I am not prepared for this.

For the most part, the children are adapting to their new lives. Nicolas brags that he is getting shoved by the other boys, Gabe tells me that he likes how Italy is less busy than America, and Siena feels at peace with our decision to balance our Spellani Christmas with home traditions. But the little ones tell me with anxious eyes that they are having trouble sleeping. I reassure them that their bodies and minds are still adjusting to the enormous transition—language, routine, familiarity. Siena hugs her stuffed bunny to its comforting place under her nose, and confesses that she still feels fragile sometimes. And then whispers, “When I have bad dreams, I tell my stuffed animals.” Their support comforts her, even though she knows that their words of courage come from a place within her. I pat her and give her a smile of understanding. Sounds like everything is as it should be.

After another night of broken sleep, Siena’s face, which usually flashes with expression, is strangely stiff. When Keith calls, “Shoe-time!” she tells me she’s not going to school. It’s too overwhelming—her math teacher is too mean and the children are too insistent that she play their way and it’s too much. She’s just not going. She may be ten, but I pull her onto my lap so we can talk. Or rather, I talk, and she grows only more removed. Trying to reason with her only gives her something to resist, while her internal voice of panic and fear gain ground. The only point that she actually swallows is my reminder that she’s not a good predictor of how her day will be. In fact, she’s been this nervous, and gone on to have a wonderful day—remember, with Chiara? She solemnly nods, and gets her shoes on. I bite my lip as she trudges into school, shoulders sagging, eyes on her feet.

While she’s gone, Keith walks me to the macelleria and tries to convince me that Siena will have revived by dismissal. But instead, she only looks more hollow, and the area under her eyes seems thin. I pull her into a silent hug. And then probably watch her too closely as she picks at her lunch. Her afternoon of drawing eases the tension in her face, and by dinner she seems herself, but she shrinks with every step she takes toward bedtime. When I lean to kiss her goodnight, she whispers that she’s scared to go to sleep because then she’s one step closer to having to go to school. As she snuggles deeper under her covers, she tells me that she’s having stomachaches. In desperation, I suggest to her that she talk to her stuffed animals about it in her mind. I’m out of tricks. I don’t know how to help her and I don’t know how to get someone to airmail me Xanax, and I don’t even know if the Xanax would be for her or for me. I am not prepared for this.

Michelle Damiani is an American writer and psychologist. Her book about her family’s life in Italy, Il Bel Centro: A Year in the Beautiful Center, is now available on Amazon. www.michelledamiani.com

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