October 5, 2015
It’s just after eleven pm on your seventh birthday, and you are sleeping in my bed, snuggling two of your favorite stuffed animals.
It’s been years since we co-slept, years since you hollered for me in the middle of the night most nights of the week. These days you are a bunk-dweller. You climb up past my reach and stay up too late with your comic books and your headlamp. When I tell you to go to sleep you sigh and say “Just two more pages.” When I climb up to change the sheets, I can feel the traces of you in your empty bed, the grit and the scent, as if I’ve invaded your lair.
But tonight for your birthday you asked to sleep in my bed. You said that you wanted to listen for the owl who’s been hooting outside my window for the last two weeks, the same call I heard seven years ago as I lay in this same bed breathing through contractions.
You are seven already. How is that?
I’ve been thinking all week about things I might want to tell you in some future year.
- Last week I brought you to the free movie night at your school. You’d been begging me all week and so I hustled to get us all fed after work and make it to the gymnasium by six. I was surprised to see a girl your age greet you and chase you across the gym, and then more surprised when the movie started that she took a seat next to you on the floor. And actually, she wasn’t just next to you, she was against you. Eventually she rested her hand on top of yours. You let her. And in the moment a part of me cried out NO! Not Yet! while a larger part of me soaked up the feeling I felt between you. It was sweet and expansive. It was warm. My boy is loved, I thought. I took comfort in it.
- The week before that I was extra busy at work and had places to be in the morning. I didn’t have time to park the car, to walk you inside of your school, to battle your brother to get back in the car, and so I bribed you to do something you didn’t want to do. I offered you two dollars if you’d let me drop you off at the curb like some of the other parents do, if you’d walk your own self to the door. “Okay,” you agreed with a sigh. I had no idea how nervous I would feel watching you walk alone to the school entrance. All this time I had told myself that you just needed a little push and you’d be ready. It hadn’t occurred to me that I wasn’t ready to watch you walk away. All day I worried about you, as if somehow you might have gotten lost in the twenty feet between the heavy doors and the first grade line, as if you might be wandering our neighborhood, lost and alone.
- Your gait that day was excruciatingly slow. You looked at your shoes as you trudged along, and so many kids passed you. I felt sad watching you. That night I asked you, “How did you feel when I dropped you off this morning?” and you gave me a blank stare. “I mean are you sad, or is it okay?” “It’s okay,” you told me. In my mind’s eye I watched you inch so slowly towards the door, and that’s when it hit me: that’s your pace. Slow is how you go when I’m not pulling on your hand, or running after your brother or asking you to CATCH UP.
- We don’t talk about your R’s anymore, about the fact that you can’t pronounce them. After seven months of speech therapy, I wanted to give you a break. But I still hear you pause over words that feature R’s. I hear the intention in your voice when you try to say “Grandpa Richard.” I know that someday you will pronounce them, that your struggle to be heard and understood will be just a memory your body carries. I know this, but I can’t yet picture it. To picture you with fluid R’s is to picture you as a grown man, tall, quiet, freckled, and totally independent.
- Earlier this month, a kindergartener shoved you on the playground and called you a loser—three times in one recess you said. Apparently this is one tough kindergartener. And though this isn’t the kind of situation I wish for you, I enjoyed hearing you and your best friend brainstorm solutions to the problem. Your friend pointed out that the principal walks through the cafeteria at lunchtime and you could catch his attention then. You reasoned that next year, when you were in second grade and this student was in first, you would no longer share a recess period. You could simply wait it out. But you instantly questioned this strategy. “That’s, like, one hundred and eighty recesses away,” you realized, and recommitted to solving the problem.
- You never forgot about Jeremy, the child with a tiny voice who was your best friend for two months in kindergarten, and who moved away and left the school suddenly. I kept waiting for you to forget him but every few months you mentioned him again, pining a bit for the friend you lost. This year, when I asked whom I should invite to your birthday party, you rattled off a few names before you came to Jeremy. You said his name casually, but then looked me in the eye to see if I had heard you. “I’ll see what I can do,” I said. For all I knew he had moved to Kentucky, but I found his mother’s email address in last year’s school phone book. (By the time this phone book arrived it was spring and Jeremy had already been long gone. I doubted you’d ever see each other again.)
Jeremy’s mother wrote back within an hour. They hadn’t moved across the country; they lived a half an hour away. Jeremy’s grandmother would bring him to your party. I was filled with joy for you, but also a little worry. You hadn’t seen him for nearly a year. Once he arrived, would you even care? Would it be awkward? It wasn’t awkward. Jeremy arrived, six inches taller but with the same tiny voice, and carrying a giant box of Transformers. I watched him shadow you for the whole party, and I watched you keep him within the realm of your attention for the full two hours.
I’m not sure why your seventh birthday has hit me so hard—maybe it’s because Kellie is away for work and there’s no one around to distract me from my nostalgia. Or maybe it’s because seven is serious. You have left your baby-ness behind forever. Your mouth is a mess of teeth falling out and growing in, giant grown-up teeth sharing space with wiggling baby teeth. I can see you transforming away from cute and into a self that will continue to stretch and gain angles.
And somehow I wonder, are you going through this too? Do you get a little wistful at your birthday? Is that why you’re snuggled up now with your smallest stuffed animals, your chipmunk and your dog, sleeping in the bed that smells like your moms? Or do you just sense my own wistfulness and respond, as you do, with kindness. If that is the case, well then thank you for humoring me. Thank you, forever, for your patience.