The universal and the unique are at war when parents try to describe their children to other people. Jack is Everyman at eight – everything I could say about him will sound like what all parents say about their offspring, and in many ways he is an eight year old like every other eight year old right now, born in 2008, coming of age in the United States. There is nothing I can put here that will distill the essence of the uniqueness of our Jack to an audience who has never met him. My intimacy with him is (naturally) so personal, and I lack the medium to convey it in a way that will not translate to that audience as “blah blah kid update blah.”
And yet, I am compelled to capture him here. Because time is going by, and all the Jacks of all the childhood stages that I have known are already lost to time, as eight year old Jack will be one day as well. As he grows and develops, the changes feel incremental and unrecognizable since he’s part of my daily life. As a recent trip away revealed to me, it takes only a short three days away for me to see how dynamic our oldest child still is, and how quickly he is growing away from us and into his own life. Just a click of an old home video from a couple of years ago spins me into nostalgia for his chubbier days, and a skim of an old post from this old blog casts me back there for a brief time.
So, in honor of our oldest boy’s birth, I will attempt the impossible, and try to write who he is right now, understanding that in ten years I will miss this time with him, and will want to re-live it if I can. Eight years a mother, and this is what he, his father, and I have created:
A dancer. Everybody feels a beat when a good song comes on. All three of my children like to dance to music in the kitchen – they call it a dance party. But Jack is the only one compelled to move when he hears a song. He’s always been this way. It’s like the Pied Piper has an electrode burrowed directly into his brain and turns him into a puppet – the music controls his limbs. If he hears a song that strikes him, he will lock eyes with whoever else is in the room, and his limbs and shoulders and eyebrows and every bit of him will start to move. As he grows older, his dance moves have become more expansive – he whips his head around, throws his arms wide, falls to the ground and does the worm before hopping back up. He *really* has a lot of confidence on the dance floor, and confidence is not Jack’s strongest suit. Never have I been so reminded of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes than when Jack dances. He’s exactly like the cartoon – hunched shoulders, jazz hands, spiky blond hair.
A hypochondriac. Jack has also always been The Worst when it comes to physical “injury.” He does not handle the slings and arrows of daily life very well. He’s pretty emotionally resilient, but in terms of his bodily integrity, it does not take much for Jack to freak out. It’s very hard for us to tell when something is legitimately wrong with Jack, because he whines and obsesses about a tiny scratch and a broken finger and strep throat and a mosquito bite in equal measure. There is no gradation of reaction, it is all DEATH! I AM DYING! SAVE ME, THE END IS NIGH! At eight, he is starting to become a bit more self-aware about this. Years and years of coaching him to be a better judge of disaster may at last be paying off, but I have a feeling this kid will be a frequent flyer at the doctor when he’s old enough to have his own insurance.
A stuffed animal connoisseur. Jack has always loved stuffed animals. A lot of kids do as little ones, but Jack’s devotion to stuffies persists to this day. Liam could really take or leave them (except his Puppy, which is really not a stuffed animal but an unstuffed blanket with a rattle for a head) and Craig cannot be bothered, but Jack cannot sleep without about 50 of them in his bed, all carefully arranged each night. He still carries them around the house, he still (fortunately for his orthodontist) sucks his thumb and holds his stinky old bear for comfort when he’s sad. He received that bear when he was a toddler, I remember it well, although he tends to re-write the story and tell me that Bear was born when he was, and given to him that very same day. It was a free with purchase Hallmark bear that my mother got him one Christmas, that she just happened to latch onto when he was a toddler. It is now a rag with a head and some semblance of feet. It stinks, it’s lost all of its stuffing, doesn’t even really look like a bear anymore. But boy does he love it. I wonder if he will take that thing to college.
Obsessive. Jack is also obsessive. Is immutable a characteristic as his Chia pet hair, Jack will always always be repetitive and obsessive about things that he doesn’t quite understand. He will ask you the same question over and over, he will repeat new information again and again, and he does it all in a maddeningly strong-willed, forceful way, like a steamroller that keeps revisiting the same place. It is probably a coping mechanism for his auditory processing issues, and this can drive me in particular quite crazy. However, after eight years of dealing with it, we have learned a few tricks. It’s just the way he is, it’s how he understands the world, and we accommodate it, because we love him, because it’s not his fault, because ultimately it will serve him well to steamroll over people and insist they repeat until he understands, rather than stand shyly in the back, lost and unwilling to let anyone know he’s not following.
Sweet. Jack has always been a positive, open, enthusiastic friend. He just automatically loves people, and they tend to dig him. This is also made him emotionally open to the pain of others, and able to anticipate and think about the needs of others somewhat earlier than I think many children do. He wants to watch the movie that we all want to watch. He wants to share his toys so that no one goes without. This is not all the time – he’s still a kid, he’s not perfect, and there are moments of selfishness of course. But there are flashes of altruism in Jack that reveal an underlying willingness to subsume his own needs and wants in order to make other people’s lives better. The longer I live in this nasty scrum of a rat race where it sometimes feels like every single situation turns into a game of musical chairs where we are all fighting over not enough chairs, I think about Jack. There are still people whose essence is to take care of the good of the whole, even if it means sacrificing the good of the self. I had this impulse and it’s starting to die out, the longer I survive in m profession. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing for me, but knowing it lives on in Jack gives me hope for the future.
In the wee small hours of his actual birthday, I heard crying from Jack’s room. The Prof had already dealt with a crying Craig earlier in the night, so it was my turn. I could tell it wasn’t Craig, but was sure it was Liam, scared of the wolf in the Neverending Story – the movie we screened for Jack’s birthday at a theater we rented out to play the Blu Ray to a roomful of second-graders amped up on pop and pizza. (Not as expensive as it sounds). When I walked into their room, I beelined for Liam and saw he was out like a light. It was Jack crying, weeping and snuffling into his pillow, fat tears rolling down his cheeks. “What is the matter, Jack?” I asked, a bit less sweetly than I probably should have (see “Hypochondriac” section above). “My leg hurts” he bawled. Mentally, I pinched the bridge of my nose, hissed air from between clenched teeth, and then took a deep breath. “So it probably really does hurt, right? Since it woke him up?” I thought to myself.
“Come on down buddy,” I said, and he hobbled theatrically down the ladder, working himself up into a full frenzy over a hurt leg. “Bone cancer,” flashed through my brain, before I took hold of myself and firmly replaced that thought with “GROWING PAINS.” I helped him hobble to the couch, laid him down, and went to get some Children’s Tylenol. Then I sat by him on the couch and placed his legs in my lap, and massaged them gently.
He fell asleep pretty quickly, and as his chest rose and fell in a deep slumbering rhythm, I continued to rub the long knobby legs in my lap and let my mind wander. Eight years ago to the minute, we were also together in the dark, both of us in pain (I am positive labor is painful for Baby, too, all that squeezing). I labored through the night with Jack and he was born shortly after eight in the morning. Those magical pre-dawn hours were largely lost to me eight years ago, as I squirmed and screamed. But last night I was lucid and feeling pensive, as one is wont to be in magical pre-dawn hours, holding one’s eldest child on his birthday morning. I can clearly remember looking at his tiny newborn body and marveling over every inch (again with the universal and unique). I looked at it again last night in its lean-awkward-child phase, with eyes eight years older and wiser. He’s my delightful boy – a complicated, interesting, sunny and sweet little boy. He’s made me who I am as much as I have molded him. What fun we have together. What a felicitous moment, sweet symmetry of the two birth nights, pain and comfort, connection in the dark.
Happy birthday, Jack. I love you at eight. I love you at every age.