“The Box” by Julie Tuovi

Today 

My darling daughter, 

It’s been nearly five years. And yet, I find myself—standing here on the eve of your birth—in complete shock that yet another year has flown by. The precious baby you once were slipping even farther into memory. Leaving me both sad, aching for your smallness, and happy, too. In awe. At the beautiful stroke of color your life has left on the page of our existence.

I allow myself to imagine. 

To dream. 

Write.

About the parts of your story that haven’t been written.

One of your favorite chapters is the one of your birth. You love to hear how the wise and kind Dr. P. found out your heart wasn’t well. You sit on the edge of your seat, as we tell you how Mommy was rushed to the hospital. How they tried to keep you inside me just a little longer, but couldn’t. Your small face screwing with compassion, when I tell you how scared Daddy and I both were. But your favorite part—the chapter you ask us to tell again and again—is when the anesthesiologist leaned over to whisper in my ear, the two most beautiful words I’d ever heard: “She’s here.”

“She’s here?” I’d gasped in disbelief, and you, sweet girl, answered. Your small, underdeveloped lungs drawing breath, filling the room with your tiny, mouse cry. Declaring to the world that, yes, you were here to stay.

Can I tell you a secret, my love? It’s one of my favorite parts, too.

All this time you tried to tell us. Prepare us. Remind us. That we’d go to sleep one night and wake up the next morning to find you’d aged another year. And now it’s here and I am not ready, but cannot stop it. 

So tonight, I will put you to sleep and give you a kiss, knowing that tomorrow I will wake and greet you in a new era. It’s the end of one chapter, but the beginning of another. An adventure that has yet to be written. 

Just over the turn of a new year. 

–Mommy

Day 1 

My darling daughter,

Today, you were born. Early—much too early—but your heart wasn’t beating right, so the doctor unearthed you from my body. Tiny and pink. Into the light of this big, terrifying world. Your small whimpers nearly drowned out by the beeps of so many machines meant to keep you alive.

I was not prepared for this. 

For the noise and chaos and fanfare of your entrance, yes, but more than that, I was not prepared for this. The breathtaking force of my love. How one small presence, colliding into mine, could shift the entire landscape. The whole world undone and remade within the span of a single flutter inside your chest. 

I wasn’t always sure I wanted to be a mother, little one. And now?

I cannot think of anything else. 

There is so much I want to teach you. I dream about the things we will do together, imagining the life we will have—you, daddy, and I—as I sit here, watching you sleep. Bathed in the glow of your glass cocoon. A box that is bursting with wires all coiling toward your body. And it’s funny, I think … 

My heart isn’t beating right anymore, either.

–Mommy

Today 

My darling daughter,

You cannot imagine how lucky you are to have the father you do. 

I still remember the first time I set eyes on him. That moment, locked in my memory like a polaroid. Of him, lanky, tall, and handsome, his skin golden brown from a summer spent working beneath the California sun. In my head, he’s carving his longboard through the center of a gaggle of girls congregated in the dorm parking lot.  A mischievous grin spread across his face as they squealed at his passing.


He stood out like that, your dad. Always laughing, joking, smiling. Singing “Moulin Rouge” with reckless abandon, and only telling me he loved me after a reckless dive down a too-steep hill on a too-fast sled knocked it out of his head, resulting in a concussion. He was the man who held my gaze and didn’t look away—waiting for the real me—whenever he asked how I was. Because while everyone else might have been satisfied with a generic “fine, thanks,” he really, truly wanted to know, and wasn’t afraid to wait.

I wasn’t always the easiest to love, but your father never ran. He stayed. Steady and true. Holding my hand and my heart through all the loops and dips and mostly up-side-down moments of our fledgling relationship. Gripped tight to the future he imagined for us. 

To you

After all this time, he is still the kindest, funniest, most caring, big-hearted person I’ve ever met, and never was a man more suited to be a father than him. 

He loves you more than words can say. 

As do I. 

–Mommy

Kaylee McElroy 
Greenware 
The pandemic canceled pottery class, so I made this women-shaped vessel without the guidance of experienced hands. I’ve also had little formal guidance to the feminine divine, so I’m trying to learn her shape on my own as well. 
36 

Day 4

My darling daughter, 

There’s a place on the back of your hand covered in tape. Beneath it, the gauze is shaped like a heart, cut that way by one of your nurses. It covers the spot where a wire enters your body, threading up the vein of your tiny arm. Straight to your heart. 

That’s where the medicine goes. 

It’s like pressing the reset button, they tell me. Off and then on again. Like a light switch

And also, It doesn’t hurt. 

This is supposed to comfort me, I think. And yet. 

Every time that needle passes beneath the little, gauze heart, I find I can’t breathe. Watching. Waiting. Wondering if this time… instead of starting again, your heart will just… stay dark. 

If it does, what will happen to mine?

