It is early on the morning of my son’s eighth birthday. Lying on my right side I look at the clock. 6:38. Eight. Eight. I begin the new contemplation for today. What does eight feel like? Can I see all eight of those years at a glance and fully ‘get’ what it means? I feel I can, and for the first time in my son’s life, he seems to have the full history of a young person. A little of this, a little of that, and the discretion that comes with experience to be able to sort it all out.
When he turned five he turned to me, and in all earnestness said, “you do know that I’m more 45 than 5, don’t you?” Feeling his need to be understood, and indeed understanding just what he meant, I reassured him that I got it. I got it. Five was a year of turmoil. Looking back I believe that he felt trapped inside the body of a small kid. Deep inside he seemed to be so very frustrated by his own lack of ability, experience and knowledge. This may seem a bit profound a statement to make about a five year old, but I can tell you, as his nearly constant companion and fretting mother, I know this to be true. That year Elihu was prone to destructive explosions of rage that seemed to erupt right out of the blue. I have a scar on my left forearm of where he bit me. I’d meant to prevent him from breaking anything, as he was moving rather like a weed wacker – spinning his arms outward to take down whatever lay in his path – and so I wrapped my arms around him. As I held him fast, and as his rage found its last possibility of expression, in desperation to rid the torment from his system, he leaned over my protective arm and sunk his teeth in. That was the year we moved here, the year everything changed. I had always thought I’d done a pretty good job of keeping things hopeful and cheery during this transition. I’d thought it much harder on me than on him. I’d lost my best friend of the past twenty years, I was giving up my friends and life, while my son had barely started to make friends, much less get into the rhythm of a ‘life’. This all may have been true, but at five, Elihu felt something was not right. I now believe the import of that year was not lost on this tiny person. While I may have told him initially that we were ‘going to visit grandma and grandpa for a while’ (and subsequently apologized many times for having duped him), I think he knew shortly after we arrived, that this was no visit. His life had just been changed, and he’d had no say in it. What was worse, he was tricked into it. (Even now, at eight, the fallout from this past chapter rises up and threatens him in the form of panic attacks, which we both approach head on, unwilling to allow the unsettled feelings to grow, as we work together – along with a softly listening counselor at the local family services office – to learn what feeds them, and to pick apart the issues and discuss them all in love and understanding.)
In his sixth year his rage lessened, and he began his life of birds in earnest. That was the year we came home from Tractor Supply with our first family of chickens. The photos I saved in his first grade memory book show the summer of a carefree young boy on a farm. (I squirm to use the term ‘memory book’, but it was created at the request of his first grade teacher. I admit I have felt great disdain in the past for those who would spend hours of precious time ‘scrap booking’, but I did learn that making a simple book that reflects the highlights of a particular year is a nice way of keeping the chronology correct, if nothing else. And there is actually plenty of ‘else’ as well.) There is a photo of Elihu, arms outstretched, running after our white Pekin drake, Joseph. It is filled with the joy of summer and a young boy’s pure, nature-driven heart. Yet by just looking at the photograph one wouldn’t know that this is a rare moment in which Elihu has ceased to hold his dark glasses tight to his head in order to block out the sun so he can see well enough to track the bird. One wouldn’t know the back story of our new life alone, without husband, dad. The tenuous day-to-day balance of need and supply isn’t apparent in the images. But the photos do remind us that many delightful moments did happen, and in spite of the back story, there were some truly happy times that year. A year of discovery, the door to our future was then flung wide open and we crossed the threshold, mouths wide open.
Elihu’s seventh year was one, I’d say, of transition. While five was small and not so well-equipped to do things, at six Elihu was becoming aware of what was needed in order to do things. Seven then, was putting it into action and finally doing many things for himself that he couldn’t when he was younger. And now, at eight, I realize that the door to that pure, innocent chapter of Peter Rabbit and Pooh is now beginning to close. This is the year when the magic of Santa may no longer hold. When the cracks in his tiny-child beliefs will become bigger and harder to ignore. I’ve always marveled that a kid who took such a scientific interest in his world, measuring wingspans and learning migration routes, could so easily believe that one man delivers gifts to every child on earth in one night. (That Santa delegates, and has a lot of elves helps to ease the doubt a bit.)
So here I am. Quite possibly the last birthday in which my son will believe that the presents sitting on the kitchen table in the morning were delivered magically, as he slept, by the birthday angel during the night. Eight feels like a long time now. No longer does it feel as if my son were born just a few short years ago. So much life has passed for us since then. Here is my son, small child no longer. Young boy today. In a few minutes I will wake him, I will tell him that when I went into the kitchen to make breakfast I found something. I will tell him in a quiet, wondering way – so careful not to overdo it – and then I will share once more, perhaps one final time, that breathless moment of delight when he sees the unbelievable sight before him. Happy birthday, my beloved Elihu.