Grace at Night: A Bedtime Diary
Outside the nursery, darkness sets. Behind the red black-out curtains, not a hint of light breaks through. I rock back and forth with my head against the chair, newborn Charlotte’s small body leaning into mine, the only light coming from a small night light across the room. Together we close our eyes to the sound of the noise machine and her on-again, off-again sucking. I watch her eyes flutter, and a drip of milk falls down her cheek.
When she’s fallen into a deeper sleep, I place my finger on her forehead making the sign of the cross. My finger moves down her forehead: “You are a loved child of God.” Moving in the other direction I add, “And I love you.”
We continue sitting for a few more minutes until I feel Charlotte’s body go limp from sleep. I place her in the crib and back-up slowly through her room.
The warmth of her forehead lingers on my fingertip.
Our bedtime rituals with two young children are louder than when they were babies. Someone is always clamoring for a spot on my lap or fighting for who can hold the book. We gather on the couch, lean into one another, and read books. One of the kids will have a train, and then the other wants that same train. We turn to our prayers and ask each other who we should pray for. We name family and friends, teachers, and health workers. The dog. Mommy and daddy. And then one takes the train out of the other’s hand. Fighting ensues. I grab one for my lap and continue praying. My voice has to get louder to offset the arguments.
Finally, when I can’t hold them any longer or my patience is frayed, I’ll turn to each one and mark the sign of the cross on their forehead. “You are a loved Child of God,” I tell them. Sometimes they turn their head and I’m left with their back. Other times they quickly reach their fingers towards me marking a quick cross on my head.
No matter the struggle or the squirming, the blessing gets to them. Every night, they hear they are loved.
After I’ve said goodnight to Charlotte and the lights have been turned off, three-year-old Isaac crawls in my lap and we rock back and forth. Many nights the dog comes and sits on the red circle carpet beneath my feet. All of us quiet, all of us still.
I wonder when he won’t fit in my lap anymore. It’s been years since Charlotte sat with me like this and I know someday, too soon, he’ll skip this part of bedtime. But he’s my baby, my last one, and so we’ll rock in this chair as long as we can.
Under the canopy of her bed, Charlotte lays back with her newest library book, Eva the Owl. Second grade has brought chapter books into our lives. Teeth brushed, pajamas on, and now time to read. I prop my head up on her pillow and open to chapter one.
We take turns reading each page. We haven’t said our prayers together yet, but this right here, bodies and stories and lying side by side is our prayer.
The Advent season after Charlotte turns eight, I sit in the living room with the light of the Christmas tree. A single candle flickers. The kids’ sound machine hums through the air.
Days earlier, Charlotte was talking about ages of family, some living and some who have died. She recalled my last birthday turning 40. As the twinkle lights come and go, my mind races to imagine Charlotte at 18. She’s eight now, leaving only ten years left before she’s finished with high school.
Only ten years.
I have to stop my mind from doing the math and picturing what those years will look like. My heart beats faster with these thoughts, a sadness hangs over me even as the lights shine. There will be a time where she’s no longer in our home and years where I won’t have her to put to bed; years where she’ll be grown up.
But for tonight, she’s asleep down the hall. I remember her body next to mine as we read, the flick back and forth of her toes against my legs. Hearing her ask, “One more chapter, Mama?” Together we get lost in a story.
More of this. I think as I stare into the tree lights and the dancing flame. More nights of wrestling the kids to bed, more nights of hugs and kisses, more nights of falling asleep on the couch, more nights ending with exhaustion.
Because these nights, I realize, are where grace breaks in—with every request for water and every chapter read and every forgotten to-do.
Grace finds me with these children in this house at this time. Grace is in every mark of the cross on their foreheads and every stomp of their feet in protest. And grace comes to me settling into the here and now, a snapshot in time, the warmth of their bodies still lingering on my fingertips.
Kimberly Knowle-Zeller is a writer, pastor, wife, mother of two, and the co-author of The Beauty of Motherhood: Grace-Filled Devotions for the Early Years (Morehouse Publishing, March 2023). She lives with her family in Cole Camp, Missouri. When she’s not at the park with her children, walking around town, or tending to the garden, you can find her with a pen and paper. Or a good book and a cup of coffee. She believes in the power of words, unearthing the extraordinary in the ordinary, and encouraging others to follow their passions. Connect with her online at kimberlyknowlezeller.com, on Instagram (@kknowlezeller), or sign up for her monthly newsletter.