My little boy is four today. Four.
I feel like I’m supposed to say that I can’t believe he’s four already, and in some ways that’s true, but mostly it isn’t. I feel like I’ve been awake in motherhood, probably more than any other role I’ve played in my life. I’ve been present with him in these years. Lately I’ve had to remind myself what I was doing in the others, to seek out evidence of who I was before.
When I look at pictures of that chubby-cheeked mystery of a baby I gave birth to four years ago, I may feel nostalgic to hold that tiny body or dress him in those little clothes, but I don’t see a person that I miss. I see someone I’ve felt privileged to know and excited to watch unfold. Yesterday, for a moment when we hugged each other and he kissed me sweetly, I said, haphazardly, “I love your smooches and hugs so much. I hope you’ll always have smooches and hugs for me.” He looked at me strangely, and kind of sympathetically before he said “I will always hug you.” I thought, well, he won’t, but that will be another time and place and this is today. Or maybe he will. He is a master of surprises.
In true mother blogging fashion, here are some thoughts I wanted to write down for my son, to let him know some of the things that I see when I look at him, things that I’m coming to understand are just a fragment of who he is.
You are four today. You are amazing. You are tall and healthy and strong and kind and warm and well-loved by a remarkable number of people. This is the last week of your first year of preschool, where you surprised everyone by learning all the names of your classmates within the first couple of weeks, and then started on the parents. You knew the names of several of the moms and dads before I did.
You know more of the neighbors than I do, too. They ask you to eat dinner with them and plant beans in their yards because they enjoy your company. How lucky they are to learn so much about the solar system and the workings of the digestive system from you. How lucky we are to live on a block with adults who see and try to understand and appreciate you for you.
So far, you haven’t met a word you weren’t willing to try to use in a sentence. You sneak sweets at your two grandmothers’ houses and then tell me you know they aren’t nutritious. You looked at the painting a four-year-old friend gave you as a birthday gift last night and became delighted all over again that it’s now yours. “It’s very expensive,” you told me, I think because you understand the word to mean something you really, really like that’s hard to get. And then: “We make expensive paintings at our house sometimes too, right mommy?”
You’re becoming a Dadaist. You make jokes like “Why did the chicken cross the kitchen?” Answer: “Tweet tweet!” and you ring people’s bellies like doorbells until they say “Who’s there?” which you answer with nonsense words or silence. When we’re home together and you want my attention, you bust out with a nonsequitur like “a wild purple pansy has five petals.” You never hesitate when you name a new stuffed animal. Your teddy bear is Baljoulth. Your cat Pipapupa. Your dog Shoop. When I think you won’t possibly remember the name you concocted five days later, you always do. Silly, as you say, makes you a man.
You are compassionate. You’re a little uncertain about bugs in general, but when we went to the butterfly exhibit this year, you bravely approached the chrysalis case and watched some new wings fluttering behind glass. As we got ready to enter the biome where they fly freely, we heard multiple warnings not to touch them, especially with the palms of our hands, or they could get hurt. “What would happen?” you asked me. I tried to explain how the oils on our hands could weigh them down. “What if one lands on me and I hurt it?” You asked. Your outfit had no pockets, so I suggested folding your arms. As we walked in, we saw a butterfly on the path ahead of us, struggling and unable to fly. “What happened to it?” you asked me, tight sadness creeping into your voice. “Did someone touch it?” This was too much for your heart to bear and you buried yourself in my chest, hands clasped together, and ordered us to leave. You couldn’t bear to hurt one yourself. (Ants and spiders are, of course, a different story.)
You are kind. You sidle up to my elderly stepfather, your Grandfafa, whose hand tremors and shakes more each time we visit, and insist that he partake in the joy you know as Crocodile Dentist. You pat his knee. You dance for him. You talk to him about the things you’ve learned lately and try to get him to throw a foam football with you from the armchair he rarely leaves. You demand that Giga get him a bib at dinner. You kiss and hug him. Aging and debilitating illness can be scary, so I think we would try and understand if you were afraid, but so far, you are not. You are just light in the day of a person whose life is darkly clouding.
You rock a party hat. Or any hat. Or sunglasses. Or the hand-me-down green jean jacket that your best bud at school gave you. Another mom at school admires your sense of fashion. “He gets it,” she told me one day. “You wear one signature item with confidence – that’s the essence of style.”
Your curiosity is epic. Some people marvel at your intelligence, but it’s your questions and your imagination and the connections you make that routinely bowl me over. Every time I think they might wane, or that your interests may shift to playground endeavors, you surprise me by returning to space – outer and inner, turning so many of the perceptions that I had often thought safe inside out. Your thinking is magical and scientific. I can’t imagine why it is that you notice when we come home on different roads than we took to our destination. I don’t know why you always notice when we pass the confluence of Columbus’ two rivers. You can find our house from space on Google Earth, along with your school, Perkins Observatory, COSI and the Statehouse.
We are thinking of going to Chicago this summer and while we have museums and a planetarium in mind, the thing you most want to see is the patch of grass where the man sleeps on the blanket in Powers of Ten. This is the perspective you can’t seem to get enough of – these journeys from our little patch of earth to the edges of the known universe, and all the way back into us, where cells and atoms and chromosomes and DNA seem just as infinite. (By the way, you just played a space trivia board game with your dad meant for seven year olds and you completely hosed him in the first round.)
The only accurate expectation I had of parenthood was that your influence on me would be as great or even stronger than the one I had on you. In a culture where I think too many people talk at or down to kids instead of listening to and speaking with them, you manage to bring so many people to your level. I watched as people came to wish you well the other day – adults and children who took such great care to give you heartfelt gifts that reflected the person they see. You were gleeful and unbelieving that all of that stuff was for meant for you. You were as appreciative and excited as any gift-giver could be and even an attentive host who made certain his friends were festooned with a lei. You sow the seeds of kindness and wonder so naturally.
I can’t wait to find out what else we get to learn from you as we enter your fifth revolution around the sun. I love you so much, my sweet boy.