I placed a bucket at her bedside. I gave her a glass of water. She leaned back into her pillow.
“Mom, I think that made it worse,” she croaked.
Suddenly, and comically to my surprise, out of her mouth burst the awful surge, sputtering like a water pump priming air from its pipes.
Following the indignity of vomiting, things once shrouded in doubt became perfectly clear.
“The tooth fairy is definitely not coming tonight, mom,” she said sadly, leaning over the bucket, retching.
I was crushed. I had watched that stony little tooth dangling from her gum line for days, and I still forgot to play the fairy. Despite her nauseated misery, she had checked her pillow before waking me, just to be sure.
My daughter has lost six teeth and my son just one, but the tooth fairy has never showed up on time. I scramble to avoid my children’s disappointment each morning after a tooth is lost, wondering aloud if they ought to look harder, perhaps after breakfast. My forgetfulness hadn’t mattered much before—my daughter still wanted to believe.
I think I understand why.
I recently took her to a specialist in town to try and get a handle on her childhood fears, of which there are many. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything potentially destructive.
“What kinds of things are you afraid of?” the woman asked my daughter, who sat curled up in a chair, resting her lips on her knees.
I listened to my eight year-old girl casually rattle off a list of some twenty-five worries—everything from the house burning down to her family not loving her. She even used the word tsunami. Each of these fears seemed as familiar to her as the menagerie of stuffed animals circling her bed. Some were also familiar to me. My throat swelled with a voiceless moan as I reached for her hand.
Even now, it takes effort for me to shut down unlikely, irrational thoughts. I have a lot of practice, of course—thirty-something years of playing Whack-a-Mole with a fretful imagination makes for a quick hand.
As a girl, I believed in tooth fairy magic long after I knew it wasn’t rational. That the tooth fairy was real meant that other kinds of magic could be real, which eased my escape from what were often vivid worries.
The girls’ bathroom across the hall from my third-grade class smelled like rust and the walls were always damp with old building sweat. When I started overthinking a social interaction, say, or a math concept I didn’t yet understand, I retreated to that bathroom. There, I pretended I could push a button on the side of the stall, so that whatever I wanted would appear out of an imaginary trap door. I usually requested ice cream cones, though once I asked for a mechanical puppy to replace one that I’d ruined in the mud.
Mine were wishes without staged outcomes, but they kept me tethered, helping me regain control over my emotions.
I have a friend who gags at the thought of telling her kids there’s such thing as the tooth fairy. I’m a progressive parent myself most of the time—my six-year old would be glad to tell you exactly how babies are made over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, as long as you promise not to laugh at the part where the seed comes “shooting out like a rocket” (his addition).
But leaving open the possibility of magic gives my daughter some control over her creative well, and distraction when she needs it. I have watched her settle her completely bonkers, totally unruly fear of spiders by supposing that her two-year old brother is her magical protector.
When she no longer needs that strategy, she’ll let me know.
After my daughter threw up and finally fell back asleep, I walked downstairs through my quiet, darkened house and sat at my desk. It wasn’t morning yet. I scratched out a hand-written note and paired it with a five-dollar bill, rolling the two into a tight column the size of a Q-tip. I tied the tiny parcel with a hot-pink ribbon and returned to my daughter’s room, where I slipped it under her pillow.
In the morning, she wandered weakly into our room and snuggled up between my husband and me. She raised her cupped hand into the air between us and lifted her fingers, smiling at her prize. She untied the ribbon and gasped.
“I’ve always wanted a five-dollar bill!”
I know I’m letting her wonder just a little longer, but to me, that’s reason enough.