I must have been in a Target fugue state when I bought them – matching pajamas in a 5T for Clark and 12 months for Nate. Never have I ever been the person who wanted to dress her kids in the same things. Like taking ocean cruises, I totally understand why people succumb to the urge but it doesn’t hold much appeal for me.
But I did and so it was that Nate’s tiny shirt wound up mixed in with Clark’s stuff.
After dinner a few weeks ago, he emerged from his bedroom – all three feet, eight inches and 42ish pounds of him – somehow with his big-brother torso jammed into little-bro Nate’s pajama shirt. His belly button peeked out. I don’t think he even noticed at first, until I said, “Is that Nathan’s shirt?”
He looked down and saw his belly. He wriggled his arms up and down, testing and examining them as if he was checking that his putting on the shirt hadn’t caused him to also switch bodies with a 10-month-old.
The sly grin that is his birthright claimed his face. “That’s silly,” he murmured, some kind of cue to himself to commence a loose-limbed dance performed for maximum laughs. He paused and dryly said, “I bet the shirt fits because Nate has such a big head.” Nate does. But so does Clark, another fact made ultra-apparent by his form-fitting crop top. Still, he will work Nate’s outsize head into a joke whenever possible.
But it struck me, as I later helped Clark extract his own sizable noggin from the shirt, just how very small he is. He may be one of the tallest in his class, he may be able to lift a heavy box from the bottom of a shopping cart, but here was my almost 5-year-old in my not-yet-1-year-old’s shirt.
I hugged him, my arms long enough or he small enough that I could easily envelope his frame and still have room for my hands to touch my own forearms again.
We think of our kids in terms of milestones and things they know and what they do and what they say. We know they are small. But so often we say or hear someone say, “He’s getting so big!” that – especially after the baby years are over and they gradually grow more adept at doing things apart from us – we fail to stop and take in that they are so very small.
As I write this, Clark is on the cusp of 5. Somehow, the coming age is like an alarm: He won’t be small like this for much longer.
He still holds my hand, often when I’m carrying his little brother, whose own tiny, chubby palm is often on my cheek, reaching for my glasses, grabbing my lower lip, or clasped to my shoulder. Nate’s hands still have that baby-ness to them. I squeeze them constantly, kiss the sticky palms and enjoy how tight he holds my index fingers when he wants my help to stand.
Clark hands are stronger and usually too busy climbing, making art, or writing letters to be squeezed with such frequency. But we walk places in our neighborhood a lot and as we do, he never fails to close his fingers around mine whenever we approach a street. Then I squeeze tight, knowing that once we cross, he’ll want to run ahead of me and I’ll watch, alert so that I can yell “stop!” if I see a hazard ahead of him.
But every so often, he’ll continue to hold on once we’ve made it to the other side. I don’t ask him why, just run a thumb over his fingers – growing longer and less fleshy by the day – and enjoy it.
He’s still narrow enough that I can fan my fingers out and cover the entire span of his back, as easily as Michael Jordan can palm a basketball. The bones beneath the skin rise against my hand as he breathes. It reminds me of his first breaths when the nurses set him on my chest.
I remember those breaths but I can’t fathom any longer the helpless floppiness of him as a brand-new baby. I can’t feel the featherweight of his body – 6 pounds, 14 ounces at birth but only 6 pounds, 3 ounces when they sent him home. The fear of harming him was of a quantity in inverse proportion to his scrawniness. I can remember looking at his wise but alien face in the dark as I walked him around the house trying to get him to sleep, always waiting for disaster and thinking “Why would they let such idiots take him home?”
He is so certain of himself now, and even Nathan, though still a baby, is so his own dense and directional being that, try as I might, I can’t call up even phantom pains of what it was like to clutch either of their newborn-baby selves.
When I pick Clark up from school, he’s standing on the ramp railing where the kids line up before they’re released. He’s not supposed to stand up there but he does – if it’s climbable he wants to climb it — and he’s scouting for me. When he sees me, he clicks into action, beginning to talk to me before I’m even in earshot, telling me where he fell on the color chart of his teacher’s behavior spectrum. I can always tell if he’s dropped below the baseline of green, as those are the days he doesn’t climb the rail, and his eyes shift to look at anyone but me.
But when his teacher sees me and gives him the okay to go, he runs down and if Nate’s not with me, sometimes I lift him up. I sweep him right into my arms, maybe sometimes foolishly because it doesn’t matter if I’m in heels. He reflexively folds his skinny limbs around me.
He’s not a kid that wants to ride in a stroller, even if his baby brother is. He practically never asks to be carried when we’re out unless he’s just woken on a long car ride. But he’s delighted to be picked up by surprise, even more tickled when I cross the street with him in my arms.
“You’re carrying me,” he says.
“I dunno. I like to.”
There’s a paradoxical greed to carrying him – he thinks I am doing something for him but it’s more for me. He’ll never quite get it, until maybe he has his own kids.
And he’s getting too big for it, probably. He’s independent to perhaps a fault and it might be better if I let him lead me off the playground. And he’s getting too physically big for me to keep lifting him like it’s nothing. Still, I’m certain that he will be the one to put a kibosh on being carried long before I make myself stop doing it out of concern for my back.
There’s a push and pull at work of wanting to carry him for as long as I can while also knowing that I want him to go as far away as he needs to or wants to.
It’s why I cradle his head after the last bedtime story and stay with him. I know he won’t admit that he’s not crazy about the dark but it’s there in his suggestion: “Maybe you should stay a little and we can just rest.”
As he grows more and more in every way, he becomes not just my son but this interesting companion who I want to teach, of course, but who’s also teaching me. And while I find myself having to explain things to him or scold him or make sure he finishes the good stuff on his plate, it’s getting easier to easier to forget or to not see his size.
But yes, he’s also my little friend sometimes, beckoning me toward those easily accessed joys. Like when we’re walking home from the library and he gets a twinkle in his eye and says, grinning, “should we jump off that wall?” And it’s a small brick wall but to him it was a big deal when he finally took a leap from it and now he’s gotten better at it but is still tentative. And I think there’s something under his words, and he wants me up there with him, so I say yes and we climb up and jump down several times. “That was really great, wasn’t it?”
And it was.
At some point, he won’t want my company or witness to jump off that wall. But he doesn’t believe me when I tell him this.
And I have Nathan, still tiny and holdable for much longer. But I know it’s going to be different than with Clark. I see in him such admiration and love for his older brother that I already know he’s going to want to be by Clark’s side as much as he wants to be in my or his father’s arms. There’s a good chance I won’t get to absorb his smallness the same way I did with Clark, an only child for nearly four years. It’s the way of it and with a brother like Clark, I can’t blame him.
But I’ll carry him, too, when he needs me to, and hopefully sometimes when he doesn’t.
It would be nice to never forget the physical feel of our children in our arms, to call it up, like riding a bike. But it’s not like riding a bike at all.
Sometimes during our rest, Clark talks to in me the dark and says, “I’m worried it’s going too fast. I don’t want to grow up too fast.” Even after a day where he seemed to career head-on into growing too fast.
So I tell him he is always my baby, always my little boy. And he is but he also will not be. So why not carry him for as long as he’ll let me?