The certainty and physicality of you were evident–your beach-ball perch on my lower abdomen made people reach out and touch you. You were charismatic and magnetic, even in utero.
Eight years ago, I filled my brain with questions surrounding your birth, your delivery and your arrival to this spot on our spinning, kaleidoscope of life. Who would you be? What would it be like to be a mother to you, a son?
The eve before your birth, Daddy and I drove to the hospital with our potent anticipation of your arrival as our companion. Heat filled the heavy, June, Arkansas night. Eight years ago, my body housed you, fed you, supported you and kept you warm. I felt each movement and turn.
Eight years ago, you entered my world and lodged yourself securely into my soul, becoming an anchor whose presence I hadn’t previously known was missing. Oh, I thought as I reached out and took you from the doctor’s hands, as I saw your scrawny body for the first time, Oh, you. There you are.
Recently, someone asked me to describe you. How, I wondered, do I wrap the essence of you into a byte-sized blurb?
Your curiosity and drive to understand the workings of the world are powerful. If I could shrink myself down and follow the contours of your creative, cerebral activity, I would. Any random afternoon will find you building a thing–a sword, a contraption– or breaking down a thing–a box, a pencil, a container, a lego structure. When you sit down to create a painting or drawing, when I ask what you’re making, your reply is, “I’m not sure. I’m just making it.” The results are always unique and usually beautiful.
You spend long stretches looking out the window, quietly thinking and then, suddenly, you’ll ask me a question such as, “Who was the first person on Earth?” or, “When you look at this wall, do you see the same things, do they look the same to you, as they do to me?”, or “What does an ovary do again?”
I remember once we were in a children’s hospital waiting room, awaiting a meeting with a doctor. You were two, maybe two and a half, and you kept watching a teenager who sat in the waiting room, too. This boy’s head hung down, his chin almost rested on his chest. His shoulders slumped, rounding his back in defeat. You, Henry, without even looking at me first, waddled over to this boy. You, in your round, sturdy body walked over the industrial, low pile carpet and to him. You stood right in front of him, in the stark, fluorescent light. The boy did nothing. You walked closer, so calmly (and trust me, calm really wasn’t your thing at this age), and you placed your chubby, dimpled hands on each of his brooding knees. You watched him until he slowly lifted his head, heavy with his angst and mood. Your eyes met. You, Henry, I swear you pierced his dark cloud and gave him a moment to smile, even if it was the slightest, shruggiest smile I’d seen. You gave him kindness.
You carry this in your heart and your eyes and you pass it along to most people you meet.
When I was a young, new mother, I thought my job was to protect Abby and you from harm. This primordial instinct kicked-in before you were born, when you and I coexisted in symbiotic togetherness. At that point, I could shield you from the bold world. Then you were born and the brazen world loomed. I shielded you from sun, bugs, infections, poisons, accidents, carcinogens and rough clothes. I provided a safe haven, a place for you to come into yourself. But now, I see that I only had part of my job description correct.
I know, now, that I can only, and should only, protect you to a point. Yes, I still protect you from obvious harm. But I have to let you live life. My job, now, is to help you navigate the inevitable bumps of life. The hurts. The heartaches. The disappointments. Sharp words, worry and friendship conundrums. Fights with your sister. Fights with yourself. It’s all normal and while this may seem counter-intuitive, it is GOOD. I am going to hold your hand as long as I can and teach you that this is all an essential part of life.
Imagine a bruise, tender to your touch. Purpley bluish evidence of a strike or blow. It is an oddly shaped a spot to be avoided as it heals. It morphs from blue to yellow, indicating its healing progress. Sometimes, you’ll see the bruises on your body but other times, the bruises will be internal, seen only by your heart, given credence by your emotions. I promise that while these may take longer to heal, they, too, will yield fresh, tender renewal. Yes, you will hurt. Sometimes, you will be brought to your knees. And much to my maternal chagrin, I cannot, and should not, protect you from the very things that will strengthen and embolden you.
