It happened today in Tadych’s Econo Foods: a woman, somewhere in her mid-to-late 30s, one check-out line up from us, turned around and waved at our son.
“Hi Rowan!” she said. “I’m Maddie’s mom.”
We already knew—we had seen and spoken to her a few times while dropping him off or picking him up at Superior Hills elementary. Maddie is in his Kindergarten class, a tall girl, with straight brown hair, a carbon copy of her mom.
This hallmarked the era I knew was coming from the moment I saw two lines on the pregnancy test, but always imagined was light-years away. The era of school—when our child, our baby, would no longer be solely under our care but “out in the world.” Where things happen, where you start to take shape as an educated being. Part of the system. Another brick in the wall.
From 9am until 3:45 pm, every Monday through Friday, my baby leads a different life. One away from Mama and Papa, where he operates as part of a larger structure and is not the center of the world—not even the class. I don’t know what he says, what he does, or what he thinks while he’s there, apart from the vague answers he gives me when I bombard him with questions after school each day, and the digital points and snapshots posted by his teacher online. Any parent might understand how unsettling, how happy-giddy and odd at the same time this transition is. You want them to be independent but feel loss when they walk away from you. You want them to be enveloped in the excitement of other children, to feel part of the group, yet dread how that group might treat them; what they might say or do, and you’re nowhere nearby to put their words and action into context—to explain or defend or comfort. You dress them in their cutest, cleanest clothes, hoping they’ll never be teased or ridiculed for what they do or don’t wear. Everything about them was created and cultivated by you. This is your kid, and ultimately, at least at this age, you’re responsible for how they act and react in the world, and it’s terrifying.
He’s my one-and-only, but out there, he’s just one-of-the-many.
My son is a highly sensitive and incredibly perceptive boy. He prefers the company of adults to children. He tells me the kids in his class are too loud. He doesn’t like the sound of flushing toilets, so he has Miss Waara flush for him after he’s left the bathroom. He’s terrified of anything that hums or chirps or whirrs—vacuum cleaners, car alarms, blenders, hairdryers, the whistling noise my TracFone makes when I’m getting an incoming message, and for some reason, is almost paralyzed with fear by the “stinky yellow flowers” (Tansy and Goldenrod) that line the roads and driveways around here.
Yeah, I don’t get that last one either.
But he’s also a lot like any other 5-year old. He finds poop and farts exceptionally funny. He loves superheroes and robots and pirates and astronauts and puppies and Star Wars and Pixar movies and candy and ice cream and pizza.
He can remember things he heard a week ago, a month ago, a year ago, once. He draws parallels between things we would never think to and points out nuances we are too busy to notice. He thinks the moon and sun follow in the sky to cast light just for us. He is sweet and gentle. He takes a “pet” wherever he goes, and they all sleep with him at night. Bika, Sleepy, Lula, Weenie, Cocoa, Butterscotch, Snowball, Kelly, Uni-Puff, and Jilly.
But he cannot operate a pair of scissors to save his life. He can’t write his name or any letters or numbers or draw a person or anything that even slightly resembles something in the world. His drawings are all of “tornadoes” (scribbles). He struggles with opening Rubbermaid containers, Ziploc bags. He didn’t eat his sandwiches at lunch-time for days because of this, and I had to write his teacher a note because he was too timid to ask for help . For a while, before he got glasses, he went down one flight of stairs, clutching the rail for dear life, in the time it takes most children to barrel down three or four. He stood on curbs, screaming at me to take his hand and help him down. He once got stranded on the last step of a jungle gym, only an inch off the ground. and bawled as I began walking away. It took almost ten minutes for him to gather the courage to step down. He doesn’t “go to bed,” but falls asleep either in my bed or on the sofa, and we carry him to his room. Almost every single night of his life. And he is HEAVY.
He walks everywhere on tiptoes.
I didn’t put the Tiny Tim version there for a reason.
He has been recommended for both Vision and Occupational Therapies. He can’t poop without me holding him like we’re passing through a hurricane.
He is our angel. A round-faced, big, blue-grey-eyed, thick-haired, tall and long-torso-ed clumsy noodle of a child with enormous hands and feet and a tendency to speak in a low register when meeting someone for the first time. He introduces himself alternately as “Rowan Jasper Anderson” and “Mister Man.” He thinks our friend Al’s name is “Owl” and that Cal’s party store across the street is called “Cows.” He says things are “bruined” (ruined) and often refers to a passage of time as “A long time-im-ago.”
He is five. He has time.
When people say, “we’re going to have a baby,” it sounds and seems like a baby will arrive and stay a baby and this baby will always be the thing that they have. But children, who are people, stay babies for such a short time in the grand scheme of things. You don’t hear people say, “let’s have a preschooler,” or “please welcome our future teenager to the world,” or “I’m pregnant with twin retirees.” But they will be. They’re already in there, waiting. It’s so easy to pick out a layette and colors for a nursery. That stuff lasts a nano-second. Breast-feeding, weaning, potty-training—these seem like the biggest challenges in the world but last only a year or three. I remember getting gifts at my baby-shower that my child wouldn’t use for a handful of years and thinking people may as well be gifting me a rocket to the moon for as much relevance they had at the time. Now, those things are in the past and I long for them.
So, I’m moving into a new era, clumsily, like I do everything. Somedays I just want my son to curl up in my lap and I wish I could nurse and rock him to sleep. Other times, I wish he would just squeeze the damn toothpaste on the brush himself.
This afternoon, as we were walking to the beach, and he observed that the stinky yellow flowers were turning brown and therefore he wasn’t afraid of them, I paid extra attention to the feel of his little-big hand in mine, painfully aware that I only had a short time left to hold it. My co-worker has a beautiful story of seeing the Colosseum in Rome with her young teenage son, who had silently slipped his hand hers, many years after giving up that comfort, and how she kept quiet, telling herself not to ruin the moment, but was bursting inside. I think of that when my kindergartner holds my hand, and when he needs me to walk him to the bathroom at night, and when I carry his 50-pound bulk up to bed and tuck him in. The other night, I kissed his sweaty neck and said, “I love you.” He stirred, and I knew he was still awake. For a moment I cringed at having woke him and figured I’d have to bring him back down again. But he simply said, “I love you too,” pulled his sheet tightly around him, and rolled back into sleep.
We’re getting there. We’ll get there together, even if the baby-steps are just mine.