red fuzzy socks and amongst the soft flowered sheets. I, too, always rubbed my bare feet on the soft sheets to help me go to sleep.

The Ponseti shoes challenged me every time it was my turn to put them on Evelyn.

“Toes up,” I said.

            Her right toes naturally angled outward up to ninety degrees from center. It made her foot look as if it were attached sideways–sometimes when she stopped walking she’d stand so her right toes pointed behind her. It’s a rotation of the bone starting from the knee, her orthopedic doctor in Ohio, Dr. Chandran, told us. Asking her to rotate it straight would be awkward for her, just like it I asked you to turn your arm and hold it there. Yet Evelyn could do it easily when asked, no pain, no crying.

            “Don’t forget the tissue!” she said.

            The tissue, folded into a small square, protected the top of her ankle from the buckles rubbing. The tissue was our design. The ‘Pringle’ chip came with the shoe. Attached to the middle leather strap it was supposed to be the protector. It just wasn’t enough.

            “Got it, baby.”

            I pulled the middle strap over the tissue, over the chip, and into the metal clasp. The strap stretched as I tugged it hard. The first time I had to strap her newborn foot into the shoe, I was certain I would break her. Having clubfoot seemed to make her feet smaller than normal. She wore six-month shoes when she was two-years old. 

Now, I yanked. Each hole that I could stretch out of the strap reminded me of her arch collapsing back onto itself, her toes reaching once again toward each other, her stubby digits with toenails curved and scrunched. We witnessed the curvature happen once when Dr. Ravish requested we start the casting over. It wasn’t something I ever wanted to see again. Jason and I were in charge of these shoes. We were the ones protecting her feet.

I clicked the metal bar to the sole of one shoe, then to the other. The metal bar tethered her feet together

            “Okay, baby, get comfy.”

            Evelyn wiggled up the mattress until her head reached her squishy hedgehog pillow. Her feet dragged behind.

            “Let’s sing one song. What do you want to hear?” I asked.

            “The stake song.”

            “Which one?”

            “The stake song!”

            I thought for a moment. I pictured a steak. We never ate steak.

            I mentally perused the brief catalogue of songs I knew by heart. Memorizing lyrics was a weakness of mine. Unless it was a song that I loved–the melody, the beat, the invitation to dance, the minor key it’s in, the dramatic tone, the beauty in the words–lyrics expired in my memory. My mom sang Inch worm, inch worm, measuring the marigolds… but never You Are My Sunshine.

 Sometimes songs remind me of a meaningful time, like Christmas at the ranch house I grew up in, or old country music that played in my parents’ kitchen, and in the garage, and on the car radio, and in my dad’s basement workshop. Often singing ‘do do do’ or ‘hmm mmm’ to cover for the words I didn’t know, or just finding replacement words altogether, there were few songs I sing enough times that I could actually memorize.[4]

            “Oh, you mean the mistake song?”

            “Yeah!” she waved her arms at me in exasperation, her weakened right shoulder not allowing her arm to extend as high as the left. Yet both of her hands waved at me as if she were saying get with it mom!

            “Okay, but you have to sing with me.”

            She nodded.

            You are my sunshine,

            My only sunshine.

Her soprano voice squeaked over my alto tone.

You make me happy,

When skies are gray.

Her words came a beat after mine. She was trying to match the lyrics, remember them, and filling in with mumbles when necessary.

You’ll never know, dear,

How much I love you.

Please don’t take my sunshine away.

I inhaled enough to carry me through the next verse. She smiled and waited.

The other night, dear,

As I lay sleeping,

I dreamt I held you by my side.

When I awoke, dear,

I was mistaken.

So I hung my head and I cried.

“Wait!” said Evelyn. She held her hand up in my face.

“What?” I said.

“Did you look for me in my room?”

“Well, no, I guess not.”

“You need to look for me in my room! I’m always right here!”

“Okay, baby, next time I will do that.” I laughed. “Let’s keep going.”

You are my sunshine,

My only sunshine.

You make me happy,

When skies are gray.

You’ll never know dear,

How much I love you,

(Evelyn pointed her right index finger at me when she yelled “you”)

Please don’t take my sunshine away.

We paused. I looked at her. Her eyes seemed to beg me to continue.

I’ll always love you,

And make you happy,

And I hope you’ll say the same.