Yes, these experiences will bring you bruises. But they’ll also yield tenderness and grace. Your seventh year provided many opportunities for you to learn this very lesson. To hurt, heal, and grow.
A move away from the only home you’ve known to a new city, school, house and friends. New everything. Then, this winter, a skiing accident and a spiral tibial fracture, yielding eight weeks of crutches and just as many of physical therapy. Not only did your leg break, but you bruised your spirit a bit.
And now. Just days after your eighth birthday celebrations have ended, I want you to know this: I see you. I see the strength in your stance. I see experience and wonder in your eyes. I see a stronger, more able-bodied version of you. Not in spite of your experiences–but BECAUSE of them. And you.
I love you forever.
Thanks to my friend Lindsey for the inspiration to write a birthday letter post.
Writers, and their relationship with the page, fascinate me. Getting to peek behind the finished words of writers I admire–to see their beginnings, middles and ends — is such a treat. So when the Writing Process Blog Tour started, I gulped up the passages. I was especially tickled when Kristen Levithan at Motherese asked me to participate. Kristen is a light for me — her writing is beautiful, honest and intelligent. I often nod as I read, thinking, Oh, me too, me too. Our blogship blossomed to friendship, and knowing she’s out there in my world softens my edges and my heart.
Childhood (and it’s ensuing companion, parenthood) comprises of millions of moments–the anticipation of firsts, the trepidation of lasts and all the living we do in-between. Those days string together forming months that stumble into (gasp) years.
Brain, Child, Magazine, has compiled This Is Childhood–10 authors commemorating these glorious years of childhood with essays exploring ages one through 10. An amazing keepsake, including a place for your own reflections. I’m honored to be included in this collection of essays, alongside some of my favorite writers. This Is Childhood is a great gift idea for Mother’s Day– or maybe even Just Because– because, as we all know, time goes quickly whether we take time to stop and notice, or not.
February embraced me with her gray folds. Hibernation-worthy fatigue walloped me after a harsh winter and, frankly, a long year. Looking back, I could see why I was exhausted. Surgery. Recovery. A cross-country move. A CROSS-COUNTRY MOVE. Heart-breaking goodbyes, soul-mending hellos. Card board boxes. Fucking boxes. Unknown quantities of pizza. Big changes. Small changes. Using GPS to get everywhere in a city that, while new, feels familiar with the sturdy, Midwestern sensibilities of my youth. Being the New Girl. Again. Navigating social circles. Again. A broken leg for Henry–a full-leg cast and crutches through the mounds of January snow. Abby was sick. Henry was sick. Abby was sick. Henry was sick. Hubby was sick. Then I got sick. The temperatures hovered around zero for weeks. I didn’t write. I didn’t run. I ate many french fries and drank red wine and my muffin top flourished.
I judged the progress I made with my new life and our new home. I judged the lack of it, too. I judged my emotion and judged how slowly my To Do list shrank–if anything, I watched it grow exponentially each day, becoming a serious contender for my muffin top. I struggled to feel as if I progressing.
Judge judge judgity JUDGE.
Beginning again. Starting the momentum, gaining the energy to sustain. When at the beginning, it seems that beginning again is the hardest part.
I stand in the vestibule outside my Yoga class. I begin to shed my exterior winter armor and whittle down to a tank and black leggings. The hushed greetings of students mill about. My winter skin glows garishly. I pad, bare-footed, across the hard floor, dodging puddles of melted snow on my way into the studio. I find a spot near the wall, slightly separated from the other students, slightly alone.
I unroll my mat and thawp it down on the floor. I love the certainty of this sound, mat to ground. I find my shoulders, standing attention at my ears. My life, stresses and the past year are very much alive in knotted colonies in my muscles. Rock like, rigid, terse.
From several mats away, a fellow student enviably exhales as she lays in repose, awaiting the commencement of our practice. I am jealous of her languid exhale as my staccato breath punctuates the calm, open room. Subtle incense burns.
