Sunday, February 15, 2009

Becoming big

It’s been a busy week, and as I tuck Josh into bed tonight, I feel like I haven’t spent much one-on-one time with him. So I linger over our bedtime story, sing an extra song, and snuggle in next to him for a nightlight chat. We talk about his day. We talk about my day. We talk about tomorrow: where we’ll go, what we’ll do, what we have to look forward to.

Josh loves to look forward. He loves to know our schedule in advance so he can anticipate what’s next. He gets that from me. Now that he can tell time, he often wants to know not just what’s next but at what time. Then he glides into the kitchen in his sock feet every few minutes to check the green numbers on the oven, announcing them gleefully as they get closer and closer to his desired hour. He even counts down to bedtime because he can, having finally grasped the heartbeat of our days, the rhythm that guides our itinerary.

When it’s time for lights out, I roll over and squeeze him tight. I breathe in his little boy scent of grass and salt and dirt. And as I hold him, I am suddenly overcome by a sense of dread. Dread that he is growing up too fast. Dread that my days of slipping into bed with him and snuggling and talking and planning are numbered. Dread that all too soon he will simply call out, “Night, Mom!” from behind his closed door. And then one day, when I open that door, he will no longer be there at all.

I squeeze him tighter and rock him back and forth. “Will you stay my little four year old forever?” I sigh through my reverie.

“Nnnno,” he replies through giggles. It’s the same “No” I get when I ask if he lost any fingers or toes when the bomb exploded in his once-clean room.

“Please?” I cajole while rubbing his back and making exaggerated kissing noises on his neck.

“No,” he cries louder, in a gleeful, high-pitched voice.

“Pretty please?” I plead. “Don’t get any older. Just stay my snuggly little boy forever and ever.”

He is quiet for a moment. Then I hear it.

“No,” he says again, but this time it’s not playful or joyful or silly. It’s urgent. It’s panicked. It’s tearful.

I immediately look up and see his amusement has turned to anguish. His mouth is open wide. His eyes are full. And the harder he tries to hold back the tears, the more forceful his emotions. It’s the same cry I’ve seen on the rare occasion when I’ve startled him. The same cry I’ve seen when he nearly touches the hot burner and I scream, “Stop!” at the top of my lungs. It’s the same cry I’ve seen when I’ve scared him.

I am suddenly aware that I have just broken the cardinal rule of motherhood. I have put my needs ahead of his. I have weighed him down with my burdens instead of relieving him of his. I have asked him to do the impossible — for me — and in so doing, set him up for miserable failure.

Even at four, he knows he cannot stop growing. He knows he will turn five and then six and then twelve and then twenty, and there’s nothing either one of us can do about it. And now he knows that when he does what he has no choice but to do, he will be somehow disappointing me.

“Oh sweetie,” I say, trying to channel my calmest maternal voice. “I didn’t mean to make you cry. I was just being silly with you.”

He nods and wipes his nose with the back of his hand, but his distress is still palpable.

“I know you can’t stop growing. You’re going to be five and six and seven and eight someday. And you’re going to learn how to do so many things. And that’s good.”

He sniffles and then dissolves into the ugly cry again. “But someday, I’ll be big!”

He says “big” the same way I say “old” when I occasionally spot the translucent bags under my eyes, the slight puffening of my neck, and the lines of varying depths on my face and hands.

I gently brush his hair out of his eyes. “Yes. Someday you will be big. But thankfully, you will only get big a little bit at a time. It takes years and years. But when you finally are big, you’ll be ready. And I’ll be ready, too.”

He nods, and a hint of peace creeps back into his eyes.

“Really?” he asks.

“Really,” I quickly reply, hoping I have somehow wrestled my baggage off his small shoulders. Hoping I have replaced his fears with staunch reassurance and given him something to look forward to. And hoping against hope that what I told him is actually true.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Fantastic four

This is you. Today. On your fourth birthday.

This is you. In your birthday shirt. On your birthday bike. On your favorite day of the year.

I understand that each day is unique. Each day is special. Once lived, you can never get any particular day back. But on these most special days, I am more acutely aware that today is the only fourth birthday you will have. That today is the only fourth birthday I will get to help you celebrate.

How did I get here? How did I come to be staring through this lens at my four year old. I remember many of the milestones along the way. The momentous occasions. The achievements. Even the most despairing moments. But most of the 1,461 days in between are fuzzy.

I remember being pregnant and feeling you swimming and squirming around inside me.

I remember those first few days when you were a tiny newborn, and I was trying to figure out who you were as a little person and who I was as a mother.

I remember how special I felt in those early weeks when strangers would ask me how old you were and I could answer them in weeks.

I remember pinching your plump thighs. Running my hair across your face to make you laugh. Taking countless pictures of you with your toes in your mouth.

I remember watching you bounce and bounce in your Jump-a-roo. I remember chasing you around and around the kitchen island as you pushed your dump truck and giggled a deep belly laugh.

I remember recording your first words and then marveling as your vocabulary grew beyond what my little journal could hold.

I remember a few days when you pushed and pulled and twisted every boundary you met, while I chased after you, picking up broken pieces and stepping between you and peril — just in the nick of time.

I remember the delight and discovery of two, and the urgency and upheaval of three. I remember teaching you about opposites and metaphors and things that go together. I remember tantrums and turmoil and striking bargains to avoid meltdowns.

I remember your first smiles, your first steps, and your first day of preschool. I remember the first song you sang from beginning to end. I remember the look on your face the first time you tasted chocolate.

But I don't remember the millions of moments in between that stack all those milestones together. I can't recall off the top of my head how old you were when you stopped breastfeeding. I don't know exactly when you last sat in your baby swing or ate rice cereal or pooped in a diaper. These days it's even difficult to recall what our conversations were like when you didn't have any concept of time or when you weren't yet able to form full sentences. So many of your milestones are progressive that's it's difficult to rewind my memory precisely. To back up the counter to a particular point in time and recapture what we were like then. What life felt like at that specific moment.

But a montage of highlights rolls through my head like faded filmstrip footage on these special days. The scenes that connect then to now somehow align as I watch you ride your big boy bike down the block. And suddenly the in-between doesn't matter. What matters is You. Here. Today. In all your fabulous four-ness. And what matters is Me. Here. Today. Watching you. Cherishing you. And cheering you on as you take on the big stuff. First training wheels. Then two wheelers. Then whatever comes next.

Happy, happy, happy birthday, my Josheroo.

Those were the days
when we had childish dreams
We’d run through the house
chasing our cares away

Turn on the sprinklers
we’d roll in the evening grass
laughing until we cried

And I love the lovely years
No worries — no fears
Oh what a great life

— Fisher, "The Lovely Years"
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