Never turn your back to the ocean, my dad told me when I was about J’s age. He also taught me that sometimes, getting crunched by a wave is inevitable and that there are ways to reduce the pain—letting go, allowing the water to spin you around and spit you out, because if you fight—in this case—that only makes things worse for yourself. I remember these moments happening, rare but powerful, the deafening crash, being pulled underneath, losing all light and sense of direction, my limbs flung about like a rag doll, experiencing for an instant, a panic that feels near-death, like a jolt of electricity—knowing all I could do was wait and beg for breath, my life to return to me.
Last month C was playing around with a tape measure and cut his little thumb deep enough to warrant a trip to the ER. It was a pretty terrifying scramble getting out the door, with all the crying and blood and uncertainty and then riding in the car—me sitting in the backseat holding pressure to the wound—a similar panic inside begging for things to turn out alright, knowing the reality that sometimes it doesn’t. We were lucky, and it wasn’t serious. He was such a trooper, sitting still at the hospital, letting the doctors clean and help close it back up with medical glue. Later that night, he held up his little thumb and summarized the whole experience in four words: “Tape-measure. Hospital. Doctor. Band-aid.”
C likes singing the Birthday Song. He makes us all laugh when he greets his dad in the morning over the breakfast table with, “How you doin’ Dada?” He says, “I want, I want, I want…chocolate, marshmallows, pizza, cake.” One night he insists on trying raspberry jelly mixed with ketchup, and happily licks the combination off his plate. He says, “Go shoot hoops” and “Play rackets” and is quite serious about both activities, engaging with excitement and laughter, until sometimes tears of exhaustion. He often echoes full sentences from his older brother, trying desperately to be included, recognized, taken seriously. He brings me bobby pins he finds around the house, saying proudly, “Here Mama,” while opening up his little palm. When he sees me doing laundry, he says, “Need help Mama?” and gently attempts to fold a pair of his little pants, wearing a serious look on his face. When he hears construction sounds coming from the garage, he opens the door and asks, “Need help Dada?”
J is such a big first grader he doesn’t want me to hug him at school anymore when I pick him up. But at home, he wants snuggles at bedtime and asks for “This little piggy” where I sing that nonsensical rhyme about the pigs going to the market and tickle his toes and tummy until he’s rolling with laughter, and I feel like all sadness in my tummy dissolves into sweet strawberry taffy. He reads aloud from Henry and Mudge books (about a boy and his dog), cracking up at the picture of Mudge rolling around in Henry’s dirty socks. He delights in Legos and asks if he can give me a “Lego tour” where he tells me about the latest monster he built, the “good guy base,” and where the crystals are hidden. He performs in his first school play, and I am secretly nauseated all day with nervousness—until finally seeing him up there on stage, I’m reminded of the separate, amazing, confident person he is. There’s nothing to be afraid of, I remind myself. Never turn my back to the ocean, and I’ll be alright. And when I’m not alright, that’s okay too, just some darkness that will end and salt water up my nose until the earth is ready to spit me back out.