I step gingerly onto my mat, a vessel with a destination in which I’ve placed a lot of stock–delivery back to myself. I try to stretch iron chains, tangled and rusty from misuse and neglect. My knees pop in the silence. A dust mote saunters by.
A thick, stubborn, glacier-like dam resided at the end of our driveway. A temporary break in the frigid temperatures (a balmy 38 degrees F) yielded a brief thaw. I stood at the end of my driveway, surveying the ice dam. It was just me and a big shovel, slowly chipping away at the ice. A brave bird chirped. I lowered and lifted the spade. Slowly. Repetitively. I began to enjoy the methodical work which I knew would make some dent in the ice. I shed my coat as the physical labor warmed me. I paused and turned my face to the golden, late afternoon sun.
Returning to my work, I listened to the comforting gurgle of melting snow and ice, trekking downhill to hidden tributaries below. I surveyed the black slush, the marred shoulder of my street, the gravel, the fray of this winter. The fray of this life.
Ever since the last box left my house, I’ve been practicing yoga. The yoga poses have started to become more comfortable and familiar and have lost their intimidating edge. During my practice, my thoughts monkey about, tapping my mind like a petulant child,
Should we get a Lulu tank? Everyone has one and they loooove them.
You need to schedule your mammogram.
Loooook, she knows all the poses.
You need a pedicure!
Nice effort, muffin top. Way to gain the real estate.
I’m hungry. Are you? Can we get french fries after this?
I try to release them. I shoo them away.
Each time I come to my mat I am amazed at how long it takes me to join my physical body in the present. And once I am fully present in that stark yoga studio, tears often come. Like buried bulbs, my emotions unfurl in the warmth of my attention. They stretch into the room, into my consciousness, into the light. My teacher guides me into this foreign terrain, the fertile ground of my experience. There I twist, raw emotions and muck tumbling out into the room, onto my mat, down my face IN PUBLIC. Then, I worry. I worry that my fellow students will hear my emotion and that I will disturb their practice.
My teacher guides us to child’s pose and I rest with my knees pointed east and west, my forehead on my mat. She begins reading a passage and her words reach me, open and splayed on the ground:
There is Buddhist story about the lotus and the mud, an ancient anecdote which chronicles the necessity of the dark, fecund mud to produce the glorious lotus bloom. The mud. The lotus.
It seems as if her words have been selected just for me. I’ve been tilling this fertile soil, layering the compost of stress and life so I can wriggle my toes, spread my roots and bloom.
The sun beats down on my face and my feet are grounded firmly in the mud. The moments of grace exist within this regular life, filled with normal challenges and frustrations. The warm connection of new friendship. The solid comfort of tenured friendships, physically connected again. Dissonance. Gratitude. Stress. Joy. Happy Sad. The satisfaction of having Made It Through. Watching the walls of a house transform from a place to a home.
The dark, rich, fecund muck.
Stretching, reaching, growing.
And, the resulting, beautiful blossom.
Most of my words exist either electronically or in the long-hand scrawl of my journals. Rarely do I see my words in print. On paper.
This week, I got to do just that.
I may have purchased several copies. I may have secretly wished that someone–the Target check-out clerk?–would ask me why I had so many copies of Parents Magazine in my cart. I may have displayed the stack of magazines to my family and may have done an extremely silly rap/song/dance in the kitchen as Hubby, Abby and Henry watched on. Henry may have drummed an awesome riff to accompany my rap.
This piece is near and dear to my heart because it delves into the nitty and gritty of being an imperfect parent living a real life–which, I believe, is fairly universal. We all encounter the fallibility of this human existence, every day.
You can read it here. Or, in the April issue of Parents Magazine.
I recently discovered Brain, Child Magazine, thanks to my friend Lindsey (who, by the way, often directs me to all sorts of fabulous tidbits). Brain, Child publishes thoughtful, meaningful essays and short stories about the full spectrum of parenting.
Today, I’m honored to have a piece at the Brain, Child, blog. Please head over to read my essay? And? Be sure to check out the other pieces. Their content really cuts through the noise.