–Mommy 

Day 7

My darling daughter,

The nurses tell me you are feisty. That you like what you like, don’t what you don’t, and aren’t afraid to raise your voice, either way. 

You cannot possibly know how proud I am to hear this.

Growing up, grandpa used to say I was as stubborn as a big horned ram butting heads with a mountain—usually when we were arguing. I think he assumed I did it to get under his skin, but that wasn’t the case. It was never about hitting the mountain. 

It was about climbing it. 

Something tells me that you will understand the difference one day, too, my feisty child.

—Mommy

Today

My darling daughter,

What strength it must have taken to do what you did. To fight. Pushing back against such an intimidating foe as Death. Putting him off, one day at a time. Such wondrous determination in one so small. 

I admire you, little one. 

Because the truth is, I am not as strong as you are. 

Yesterday—when I was crouched down, rummaging through a bottom cupboard—you came up behind me. Snaked your thin arms around my back. And brushed your lips to my ear with the faintest, “I love you, Mommy.”

I paused my search and leaned into the sweetness of your hug, wishing that time, itself, would halt, too. That I could lock in the feel of you beside me forever—small and soft and warm—even as I knew moments like that were never meant to last.

I fear I will break, once they’re gone—once you are gone, my darling. Trading in my embrace for the wondrous adventures you’ll have beyond my sphere. 

(You see? I told you I wasn’t strong.)

But I am being silly, aren’t I? That day is still a long time off, and for now you are here, playing quietly in the next room. Just out of sight. 

I love you, too, precious girl.

— Mommy

Day 10

My darling daughter, 

This morning, your pulse dropped. Your lungs slowed, and your soft, pink skin turned blue. Your heart struggling to regulate its own cadence through the chaos of organs shutting down. Throwing the boxes and lights around your bed into a frenzy. Their colors and noise keeping us company through the day. Into night again.

I have never felt so helpless. 

A young attending adds notes to your chart, giving me a tired, sympathetic smile, before slipping the folder into the file holder attached to your bed. The one marked with your name, penned in swirling pink ink on the round belly of a cartoon panda.

Fight, my darling. I beg you. 

–Mommy 

Today 

My darling daughter, 

Who knew that smiling, cartoon panda would be the start of something magical? That it would weave itself so thoroughly into the fabric of your life, that it is now impossible to think of one without the other.

This year we decided to celebrate your birth with a trip. The morning was long and hot, and by the time we arrived, Daddy and I wondered if we’d made a mistake. That, perhaps, it was too soon. That we’d placed too much significance on this fledgling connection. 

Everything changed, the moment we saw them. 

Daddy and I sat on the bench and watched you watching them. Stars dancing in your eyes, as you tightly clutched your worn, patched panda. Your whole body buoyed at the sight of those black and white mounds of fur. Contentedly chewing bamboo beneath the shade of a huge ginkgo, oblivious to the excitement radiating out of your body in squeals of joy, mere feet away.

It was a perfect day, after all. Dreams, imagination, and just a little bit of magic carving a bright, beautiful streak through the morning’s previous setbacks. 

I keep this dream bright, Panda Girl, we are with you all the way.

–Mommy 

Annie Poon 
The Curly Balcony 
A pretty little picture like this on it’s own may look insignificant, like a lonely flower in the forest. But stepping into an entire field of flowers is spiritually transformative. The practice of celebrating and painting a pretty little scene each morning as soon as I wake up has been life changing and has helped me stave off some of the dread we all feel right now. I count on being able to find beautiful things to paint and this has healed my spirit. Each day I go through my box of pretty things with a sense of joy and assurance that the beauty on this earth is without end. 
@anniepoon 

Day 15

My darling daughter, 

Today, when I entered the NICU, something was different. A mood. Heavy and dense. Like a room crowded with people, all standing in solemn attention. In solidarity. Their focus not on me, walking through the doors, but on something else. Something I couldn’t see. 

The room wasn’t actually crowded, of course. It was just a normal day. 

But after I scrubbed in, sanitizing every inch of bare skin on my hands and arms, washing the outside filth from my body, I rounded the bend, and realized what it was that I’d felt. 

I am watching that mother, now, as she gazes into the dim, cold box of an incubator that’s no longer lit from within. And I wonder, as I hold you to my chest, how is it that she can still be standing?

I do not know. 

–Mommy 

Today  

My darling daughter,

Often, I catch you reading. Sitting in the little squares of sun around our house, beloved, stuffed panda tucked under your arm. And I try to guess what is going on inside your beautiful mind. 

I imagine the things you might see. 

There is a creativity inside you, bursting to be free every moment of the day. It is in your pretend play. In the names, places, and ideas that seem to flow out of you with an effortless ease that leaves me in awe. 

Some say that imagination is unhealthy. That we should focus our attention on what’s real, rather than what isn’t. 

I do not believe this is true. 

