He still lets me tuck him in at bedtime. Nine years old, in a big hurry to grow up — but he hasn't yet booted me from plopping beside him, pulling the covers up to his chin, and humming some hit ‘80s song while I drag my fingers through his silky, shaggy mop.
Oh, it's coming. "I don't think my friends' parents tuck them in at night," he offers casually. "I might be getting too old for this."
You listen to me, I would say if my teeth weren't clenched for the express purpose of preventing my saying it. I will be tucking you in when you stumble home from the senior prom shnockered on bad, illegally-obtained liquor, and you will like it... The tucking-in, I mean. Not the liquor. You will very much dislike the liquor.
He's my second — my youngest — and I relish the peaceful proximity of the nighty-night ritual because I know the teenaged withdrawnness that is coming, painful albeit developmentally appropriate as it is: The shrugging off of loving pats on the back. The "How soon do I have to be home?"
That's happening in some other corner of our house. But in this quiet bubble, miraculously, I touch my little boy and warble Tears for Fears' "Shout" or OMD's "Enola Gay," neither of which are lyrically soothing — and he relaxes. Lowering creaseless lids over stormy eyes, he takes a deep breath and with one final shuddered protest, goes slack.
I am in love. This is love in all its indescribably chemical, poetically irrational bigness. Stupid, what-it's-all-about love.
When this child is awake, he challenges me. He isn't much like me — at least not in ways that I like to admit. He asks questions I can't answer, questions that have no answer, for god's sake, questions that one day he'll no doubt figure out how to answer; his intellect is fierce. He is electric with energy, forever seeking outlets for the current whooshing through his wiry frame. He is all ideas, drawing abstract connections, posing prime-number quizzes, inventing and rising to physical and mental challenges. He exhausts me — there, I said it.
But as the day falls away, his wattage finally fizzling to a manageable hum, the boy lets go. Before my eyes. Beneath my fingers. And as he slides willingly (nothing happens if he's unwilling) off to sleep, he is serenity incarnate. I take a moment to gloat over the handiwork of my genetic material or my exceedingly artistic uterus or something, and as I swim in my visceral fondness for this boy — for this brain and this body and the beautiful force of nature caged within them — I take my first true deep breath of the long, long day.
Then I go and ruin it with this bonehead parenting move: I begin contemplating the horrendous headlines of the day. ISIS attacks. Rising oceans. Donald Trump. "Man Arrested for Breaking into Funeral Home and Having Sex with Corpse." (So, yeah, that happened.) And a wave of sickness rolls over me.
The boy who only an hour ago seemed so boisterous and irrepressible suddenly looks as vulnerable as a dandelion in a tornado.
Is it duplicitous to lull him into tranquility while these scourges menace the world just outside his bedroom window? I fight the urge to tug the covers up higher, over his head, and hide him — my affection and anxiety rolling violently over one another like oil and water in an ocean-in-a-bottle experiment, my heart so swollen with love and clenched with fear that I have to look away from him for relief.
In the morning, he'll tell me of his own demons that he grappled with during the night: Being naked in public. Being chased by bad guys. Discovering that family members aren't who he thought they were.
For now, though, all I can do is reassure him with a predictable pat and a whispered song that he's safe, that I'm here, and that all is well.
And for tonight, at least, it's enough.
This article originally appeared in The Santa Barbara Independent. It is reprinted with permission.