Six years ago, when my husband and I finally decided that we would have two children—not three, not four, but two—it proved to be one of the hardest choices. Our conversations over many months ranged from the pragmatic reality of college tuition to the emotional, procreational pull of life…
I stood at the kitchen sink with the usual school morning mayhem unfolding around me. Washing, drying, packing, fielding, answering, signing Important Things, reminding. Oh, and, of course, mitigating the seemingly endless bickering. But that’s a post for another time.
Henry sat down on the kitchen floor to put on and tie his shoes. I continued my buzzing about and then he asked,
“Is Santa real?” Pause, pause, pause… “Is Santa really the one who comes and puts all the presents under the tree?”
Everything stopped. I stopped. All the blurs of my morning stilled. I was suddenly aware of so many details: the soaked dish towel that hung dejectedly over my hand; the crumbs on the counter, which multiply like little rabbits; the tilt of Henry’s head as it held his jaunty Santa hat.
And the avoidance of his eyes to mine.
Without not-looking back at him, I thwopped the dish towel on the counter and refilled my coffee mug.
“I believe in Santa, H.”
“Me too!” He beamed. And then, “but those kids on the bus said that he wasn’t real and that moms and dads put the presents under the tree.”
“Why would they say THAT?” I bantered back.
“I don’t know.” He answered quietly.
In this moment, I LOATHE THE BUS*. Children like to be The One Who Knows. Especially when they can clue someone else into something that they know first. I get it. But oh I really, really don’t like it. Unfortunately, this drive forces The Ones Who Know to then usher others into the realm of non-believers. When Abby graduated from being an innocent believer in Santa, I asked her to take a sacred pledge, promising to be a perpetual spreader of wonder and belief to preserve the magic of Christmas for other children.
Although the edges of this last Christmas of innocence are slightly tarnished, I will soak up every gift which unfolds. Each one–especially the ones I know will become hazy-edged memories: the way his mittened hand still reflexively reaches up and grabs for mine. The way he runs out of school and tackles me with hugs, no matter who is watching. The ease with which he shares his most important thoughts–from the number of diamond swords he’s found in Minecraft to the specifics of an uncomfortable situation with a friend. The feeling of his body, heavy with sleep, on my chest. The way his Santa hat always adorns his head, even while he sleeps.
I am keenly aware that this may be the last year I have an unabashed Santa believer under my roof. If I’m really honest, he may have already passed to the other side. But let me be clear: I am doing everything in my power to make this a Christmas in which he believes. I brainstorm ideas that will wow him and make his Christmas Spirit meter tip over into burning faith. At least for the next fourteen days.
Abby is my faithful spirit wingman in this quest. When she hears Henry say something that wraps his belief in Santa in question marks, Abby reports to me.
The latest one: “Mom, Henry said that you and Dad are the elves. That you do the work. I told him that was silly, that OF COURSE you and Dad couldn’t do all that stuff.”
I looked at her and my shiny eyes met hers.
“Mom? Why are you so sad?” she queried through inquisitive eyes.
How do I answer her? That this is a profound stage of childhood that I’m not ready for him to leave? That her desire to sprinkle this season with mystery and magic slays me? That their faith and belief infuse my days with a pureness that sparks my soul? That ever since I figured out that my parents were arm-in-arm with Santa, that I extinguished my anguish by making Christmas magical for my baby brother? And that then, when I got older, I realized that if I had children I would get to relive this time with them? And that now, half of my children don’t believe in Santa and the other half almost don’t? UGH. That I vicariously view the world through Henry’s reverent belief? That this milestone marks the clear, bold swath of time’s passage?
I wipe the tears away. My answer to her comes starts in a hug. I wrap her solidly in my arms and say,
“I just want him to get all the time he should to believe in Santa. I don’t want anyone to take that away from him.”
Or, as it turns out, from me.
* I love Sixteen Candles and can still see Sam’s (a.k.a. Molly Ringwald’s) disdainful face as she spits out this line.