Every year I write each of my children a letter on their birthday. These letters describe the person they are at that particular age; their likes and dislikes, favorite activities, and overall temperament. The following is an excerpt from the letter I wrote my oldest son when he turned twelve yesterday.
The day you turned five I looked at Daddy and said, “I can’t believe he’s five.”
He did that head-nodding thing he usually does when he agrees with you. You know the one he does where he kind of closes his eyes? And then he said, “I know, but I’m dreading six. Six feels really big to me, like he’ll be such a big boy.”
And now, twelve.
Your face has not changed one bit. I’m serious. You look exactly the same as you did when you were a baby or a toddler or a little boy walking into kindergarten. You’re just taller. And now your feet are bigger than mine.
You are the only one of our kids who has carried your nickname past toddlerhood. Boochie, or sometimes Buca.
You order from the adult menu whenever we go to a restaurant. Your favorite is Chinese food.
Do you remember Piffy? The dragon who lived in the palm of your hand? You told me about him when you were four years old. You were so serious. You stood in the kitchen and solemnly spread your fingers open.
“See, Mommy? He lives in here, in my hand.”
And whenever we were driving somewhere, like the grocery store or church or to school, Piffy rode behind us in his own sports car.
You played basketball and baseball this year, and you ran on the Special Olympics track team with Jack. He wouldn’t do it until you agreed to do it, too.
People ask me all the time if you are more empathetic because you have a brother with autism. But to me, empathy somehow implies that you feel bad for Jack, and I don’t think you do. I think you worry about him and you wonder about him and you love him. You eat the cakes he bakes and when he needs you to run fast and far around the track, you run with him.
You are very attached to your three brothers and one sister, and they to you, especially nine-year old Charlie. I think this has something to do with Jack’s autism, but I can’t quite put my finger on why or how.
As soon as Charlie could talk, it was, “Where Jo-Jo? Where he be?”
Now, all day long, he asks, “Where’s Joey?”
“When’s Joey getting home?”
Or, “What time will Joey be back?”
It’s as if you are his anchor. He has to sit near you at dinner and the movies and church. He will switch the plates around at the table to be closer to you. He has to taste your French Fries, your lemonade, your Halloween candy. Nothing is real for Charlie until he tells it to his “Jo-Jo”.
Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to have someone adore you like this. I imagine it’s exhausting. Yet you handle it with a grace I am certain I do not possess.
You love Transformers and Legos and Minecraft.
You only want to wear athletic pants, and you try to get away without wearing a coat even when it’s freezing out.
You are one of the funniest people I know.
For the most part, you are very, very easygoing. Sometimes I think of you as a little duckling swimming in a wide, cool pond. All of life’s demands roll off of your sleek feathers and bounce into the water. But I worry that maybe underneath the smooth surface, you are paddling and paddling like crazy, all the while trying not to make any waves.
And lately, there is a subtle shift between us. It feels as though the ground is moving oh-so-slightly beneath my feet, the way I imagine the earth’s plates do when they’re preparing for an earthquake.
We argue more. You can be sullen. You sigh a lot and it makes me crazy.
One cold night in late November, we were arguing about your messy homework. I know, I know—you didn’t think it was messy, but I did. I wanted you to do it over.
We escalated until we were standing within a foot of each other, screaming. Finally I leaned close to your face, so our noses were almost touching, and said meanly, “Guess what. I am the mother and you are the child. You do as I say. Now go to your room before I lose my mind.”
You turned on your heel and stomped up the stairs. Fuming, I went back to cooking dinner.
About a half our later Daddy and I called everyone to the table to eat. We were having your brother Henry’s favorite, sausage kale pasta. We called and called and you never came, even after all the kids had sat down at their places.
Daddy and I looked at each other. Where is he?
We scoured every inch of the house, calling your name. Under the beds, behind the shower curtain, in the big storage area in the play room. Your brothers and sister were frantic, crying and shouting for you over and over.
“Joey! Where are you?”
Your jacket was still on its hook and your shoes were still lying on the mat where you’d kicked them off earlier that afternoon.
I went outside. It was snowing lightly, and I looked everywhere for your footprints on the driveway or the lawn. I looked for a stranger’s footprints. Nothing.
Boochie, I can’t even being to describe how I felt the entire time we were looking. I felt like someone was squeezing my stomach in their fist. Not punching it, but squeezing it—tighter and tighter until I could barely breathe.
All of the awful stories I’d ever read were racing through my head; stories about kids abducted from their own home, kids who suffocated in the trunks of cars or hampers or curled up in ottomans, kids who walked down the driveway on their own and were never seen again.
Did he run away?
I ran back into the house and met Daddy in the upstairs hallway. He had the phone in his hand, ready to call—who? Who do you call when your child is missing and you think he ran away because you yelled at him but his jacket and shoes are still in the mudroom where he put them after school? The police, I guess.
Just then, we heard a door slide open.
All that time, you’d been hiding in the closet in your room. You came out, sobbing.
See, buddy, there is all this stuff online and in the library and the bookstore about how to swaddle a baby and change a diaper and handle a picky eater and send a clingy child off to preschool. But there is very little written or spoken about what to do when you and your tween son have an argument and he hides in his closet because he’s embarrassed and worried and sad.
Some days, I am lost too. Some days, I would like to hide in the closet.
Buca, my time left with you at home feels so short. Six years until you graduate from high school, and maybe head out into the world on your own, whether to college or to trade school or to travel.
How many more times will I feel your warm forehead with my lips to see if your temperature is high?
How many more times will I remind you to wear your coat? (Probably a million, I know.)
How many more chances to I have to tell you to say no if someone offers you marijuana or heroin?
Or to tell you that you should always, always call us for a ride home, no matter where you are?
How much longer do I have to teach you all the lessons I want to teach?
Last week I asked you what kind of cake you wanted this year. One from the bakery with a picture of a Transformer on it? Or an ice cream one from Dairy Queen?
You and Jack had just walked in from the bus together. Jack was standing at the cabinet with his hand in a bag of popcorn.
“This year, I want a special Duff cake,” you said, referring to the box of cake mixes the Ace of Cake baker sent us a few weeks ago.
You walked over to your brother, and slung your arm around his shoulder. “Okay? Will you make me one of your cakes?”
“Yes, I know. I know. The pink one. Camouflage.”
“Jack,” you said gamely, as if every 12-year old in the world dreams of nothing but a pink camouflage cake for their birthday, “That sounds great.”
And I felt that stomach-squeezing thing again, kind of like when I couldn’t find you. But you were right in front of me.
See Boochie, when you are a mother, the tender combination of love and fear and pain and regret feels exactly the same. It feels like someone is squeezing me with their strongest hands, until my breath is tight and small.
It feels like pride and worry and the slipping of time all mixed together.
It feels like breathless hope.
I hope you know that you will always be my baby.
I hope the pressure of being normal in a family with not-normal doesn’t make you swim in circles.
I hope you enjoy every bite of your pink and white camouflage cake.
I hope you never hide from me again, even if it’s no further than your own closet.
Mostly, I hope you will always have a tiny dragon who lives in the palm of your hand.
(Note: Before I posted this, I had Joey read it over to make sure he was okay with it. He reminded me that Piffy’s sports car was red.)