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The Things We Cannot Recapture

June 7, 2014

Joe is home from college for the summer. A deep-voiced grown man now sleeps, bare-chested and tangled in sheets that do not cover his feet, in my little boy’s bed. Another adult comes and goes in our home from full-time job to social engagements which no longer require our permission and keeps us courteously informed of his daily plans. We gather at dinner to talk about our day, and he offers adult opinions and experiences to the mix, declines or accepts advice on his life confident in his decision-making abilities, and keeps his own counsel about many things.

At times I miss the little boy. I sometimes catch myself defiantly refusing to accept the inevitable truth that the boy gives way to the man. The little boy would snuggle up with me and share in open vulnerability his thoughts and ideas. He did not mind occasionally shedding tears. His fresh and innocent enthusiasms were not tempered by the social constraints we place on men to mask their emotions. He was scared to mow the lawn when the carpenter bees were buzzing around the house in spring and told me so–a fact he now disputes vehemently. The man denies these things and accuses me of selective memory and wishful thinking. He insists that he has always been exactly who he is today or reminds me with rolling eyes that he isn’t five anymore as if that should make me willingly accept the loss of his childhood self as a fair exchange for the wisdom he has gained in two decades of life experience.

But I remember with a clarity that defies the process of growing up the boy he used to be, and sometimes I watch him closely looking for signs that the little boy resides somewhere inside the man. I want to know that he is still there–because although I love the man, I miss the little boy with all my heart. Without him, the man would not exist although I have not found a way yet to convince my son of that. He believes maturity means putting away the things of childhood. I, on the other hand, am old enough to know that my favorite humans are those who have not outgrown their truest, deepest beginnings and who have made a place in their adulthood for those earlier versions of themselves to live. Integration of their pure beginnings with their later experience.

My son the reader, the curious investigator, the builder of contraptions from junk around the house, the snuggler, the sharer of hearty laughter over silliness is a child who was fascinated by history and science. He was deeply engaged by the mysteries of the world, animals, words, and issues of humanity. “This is actually very in-tresting,” he would say before launching into a story of discovery of new facts. He read aloud passages from Tolkien to me as we companionably lazed on the family room couches reading on snowy school breaks and intelligently discussed what made something a classic story or why a good hero was someone who also knew struggle. He made drawings and writings for fun and brought them to me because he knew I’d like them too. He giggled delightedly when we watched something funny on tv and sat with wide, attentive eyes when I read aloud, begging me “read another one!” as I got to the end of a chapter. He hugged his little stuffed hedgehog, brought me interesting rocks he found outside (“rocks are love, Mommy”), and rode piggyback on me through many a family hike when he got tired. I loved his husky voice, his joyous uncensored laugh, and the smell of his hair when I kissed his head.

The man who is now my son is tall and strong and often very quiet. He has a deep rumbling voice and he smells like sweat when he comes home from work or hard play and like soap and aftershave when he is cleaned up to go out. He reads Sports Illustrated and talks to his dad about a host of current stats, events, and standings that I do not understand. He carries on a conversation above the constant vibration of a social network of other people calling out to him on the smartphone in his pocket. He is still the only person to whom I would read a poem I love that I know will instantly get it or who can appreciate (although he does not like to admit it) the perfect turn of phrase or new vocabulary word. He tells his thoughts to his girlfriend and shares his laughter with his friends more often than with me about private jokes and tweets and experiences I could not know or share. He fixes things for me patiently just like his dad does, and when I look at him, I am startled sometimes to see that he reminds me so much of the version of his father I fell in love with in college when we were not much older than Joe is now.

I met Tom when I was 20. He was mostly done growing up at that point, and all I know of him as a child comes from oft-told family stories and his own interpretation of the past. Sometimes I wonder if my mother-in-law occasionally searches his face looking for the little boy she loved whose characteristics were subsumed into this grown up beside me. Her loss of that child is my gain of the man he became, and now I understand that so much better. I also know I cannot ever make it up to her, nor will she really know the man I married as she knew the little boy. Someday another woman will truly know the heart of Joe, and I can only hope the little boy I love will be a part of the man we cede to her. It is strange to be able to see this from both sides now–as a mother and a wife.

Last week Joe suffered from a very painful case of sunburn. Like all brashly immortal young adults, he didn’t bother to reapply his sunscreen during a weekend at the lake with friends and was paying the price–relentlessly itching and trying unsuccessfully to get comfortable. For a few moments, I got to be the mother of that little boy again (although I shared my nursing duties with his steady girlfriend who proved a source of great comfort and some good-natured laughing we shared at his expense). I offered Benadryl for itching, the cold vinegar compresses my mom used to soothe me when I was burned as a child, and picked up some enticing takeout from Qdoba (chips and queso, as we all know, are a working mother’s equivalent of mom’s homemade mac and cheese). I assured him the discomfort would pass soon, made my own unscientific conclusions about what was likely causing his itching–which soothed him as they used to when he was a child, and offered my promise that a good night’s sleep would fix it all. That night, as he slept a Benadryl-induced slumber that finally quelled the itching and gave him some relief, I did something I rarely do these days. Standing beside his bed before heading to my own, I brushed his hair off his forehead and watched him sleeping for a few minutes. I searched the peaceful deep-planed, stubble-covered face for the features of my little boy. My touch roused him briefly, and a deep voice grumbled something unintelligible. For brief seconds, the little boy and the man merged in front of me, and then the moment shifted…leaving just the snoring giant with hairy legs and feet sticking out from beneath the covers on the too-small bed. I felt a moment’s loss, and then I bent and kissed his hair, inhaling a blend of smells I know and new scents I don’t recognize before heading off to sleep.

Today, I ran across the poem below on a blog I follow. It’s good to know that someone else can elegantly find the words to say all that I just struggled to make sense of in my mind. Like all good writers do, she reminds me that we are not alone as humans on this journey through life. And, as I so often do, I gave thanks.

Entering the Kingdom

As the boy’s bones lengthened,
and his head and heart enlarged,
his mother one day failed

to see herself in him.
He was a man then,
radiating the innate loneliness of men.

His expression was ever after
beyond her. When near sleep
his features eased towards childhood,

it was brief.
She could only squeeze
his broad shoulder. What could

she teach him
of loss, who now inflicted it
by entering the kingdom

of his own will?

– Mary Karr

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