Dusk, the crepuscular hour, the gloaming. Gentle, delicious. I am laying in the post-day, pre-sleep moments with my son, now five. My daughter is downstairs with her Mama, listening to chapter seven of C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian.
It is balmy out for a late May Berkeley–67 degrees–and a light breeze fingers the curtains open and shut. They’re home-made, these curtains: someone we can’t remember brought a sarape to sit on during one of our family’s back yard puppet shows some years back, and left it. We put the word out, but no one claimed it, and as sometimes can happen with forgotten sarapes, our kids’ grandmother stitched bedroom curtains out of them.
Through the open window float the sounds of folks talking as they walk up the street below; an occasional car swooshes by. A car door slams and by his voice, I hear my brother-in-law has come home; as he talks to his son, he pulls the garbage and recycling cans off the street where I had left them in my haste to make it home to dinner with the kids. We each live in houses on the same large lot in the center of the city; we share a vegetable garden and the abundant outdoor garden and play space, we share childcare and grocery shopping, a mortgage, and garbage can duties. He takes the cans to the curb, I bring them back. Except that since I began working full-time, I can never bring myself to lose a minute’s evening time with my children still awake, so I usually retrieve the cans long after they’re in bed.
Tonight, as he often does, he has brought them in for me.
A small passenger plane passes overhead; robins, finches, sparrows, and California Towhees sing the sun down, fewer and fewer with each passing minute.
My son is tired tonight. He awoke much earlier than usual, because he and his sister got the idea in them the day before that they would make breakfast for Mama. Not for Mama’s day, just because. It was a Big Secret, and I conspired with them to wake them early, and to fry the egg. When I left the house this morning at 6:20am, they were both bustling around, making toast, pouring orange juice, taping up the “Good Morning, Mama!” sign they had made the night before. Mama’s surprise breakfast was a radiant hit, I learned this evening at dinner when I saw them all again.
As I lay with my boy, I think back to the hubbub that followed dinner: I hope he didn’t overhear his sister’s rant, after she had practiced piano and while Mama was reading him books. We all of us ordinarily sit together on the living room couch for books ‘n milk, our most treasured nightly family ritual. If we’re in the midst of a book that benefits from a British accent, Mama, a highly trained stage actor, is not merely the favored reader, she is the only permissible one. Nights when Mama is away at a rehearsal, Baba must set the book aside and wait. Which she does, begrudgingly.
But tonight, my daughter was struck with the deep loneliness that can afflict the sensitive, precocious, eclectic seven-year-old, and also the rest of humanity. Not having found a kindred spirit yet is wearing on her. She wouldn’t come to the living room. “No one understands me, not anybody,” she was saying, phasing in and out of sincere and contrived angst. “I wish I had a twin sister. Or if not that, a kind, older sister who really and truly understood me and what I was feeling, and could take care of me when I was hurt.”
“Probably a lot of people feel that, sweetie,” I say. A moment passes. “I do, too.”
“No sister wants a brother,” she continues on, “especially a little brother. Little brothers are annoying.” Again, half-trying it on for size, half-articulating a condition she suffers regularly.
“I wouldn’t know about that; I didn’t have a little brother,” I say. “But I can promise you this: you are blessed to have a brother, and you are blessed to have this brother, whether or not you feel it every day.”
At seven, it’s a part of her inner topography, the oldest cousin she can’t remember, the one who is ever-present in his ever-absence, the one who died from brain and spinal cord cancer when she was six months old. She knows the bracelet I wear every day is “for Erik,” “to remember him by.” What does he mean to her, what of the sibling-loss he represents, and the very real possibility of childhood death he is harbinger of? It is a cipher to me. Even more opaque to me is what this feels and means to Erik’s younger brother, who was my daughter’s age when Erik died.
I spend most of books ‘n milk listening to my daughter rant-kvetch-confess-rail, and make clear, both in speech and in action, that while I was convinced that I never would really and truly understand her, just as I think most of us are never fully understood by anyone else, even (most disappointingly) our closest family members; still I would never leave her, and I would spend every day of my life trying as hard as I could to understand her, to the best of my ability.
Eventually she tires of her rant, and I meet her brother just as he finishes with tooth brushing. I apologize to him for missing books ‘n milk, but remind him that tomorrow was the day I take him to preschool and read him a book, my wee, once-a-week gift to us both, a stake in the ground of his rapid-fleeing youth and my too-busy working parenthood. He is young enough still to be utterly unselfconscious and utterly unedited in his love for me, and he rejoices at the prospect of a book at his preschool in the morning. Behind my eyes I rejoice at his rejoicing, because if Erik has given me nothing, it is this very awareness.
As the breeze plays at the sarape curtain, I pull the covers up over my son’s naked shoulders; he takes my pinky into his mouth to suck on as I sing to him. I am in no hurry to wean him of this habit, though we are taking measured steps in that direction, and “pinky” is now reserved for special morning and evening time cuddling. I am in no hurry for the day he releases his grasp on my pinky and with it, this elemental bodily oneness we’ve shared. Though I know it will come.
I sing the lullabies as slowly and as gently as I possibly can, to elongate the moment. One never sees anything so clearly or treasures it more exquisitely than when it’s slipping away. As goes the day, so goes this boy’s still-wide-eyed innocence, and his uncluttered love, and my centrality to his life.
Where are you going, my little one, my little one?
Where are you going, my darling, my own?
Turn around, and you’re tiny,
Turn around, and you’re grown,
Turn around, and you’re a young man, with babes of your own.