But if you leave me,

To love another,

You’ll regret it all one day.

“But I’m not going anywhere, Mama. I’m right here!”

“That’s good, baby,” I say. I leaned in and wrapped my arms around her.

“And what does ‘one day’ mean?” she asked.

“Just like…sometime in the future.”

“I’ll always be here, Mama.”

            “I hope so, baby,” I said. I sat up. “We have one more verse. Ready?”

            You are my sunshine,

            My only sunshine.

            You make me happy,

            When skies are gray.

            You’ll never know dear,

            How much I love you,

            Please don’t take my sunshine away.

            Evelyn yawned, her mouth stretching into a long misshapen ‘O.’ We had a picture of her from the NICU with her mouth in the same shape, a photo from a professional photographer working for a volunteer organization.

Her arm wrapped around Larry, her rainbow llama.

            “Goodnight, Evelyn. You sleep so so so good so we can have a lot of fun tomorrow, okay?”

            Her fingers traced my cheek, my nose, my eyelids.

            “Don’t poke me in the eye, Ev!” I said. The tingling on my cheek and nose lingered. I soaked in the warmth from her finger, the softness of her skin.

            “You sleep good too, Mommy. You need your energy!” She had learned that the advice I always gave her was good for me, too.

            “You’re right. I definitely do.”

            I hit the orange button on her owl night light. The white glow faded as the owl aged each year. The button on her tiger night light required four pushes, bypassing the white glow, the green, and the blue, until it shined purple–her favorite color. I reached behind her basket of stuffed animals sitting upon her bookshelf to grasp the off-switch to her reading lamp.

            “Night-night, Evelyn. See you in the morning.”

            The laminated paper EVELYN hung from her doorknob swayed and I pulled it away from the jamb so it wouldn’t get caught.

            “Night-night, Mama.”

            I shut the door and walked away. Away from the buckles and the leather straps, away from the shoes and the metal bar, away from the owl nightlight and the tiger one, away from my Evelyn so she could rest her tired body tonight.

            I shut the door on the previous pregnancy losses, on the realization that I’d never carry another healthy child, on the sadness that stings my soul every time a friend says I’m pregnant! We’re having another one! We wanted Sammy to have a sibling!, on the confusion and wonder about when (or if) my body could do what a woman’s body should or meet the expectation that is there, on the casts and braces and night shoes, on the hours spent on physical therapy and the crunchies and leg lifts and snow angels and arm raises done at home between the appointments. On the boisterous, too-smart-for-her-age toddler who was softly falling asleep under the butterflies on her comforter.

I shut the door on the fear of not having a child of my own, of losing another one, of fearing for my child’s life.

I shut the door on regrets, worries, anxieties, darkened days.

I shut the door knowing we would start all over again, tomorrow.


[1] Painful lines of red crossed my chest, the clogged milk ducts preventing the milk from being expressed. The fluid that was so vital to Evelyn’s growth had nowhere to go. Neither did the pain. The first time I had mastitis, I thought I had the flu: chills, fever, body aches. Jason called the doctor, who mercifully did not ask me to be seen before prescribing the antibiotics. The second time I had it, the ache in my ankle bones gave it away. I pumped through the infection, the pulling of my skin feeling like a ripping of flesh. I said if I get this one more time, I’m done with pumping. A month later, I packed up my pump for good.

[2] https://www.salon.com/2013/05/26/you_are_my_sunshine_how_a_maudlin_song_became_a_childrens_classic/

[3] I searched the internet for the NICU doctor and found he worked in a clinic that primarily treated adult patients. Why the hell do they let him treat babies in the NICU?! I wondered.

[4] Song lyrics I know accurately by heart: Most Garth Brooks songs (I had been obsessed with him since I was eight), Islands in the Stream, a duet by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (even this has become shaky in my adulthood), Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star, Jingle Bells, and You Are my Sunshine.

  Song lyrics I cannot remember or have to make up: everything else.

Laura Gaddis is currently an MFA candidate studying creative nonfiction at Miami University (in Ohio). She has previously been published in Thin Air Magazine, Scary Mommy, Tiny Buddha, and The Mighty. She has a piece forthcoming in The Avalon Literary Review. She resides in Oxford, OH with her husband, daughter, and pug Rocky.

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