It's the blending of big-guy independence and little-guy vulnerability that shivers my heart into splinters at unexpected moments. Not the independence itself ("I can do it, Mama!" he insists as he squirts something close to his body weight in soap onto his hand), nor his not-infrequent moments of wanting to be a baby again ("Can I cuddle you, Mommy?" he says sleepily, sliding his bare feet over the wood floor to my chair at the dinner table, his hands already preparing to grip my arms as he climbs up into my lap, all forty-some-odd pounds of him). Both of these make me smile and grimace at the same time, amused and touched. They happen daily, so frequently that they barely register in the crowds of other, needlessly anxious thoughts about work to get done, money to scramble for, character flaws to worry over, small annoyances to dwell on. (Who was it who said "My mind is a bad neighborhood I shouldn't go into alone"?) Rather, the eerie, minor-key overlay of one perspective on the other.
This morning, I drove Little Man to his new school (which I love: it's a Montessori school, much more suited to his quiet temperament than his old school was). It's a beautiful autumn morning, the first chilly day, a little cloudy, but in that pretty autumn way that makes you want to build a wood fire and eat apples while wearing hand-knit sweaters. Little Man is getting over a cold, so his voice is a little rough, he's a little less chatty on the way to school. He's wearing his new back-to-school clothes: a long-sleeved shirt, tan cargo pants, froggy rain boots, carrying his dinosaur lunchbox. When he's climbing into my lap at home, or pretending that I'm the big bad wolf and he's the woodsman who cuts me open to save Little Red Riding Hood and her hapless grandmother, he seems huge, strong, ferocious even, able to withstand anything. In this moment, on the way to school, he seems so small, so vulnerable, so open to anything. I ask him if he wants a handful of Kleenex to stuff into his pants pocket, in case his nose gets runny, and he nods, having admitted that he would feel shy about asking his new teacher for one. His hand as I put the Kleenex into it feels warm, silky, and very small.
I pull up to the door to drop him off. One of the teachers comes to the car to retrieve him from his car seat. He's very business-like about this: hands her his lunchbox, pauses to push the Kleenex deeper into his pocket, takes her hand to step out of the car in his green froggy boots, barely pausing to respond to my "Bye sweetie! I love you!" with a quick waved hand. He's preoccupied with getting out of the car, following the teacher's directions; he's in his school mode now. The teacher leads him to the steps to wait while she retrieves another child from the car waiting behind mine, so I have to go, but as I start driving away I look back to see Little Man standing on the steps, not watching me leave, looking strangely small against the gray stone steps, his cheeks a little flushed with the morning chill. Not clinging to me or begging me to stay, as he used to do, just waiting for the next stage in his school day.
I surprised myself by blinking back tears as I pulled into traffic. Do I want him to stay a baby? Well, yes, of course I do, in a way. The idea of his growing up and leaving home eventually is awful and wonderful at the same time. But it's the small sensualities I'm afraid of losing: not only the "Can I cuddle you, Mama?" moments, but also the "karate-chop!" moments when he pretends to cut off my arm. All of it, the profound and the mundane.
The other night, in my pre-bedtime sleepiness, I was sitting at the kitchen table, idly looking through the newspaper before starting bedtime rituals, and Little Man came in, engrossed in examining the wheel of one of his trains, to see why it wasn't turning anymore. He saw me sitting there and came over close and leaned against my arm, still fiddling with the train wheel. My arm came out and went around him and I kissed the top of his head as I went on paging through the newspaper. We stayed like that for several moments, until he wandered away to find a different train car. I wanted to call after him, "Honey, will you still do that when you're forty? Promise me!"
If he does -- if when he's forty and living in his own house with his own family, and I am visiting him, and I am sitting creakily at the kitchen table, paging with arthritic crone-like fingers through whatever freaky digital form of newspaper they will have by then (maybe floating slightly above the floor because we will be living on a space station, having caused too much destruction to earth to live there anymore), and he comes in idly tinkering with his kid's toy and leans against me for a moment, unconsciously, before wandering away again -- if he does, I will be grateful.