The world too much with us:
break out the sprinkles.
Last Sunday, my second-grader came in the door crying. He and his big brother were tearing across the yard, when he tripped over a tree root and fell, most unhumorously, on his funny bone. I ran his arm through a series of highly scientific wiggle tests, and applied an ice pack, but when he was still crying after twenty minutes, and unmoved by his big brother's entreaties every five minutes to "come see this!," I decided a trip to the emergency room was in order. It wasn't like him to stay down for so long. Maybe he had a hairline fracture.
This is my stealth child. Where the other two are open books set in big print, my middle son is not so easily read. "A mystery, wrapped in an enigma," Patrick used to say about me when we were first getting to know each other. And while this is the child who most nearly resembles his father physically, he takes after his mother on the inside.
"You have many rooms in your house, Kyran," my Mom observed about my interior life once. "And not all of them are open." Her tone was wistful. And now, as the mother of a child who frequently hangs the "do not disturb" sign over the knob, I understand how difficult it must have been for her sometimes to live with a daughter who could disappear from her without ever leaving the dinner table.
What probably took my open-hearted, emotionally resilient mom years to understand, and what I get innately about my son, is that his ability to draw so completely into himself is one borne of self-preservation.
He is extremely sensitive to all input, sensory or otherwise. Sounds are louder, tastes are stronger, smells are smellier, feelings are, well, feelier. Everything is more. I hear stories all the time about other kids like this who have a lot of problems mangaging daily life, and whose parents have a terrible time right alongside them. Something I love and admire about my son is how well he takes care of himself in a world that is sometimes too much. He has learned how to take his space when it presses in too closely on him, even when he can't physically wander away.
I don't take credit for this, any more than I do for any of my children's gifts. The greatest blessing of having more than one child is how swiftly it corrected my over-inflated measure of my own influence on their personalities. But I do think it has helped my ultra-sensitive child that I have always validated his experience, and trusted his instinctual ways of processing it. I don't fight him on food issues, for example. If it "tastes funny," it tastes funny. He has somehow grown into an average size, if fine-boned, seven-year-old on a diet that is 85 per cent beige.
Once when he was a toddler, I heard cries from the bath as he was getting his hair washed, and ran up to investigate.
"It's too hot," he was crying, as Patrick was rinsing.
Patrick was bewildered. "Feel this," he said. "It's not hot."
"It is to him," I said, turning the faucet.
I guess some old-school types might call this coddling. I call it respect.
I can't change who my son is, or how he takes life in. I can validate his feelings, offer perspective, and try to teach outer-world skills that don't come easily or naturally to someone who lives from a place so deep inside.
Sitting in the hospital examination room, waiting for an x-ray order, afforded us some rare one-on-one time. I struggled to keep something like a conversation going, never a problem with my two chatterbox children. I asked him about his arm, and where he was running in such a hurry, and how school was going. While he was setting off eagerly each morning, I knew it was taking him a little longer to find his place than it did his brothers.
His answers were typically brief and non-committal. He was bending and flexing his arm freely, but I still read pain on his face.
"Honey, you look so sad," I said finally. "Are you sad?"
He shrugged. "Not really, I guess."
Just like the kids have learned that Mommy's "maybe" means "probably", and Daddy's "maybe" means "unlikely", I have learned that my son's "I guess" means "you guess."
"Are your feelings hurt about something?"
"Are you missing something or somebody?"
It didn't take a full round of twenty questions to find out that he was grieving for his best buddy from his old school. The boys have seen each other over the summer, but a new classroom, a new playground and a new lunch table really brought it home how things have changed.
My guy cried quietly into some tissue as I stroked his hair and tried to tell him what I know about friendship and life changes, which is that sometimes it's really hard, and you cry.
The elbow was completely healed. I was never so grateful to have wasted an hour on a Sunday afternoon in E.R. Who knows how long my child would have held that grief inside?
Me, me. I do.
A very long time.
I know so well the muteness that strikes as the immensity of Everything bears down. I know the secret hiding places where you can curl into yourself so compactly, no one can pry you out. As Patrick and my mother have learned with me, as I know with my son, nothing is ever won by force from either of us. But there's a sweet spot somewhere between backing off and standing by, where we come out into the open.
Sometimes I meet my son there.
I put my arm around him while he wept. I promised we'd call his buddy when we got home, and that I not only understood his feeling sad, I wouldn't be one bit surprised if he felt mad at us for making him change schools.
I felt him uncurl. He twisted a damp piece of tissue in his hands.
"Better?" I said.
"Yeah, but there's just one more thing."
When a child like my child is about to give you something of himself, of his own accord, you sit very still and you breathe very carefully.
"I wanted to buy the house we looked at that had the playroom."
Oh, the things we hold onto, the lengths we hold on. His mother's son for sure.
There's so much I can't teach him, because I'm still learning it myself. Trusting the people closest to me with my true feelings; admitting when I am disappointed, angry, or hurt; not leaving people to guess what's going on with me when I withdraw. Not having to steal space in secret, but to simply take it, honestly and openly, when it's what I need (and lately, I find I need more of it than ever before). To have faith that some relationships can survive big changes.
All I know is to offer him the things I want most for myself from the people I love and who love me: acceptance for who he is, faith in who he is becoming.
And great big bowls of ice cream.
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