Imagination is vision. Potential. The thing that enables us to see beyond society’s neat boxes. The spark that ignites revolution. It has the power to transport and transform, giving us something to believe in beyond ourselves. 

Something more

Even if it is only a world of one.

I watch you, my sweet girl, and I wonder… what magnificent things would you do? 

–Mommy

Day 38

My darling daughter,

Today, they took out your wires. Pulled heart monitor stickers off your chest. Carefully removed the newest patch of heart-shaped gauze from your hand, and gently slid the pointed tooth of that long, sharp needle out of your body. Silencing the beep of those ever-present machines.

It’s so quiet without them.

I run my finger over the red dot on the back of your hand—that mark the needle left behind—tracing over the curve of your knuckles. Down each elegant finger. So delicate and strong. Fingers meant for black and ivory and string.

And I think of all the things I could teach you. And what I will learn from you.

—Mommy

Today 

My darling daughter, 

Your first piano recital. We sat side by side on the piano—your small legs still too short to reach the floor—and played our duet. 

It was the most beautiful rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star I’d ever heard.


Music is magic, baby girl. A special language between you and your soul. A way to express the secret hopes, dreams, and emotions of your heart in a way words can’t.

Yesterday, I sensed you. Hovering in the doorway. Watching me play. 

I stopped immediately, but the angry echo of my soul still hung in the air. Slashes of black and ivory soaked in tears. I told you I was sorry. That I didn’t mean it, wanting nothing more than to gather up the notes and hide them where you couldn’t hear.

You crossed the room and climbed onto the bench beside me. Nuzzling against me, your toes curling, and placed your hands over mine. 

“It’s okay, Mommy. Play.”

And so, we did.  

–Mommy  

DAY 38  

My darling daughter, 

It took them a while, but when they finally finished pulling out your wires, disconnecting you from your mechanical heart, Daddy proudly carried you around the unit. Introducing you to the other babies and parents. They were all happy for us, of course, but I saw how they watched you. Tracking your untethered movements. Their smiling mouths trying to hide the sharp sting of jealous tears brightening their eyes.

I should have stopped him. 

I couldn’t, though. I was too happy. Lost in a dream—inside the life that was waiting for us, just outside that set of double doors.  

I watch you sleep. Your lashes are closed, but I can still feel you… not quite gone… holding on to a shred of wakefulness. As though you are worried this happy dream will disappear if you let yourself go.

It’s alright. Sleep, now, my darling. We’ll be here when you wake.

–Mommy

Today

My darling daughter, 

In the hall outside your pod, there was a corkboard crowded with pictures. Snap shots of the babies who survived. Grew up. Left that place to become fat, healthy toddlers with toothy smiles. I passed them each day on my way to you. Just before pushing through the glass door marked with another panda name tag. And as my eyes skipped over their faces, I would wonder. Silently. Desperately. If yours would ever be among them. If, someday, you would know the world outside your sterile cocoon. Feel the kiss of sun on your skin, and a breeze through your curls. No longer tethered to a bed inside a box, but free.

Five years ago, when I entered the unit, pushing through a room that felt so full of unseen sadness, I didn’t look at that board as I hurried past. 

I went straight to you. 

I gathered you to my chest and pressed you to the place above my heart. Showering your crown with kisses. Planting them down each long, beautiful finger. Your velvety hair growing damp with my tears. We stayed there for hours—your eyes closed, me, quietly rocking—and I did a terrible thing. 

I allowed myself to imagine. 

To dream. 

Write.

About the life you might have had, as your body cooled in my arms. 

One that would have been filled with music and laughter and happiness. Of fulfilled dreams and an imagination that grew as fast as you did. 

Today, the sky hugs the ground. Weeping a soft, quiet patter that clings to the grass in icy drops. The smell of fresh, overturned earth filling my senses. Your essence, all that beautiful potential. Trapped between four dark walls and a lid, just beneath my toes. Transferred from one box to another. One of glass to another of wood. 

Never once seeing the stars.

It’s time to go. Daddy is waiting, watching me across the wide expanse of green, keeping the car warm and running. But, it’s funny, my darling daughter, because once again, I find that my heart isn’t beating the same.

And I’m not sure how to make it start again. 

I lean a worn and faded cardstock panda against the stone. Your name, scrawled across the cartoon belly by a long-ago nurse, beginning to fade. 

Daddy waves, beckoning me to him. I think maybe I’ll stay a while longer, though, and write… dream… imagine… 

… just one more year with you. 

He’ll wait for us. Steady and true. 

I know he will. 

Happy birthday, precious girl. You have and always will be our favorite part.

Mommy

Winner of the Winter 2021 Writing Contest and Nominated for the 2021 Pushcart Prize

Jeanne Gomm 
What Goes Around, Comes Around 
My dad used to say “What goes around, comes around.” This tiny mosaic is a smaller version of a stained glass window I made with the same theme. I love the idea of giving our best and just watching to see how the love extends out to the world. 
@jeannegomm 

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